Let’s Talk about Nonacademic Jobs

Don't hide behind a plant.

PhD students shouldn’t have to go into hiding to talk about nonacademic careers.

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Last month, the director of graduate study for one of our humanities doctoral programs invited me to visit specifically to discuss nonacademic job possibilities with interested students. Students seek me out all the time to talk about nonacademic job searches, but this was a big deal. Why?

  1. The DGS asked me to come in specifically to talk about nonacademic jobs.
  2. The DGS told students in advance that he wouldn’t be in the room, and encouraged them to attend.
  3. “Nonacademic jobs” was the only item on the agenda, so students who attended were publicly signaling an interest in the topic.

Four students showed up that day (I was thrilled). I started with a question: “What brings you here?” Each student had a slightly different reply, but all expressed an interest in knowing who in their cohort was wondering about nonacademic employment options and what they were thinking.

Call me naïve, but only then did I realize the strength of the taboo (whether real or perceived) against discussing nonacademic employment within some graduate cohorts at Duke. These students had worked and studied closely together for several years, but it took a concerned DGS, a called meeting, and my encouragement to get them to talk candidly about long-term career aspirations, raise concerns, and ask questions.

I won’t overstate my role, however. I made a concerted effort to talk less and listen more. Not surprisingly, the grad students had all kinds of fresh perspectives and great suggestions to offer one another. It was peer mentoring at its finest.

What would it look like if everyone in the humanities graduate ecosystem (both within and beyond Duke) talked about nonacademic career options alongside academic ones without hesitation or fear? What kinds of conversations would take place? How much better informed would everyone be? What new relationships would be built? How might people feel and act differently, as both scholars and emerging professionals?

As everyone knows, we’re not there yet.

Facing Discomfort

Even in my role as a PhD advisor, I often use the term “nonacademic jobs” sparingly, and with great care, because it’s become such a loaded term.  Talking about non-academic career options, for many people in the humanities ecosystem, means grappling with a number of Big Uncomfortable Issues, like the decade-long erosion of the tenure-track job market, the expansion of contingent faculty positions, and the decline in undergraduate humanities majors.

It remains the case, moreover, that some graduate students resist inquiry into non-faculty careers. First and foremost, some doctoral students continue to worry that their faculty advisor might deem them “not serious” about an academic career and write them off. Such students might start doubting their own capacity to make it into the academy and wonder whether they’re settling for second best.

Or (in a phenomenon I’ve observed, but rarely seen acknowledged), some might regard the topic with a tinge of superstition, fearing that any dabbling in this direction could jinx their chances at landing a great tenure-track job.

I don’t mean to dismiss these fears. They are very real, very painful, and both the culture and structure of graduate training continues to elicit them.

If you are feeling and perhaps acting on these fears, what can you do about them?

Not a Big Deal

For starters, it’s healthy to limit the amount of time you spend (if any) obsessing about forces you cannot control–be it the academic job market or the state of higher ed more generally. We’re talking about you here, and your future.

You first responsibility is, of course, to yourself, not to your advisor or your graduate program. That recognition is, in itself, a big step. One of my advisees (who gave me permission to share this anecdote anonymously) scheduled a first appointment with me a while back to discuss nonacademic career options. She was nervous about the conversation, and even more so when her DGS strolled into the Perk at the same time she did!

It took me a few minutes to spot her when I walked in. She was hiding behind a potted plant in the corner. Needless to say, we vacated the premises and found a more secluded spot.

My ongoing conversations with this student have gone well. As a result of our interactions (and a lot of concerted follow-up work), my advisee is now a lot more informed about her options beyond her Ph.D. program. As of this writing, she intends to pursue faculty jobs, though with greater clarity about other possibilities.

Another doctoral student came to see me after deciding, once and for all, that she did not want a faculty career. We met a few times, over a span of months. What is she doing now? Teaching on the tenure-track (a last-minute campus interview took her in an unexpected direction).

My point is that a conversation about nonacademic jobs is not—should not—be a big deal. They are conversations doctoral students can and should have, akin to exploring new areas and modes of research, or gaining significant exposure to university teaching. After such exploration, students can return to writing dissertations and (if this approach makes sense, as it often will) focusing on academic job searches, hopefully with renewed energy and optimism.

Such conversations don’t have to be with me, but do find someone with whom you can discuss your future in a thoughtful, expansive, and candid way. It might be a friend within (or outside) your Ph.D. program cohort. It could be another staff member at Duke. It could even be, and more commonly is, one or more faculty members—most, in fact, are more approachable and open-minded about these issues than many doctoral students still presume.

But how do we know whom to trust? One first step is to resolve to work toward creating an environment of mutual confidence so that these delicate conversations can take root.  (Faculty, of course, have even greater obligations to establish this environment, and you should be on the look-out for signals about such openness.) You might not feel comfortable talking about all of your career ideas with your advisor right now. Perhaps you never will, and that will have to do (you are under no obligation, ever, to bare your soul).

But take a small step toward building that trust. When was the last time you checked in with your advisor, other faculty members, or the highly trained staff around Duke with whom you have had positive interactions? Engaged them in a conversation unrelated to your coursework or dissertation? What about your doctoral colleagues? Have you seen them outside of class recently, or have you been hunkered down meeting deadlines?

In the absence of trust, there are no substantial conversations, and little to be learned or gained. We live in a time where you can get much of your professional development from total strangers—whether on various discussion boards, through online career discernment tools, or from rereading Kelskey’s The Professor Is In for the umpteenth time. These resources have value, but they pale in comparison to the gold mine of information and resources embedded in your immediate network. What will it take to tap those veins, and build a sustainable culture of peer mentoring? Maybe start by asking someone to lunch.