Duties to Graduate Students Pursuing Non-Academic Careers (guest post by Torsten Menge)


The following is a guest post by Torsten Menge, a recent philosophy PhD from Georgetown who currently works for Connected Academics, a national Mellon-funded project by the Modern Language Association (MLA) aimed at preparing humanities doctoral students for non-academic careers. 


Duties to Graduate Students Pursuing Non-Academic Careers
by Torsten Menge

A couple of days back, Sergio Tenenbaum argued that PhD-granting programs have a number of obligations to assist their students in finding a job. One of these obligations, he rightly suggested, involves supporting students who pursue non-academic careers. Since this is an important issue that does not receive enough attention, I want to share some of my thoughts on it. These thoughts are informed by my work for Connected Academics, a national project by the Modern Language Association and funded by the Mellon Foundation, which is developing new approaches to preparing doctoral students in the humanities for a wide variety of careers (I work for one of the partner projects at Georgetown University).

Most philosophy PhD programs are designed to prepare their students for the job of a tenure-line professor at a 4 year college or university. But in the current academic job market, only about two-fifths of philosophy PhDs find employment as tenure-track professors. This means that many recent graduates and current graduate students need to consider alternative career options. Moreover, some graduate students never intend to pursue academic employment in the first place and others decide during their graduate work that academia is not the right work environment for them.

Recently, some philosophers who have pursued non-academic jobs have publicly discussed their decisions and experiences (see for example here, here, and here, as well as past discussions at Daily Nous, and its list of non-academic hires). This is encouraging, but pursuing non-academic careers is still seen primarily as a challenge for individual job seekers–– not one for departments and the profession as a whole. The lack of a serious discussion about this issue stands in sharp contrast to other academic disciplines: For example, the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association have extensively studied the career options of their PhDs and both have received grants from the Mellon Foundation to explore how graduate programs can prepare doctoral students to pursue a wide variety of careers (see here and here).

Effectively dealing with this challenge requires nothing less than a culture change. PhDs who are pursuing non-academic jobs often report a culture in which tenure-line employment is considered the best and sometimes the only serious outcome of a PhD education. At a Connected Academics workshop in 2015, a recent PhD in French recounted the admonition of her department chair: “If you accept anything less than a tenure-track position, you are betraying your training.” While that may be an extreme position, many faculty in graduate programs believe that non-academic employment is a second-best, a “Plan B” to be pursued only if one is unsuccessful on the academic job market. Graduate students who are considering non-academic careers often hesitate to discuss their plans with their advisors because they worry that advisors will think less of them. Even advisors who don’t share this attitude will often not have considered that their students might not want to pursue an academic job and/or will lack the knowledge to help them in that pursuit.

What can departments do to change this culture? Here are a couple of suggestions:

First, faculty members should become more informed about the issue and talk openly to their students about it. Departments, faculty, and students should discuss how the skills that PhD students acquire can be used in a variety of settings. Departments should invite alumni with non-academic careers to talk about their experience. Moreover, listing non-academic placements on department websites can signal that such placements are seen as successes.

Secondly, departments should consider how they can provide tangible support to students. A first step could be cooperating with career centers to provide resources and advice about pursuing non-academic jobs. More ambitiously, “residency” programs that place students into non-academic organizations could help students learn how to apply their skills in non-academic settings and provide valuable networking opportunities. There are already a number of successful such programs for humanities PhDs: The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program places recent PhDs in two-year staff positions in the government and non-profit sector, and a number of humanities centers have similar programs for PhD students (see for example at Wisconsin-Madison).

The third (and most ambitious) change concerns the graduate curriculum. We as a profession should ask ourselves: How can graduate students learn to do philosophy and philosophical research in engagement with people and communities outside of academia? How can they learn to write for a variety of academic and non-academic audiences? A number of humanities universities have addressed these questions with dedicated graduate certificate programs (see e.g. here and here). Individual faculty might want to think about how such training could become part of their graduate courses (at the Connected Academics project at Georgetown, humanities faculty have developed a number of such courses). Finally, some humanities disciplines have started to consider whether the standard dissertation in the form of a proto-monograph serves all of their graduates (Sidonie Smith, former president of the MLA, has explored this issue in depth, see here and here). Such changes would benefit not just those who pursue non-academic jobs; even those who end up with an academic job will benefit from training to engage more skillfully with non-academic audiences.

Resistance to such changes is often grounded in the concern that these changes will make the PhD into a professional degree. But in some sense, the PhD in philosophy is already a professional degree — designed primarily to prepare students to be tenure-line college professors. That is, on reflection, a remarkably narrow understanding of the purpose of a doctoral education in philosophy, and it stands in stark contrast to the views that many of us hold about the value ofsophisticated philosophy in public life. Research and scholarship are central to a PhD, and they should remain so. But the skills acquired in the course of doctoral research and scholarship are valuable in a wide variety of contexts, not just in academia.

Another concern is that there is simply no demand for philosophy PhDs and their skills in non-academic settings. This is an understandable concern, one that I shared before I started working for the Connected Academics project. But the research done by MLA and AHA, and many conversations I had with PhDs working in non-academic settings, have convinced me that it was overblown. At the very least, we need to know more about the career options that are actually available to PhD graduates and to publicly make the case for the value of a doctoral education in philosophy outside of academia. The APA should follow the example of other professional organizations and make this one of its central responsibilities.

PhD programs have an obligation to help their students achieve decent jobs. In discussions about the contracting academic job market, someone will invariably argue that our response should thus be to reduce the number of philosophy PhD programs and students. The unargued-for assumption in this argument is that a PhD in philosophy can (or should) prepare students only for the job of a tenure-track college professor. We should question this defensive understanding of the skills that one acquires on the way to a PhD in philosophy and develop creative solutions that assert the value of a doctoral education in philosophy to the world at large as well as the academy.

Stuart Davis, "Swing Landscape"

Stuart Davis, “Swing Landscape”

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