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.

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Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Thanks for this post. There are a number of good points and a number of good resources here. But I want to raise a few skeptical points.

1. You say “The unargued-for assumption in this argument is that philosophy can (or should) prepare students only for the job of a tenure-track college professor.”

To be clear, the assumption here is that a PhD in philosophy can/should only prepare people for academic jobs. You list a number of programs and resources that individuals or departments can pursue to increase the career prospects for PhDs outside of academia. But how important is the PhD for those jobs? For example, one of your suggestions is “residency” programs for PhD students or recent-PhDs to work inside various non-academic organizations. But what advantages does that have over just getting an actual job in one of those organizations?

2. There is a fundamental tension at the heart of this call for reform. On the one hand you need to assure faculty, grad students, and employers of the great value of the philosophy PhD even for those who pursue non-academic plans of life. This depends on the value of existing PhD training, as it is. On the other hand, the call for reform is a call for changing fundamental aspects of PhD training, including different classes, alternatives to the dissertation, different kinds of writing, different If PhD training really is already so valuable and versatile, why are such radical reforms needed? And if such radical reforms are needed, what is it about the PhD itself – as credential and an institutional form – that is worth such effort to save? Why not instead look for ways to make whatever is valuable about PhD-training available to those who don’t can’t afford to put their careers on hold for 5+ years?

3. The wide variety of different careers that people with PhDs pursue is also a barrier to changing graduate education to prepare students for alternative careers. Which careers, exactly, are graduate programs supposed to be training students for?Report

John Turri
John Turri
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

These are great questions, Derek, thanks for raising them so aptly.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  Derek Bowman
5 years ago

Derek, I found your questions helpful, as well. See my first pass at responding, below.

1) Although some non-ac jobs relevant to someone with philosophical training don’t clearly benefit from the high degree of training attendant to attaining a PhD, there certainly are those that do. The relevant jobs would be those that benefit from experiences such as (i) conceiving, executing, and defending a highly-original contribution to one’s field, such as via a dissertation, or (ii) research, or (iii) thinking like a philosopher. Even if such skills are not unique to *philosophy* PhDs, the fact that they are unique to *philosophy PhD* over *philosophy training* should be sufficient to counter your point.

2) For the tension you mention to exist, “radical” must mean “destructive,” but the reforms that would be sufficient to achieve the goals in question–and indeed the reforms that the author suggests–don’t strike me as “radical” in this sense. The changes you highlight (e.g., alternative classes, different writing styles) can be implemented in such a way that they are supplementary to the core training in providing tools to the trainee to “translate” what she has learned to other endeavors. Perhaps we distinguish between philosophy-as-method (PoM) and philosophy-as-content (PoC). PoM can and has traditionally operated over PoC. I envision this as philosophers discussing classical philosophical problems. PoM, however, can operate over many other types of content. Perhaps those calling for reforms view PoC as important, but view PoM as the essence of philosophical training. In calling for reforms to philosophical PhD training, perhaps such people see changes such as preparation in different writing styles and different course offerings as acceptably cutting into the PoC aspect of the traditional training in the name of giving PoM freer range. Such a change would be radical, but not destructively so.

3) I’m not sure this is a unique problem, or if it is simply a fundamental pedagogical challenge. In any case, it seems as though the reforms in question could be made at a general, enabling level that does not require the sort of specificity you have in mind, here. For example, simply allowing an auditing requirement to be satisfied by classes outside of the student’s department (perhaps with some limitation–no more than half of audited classes outside of philosophy) is a valuable reform, and does not require us to develop an exhaustive, ranked list of careers to prepare PhD students for. Indeed, our students will show us what they need.Report

Jen Polk
5 years ago

Thanks for this. I too wonder, at the end of the day, what the point of doing a PhD really is, given the realities. What defines a PhD?

I take issue with the wording above about “career options that are actually available to PhD graduates.” Very few jobs are specifically for people with PhDs. Much, much more common is that individuals with PhDs get all sorts of different jobs. But those jobs aren’t “available” to doctoral-degree holders. It is entirely up to individuals to make a case for their own employment. The skills built and experiences had doing a PhD may or may not be relevant. The fact of the degree itself may or may not be helpful. In academic employment, the PhD is necessary but insufficient; in the vast majority of other jobs, the PhD isn’t necessary. So anyone planning a career needs to think long and hard about whether doing a PhD is the right move. There are other reasons for doing a PhD, and I’m fine with this. But if someone is thinking about building a career, that person needs to take it upon herself to learn, act, and network to make the later transition to employment possible. The same is true of PhDs who’ll go on to tenure-track positions: doing the degree needs to be accompanied by doing all sorts of other professional activities that’ll make her hireable.Report

More Dialogue
More Dialogue
5 years ago

Could an acceptable alternative to the objections of Jen Polk and Derek Bowman be that graduate departments simply take more proactive measures to help their students transition to or get placed in non-academic sectors — under the assumption that many students will in fact want to go this route by the time they approach the end of their graduate study? I thought Torsten’s original suggestion about “residency” (i.e. intern?) programs for new and upcoming PhDs was a great idea. If only we could get graduate departments to do this on a larger scale.

The way I see it, the status quo of graduate departments minting way more PhDs than the academic job market can support is not going to change in the near term. Nor is the number of students seeking humanities PhDs going to drastically change, so it seems. So what to do about that? While it’s true that not many non-academic jobs require a humanities PhD, this doesn’t mean that graduate philosophy departments cannot extend their network to non-academic employers and institutions where an advanced humanities degree is *welcome*. I don’t see how this would be any different than a business or engineering school having connections with finance or tech companies and sending new graduates their way. In the case of philosophy PhD’s, think tank, lobbying, or education sectors are certainly examples where philosophical training is helpful and applicable. I myself worked in publishing some years ago and my credentials in academic philosophy were certainly appreciated, although I worked alongside many folks with just the Bachelor’s Degree.

What I am proposing isn’t a permanent solution, but it could at least serve to address the reality of many students completing the PhD only to realize that the academic career they were hoping for isn’t a possibility. But part of the challenge would be getting department leadership to come out of their comfort zone of training people just for academic careers.Report

Craig
Craig
5 years ago

This is great – both this and Sergio’s post are important discussions we should be having, so thanks to you both.

In the hopes that it will help speak to some of the issues/questions that have been raised, I just wanted to share my own experience transitioning out of academia to give a sense of how the PhD benefited me and how I reformed my own education to prepare for non-academic jobs while not sacrificing my education and training in philosophy.

While being a PhD Candidate was not necessary (strictly speaking) for my first job out, it absolutely helped. It immediately signaled something important about me (that the organization happened to care about) and it gave weight to my claim in resumes and cover letters that I was an accomplished critical/analytical thinker, that I could write, and that I could give presentations/educate/engage in knowledge translation. Importantly, it also helped me jump onto the corporate ladder a rung or two up from the bottom.

With my second job, the value of the PhD Candidacy was even more obvious. A Masters or Law degree is required to even be considered for my current role. There is, however, no requirement regarding discipline and our team is very diverse in terms of education. Being a PhD Candidate helped me stand out from a pool of very well educated candidates. More importantly, it also helped me make up for a lack of real world experience. Again, to come in at this particular rung on the ladder one needed at least a couple years of policy experience, which I lacked. However, given the level of critical thinking, writing etc. that is required of a PhD I was able to demonstrate the necessary competence. Now that I hold the PhD, it has immediately upped my profile in the organization, I have gained even more respect from our board of directors (who are all physicians), and it helps when I represent the organization at external speaking events.

I went to grad school for all the good and valuable reasons Jen hinted at in her comment, but as she remarks I was also deliberate in preparing for a non-academic job, and I started early in my degree – I’m an experimental philosopher working in philosophy of mind, but took many ethics/health policy courses, I trained in quantitative/qualitative research methods/statistics, and I also volunteered to get some ‘work experience’ that could go on a resume (e.g. President of our students association, founded/organized our annual graduate conference). These efforts and these reforms I implemented in my own degree never once took away from my PhD education (probably helped it, actually!) and so I was prepared for both academic and non-academic jobs. And while my PhD has never strictly speaking been necessary for any of my jobs, it sure helped me get them, helped me come in up from the bottom, and garners significant respect that elevates my profile and that gives credibility to my organization when I speak on behalf of it. Lastly, it has gone the other way as well. Through my non-academic career my writing has improved significantly – I don’t think I can underestimate how much it’s improved. I believe this led to the production of a significantly stronger dissertation than I would have otherwise produced (just ask my supervisor!) and I suspect many grad students would benefit from opportunities to write in a non-academic environment.Report

Torsten Menge
Torsten Menge
5 years ago

Thanks for all the comments. Jen and Craig, I think it’s really important that we learn more from philosophers with non-academic careers on this issue, so I am glad you chimed in. I think I am mostly in agreement with you, so I will focus on addressing Derek’s more skeptical questions.

Derek, you are right – I meant the assumption “that a PhD in philosophy can/should only prepare people for academic jobs” (that’s now fixed in the OP). I do not know why we should make this assumption. In other disciplines, e.g. in the sciences, academic employment is already only one option amongst others for PhDs; this is also increasingly true of social sciences and even in history and modern languages. What reason is there to think that the analytical, research and writing skills one acquires while doing a philosophy PhD are not transferable?
You all rightly point out that for many non-academic careers someone with a PhD might pursue, the PhD is not strictly necessary. But as non-academics with PhDs often report, they are often useful or even indispensable to their professional achievements and paths. I have also heard from employers (e.g. in cultural and non-profit institutions) that once they have worked with PhDs, they appreciated their analytical skills, their abilities in managing complex projects and to deal with uncertainty, their ability to quickly understand difficult information –- in ways they would not have predicted. So part of this surely involves making the case to employers how the skills one acquired by doing a PhD would be beneficial in a particular career (that would be one of the things it would be useful to learn in graduate school).
Unfortunately, we simply do not know much––as a profession––about how those with a philosophy PhD fare in non-academic careers, how their skills benefit them in those careers and what value they bring to the organizations they work in (Indeed, we often think of them as not being part of the profession at all, as “leaving the profession”). This is what MLA and AHA have been studying for PhDs in modern languages and history, and philosophy needs to learn more about this as well. I don’t see any a priori reason to think that the many skills one acquires while writing a dissertation and managing a complex research project would not be valuable and beneficial in other contexts.

So in response to Derek’s second point: The creation of new knowledge through research and scholarship is the core of the PhD and is what makes it distinctly valuable in the first place; I’m not proposing to get rid of that. My suggestions were rather:
1) To broaden our understanding of what research and scholarship look like and where they are done: Why assume that they only happen within the academy (Helen de Cruz’s interviews really challenge this point)?
2) To broaden the professional development part of doctoral education: PhD programs already include professional development––it’s just very narrowly focused on academic jobs (this includes e.g., learning how to interview, how to present one’s skills, networking, etc.). My suggestion was to make this more inclusive –– acknowledging the reality that many PhDs will not get (and might not even seek) secure academic employment, and this is only going to get worse in the current job market conditions (Even in 1995, 40% of humanities PhDs did not have academic employment).

Finally, I don’t see why the variety of potential careers is an obstacle. Law schools, for example, prepare students for a whole variety of careers (Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, but also transactional lawyers, civil rights lawyers, people working in government, people who do advocacy more generally, etc.) –– they do so by helping their students to develop general skills that can be used in a broad range of careers. Many of the skills that doctoral students acquire (in addition to the specialized expertise in a particular area) are similarly general and transferable. My sense is that one of the main difficulties for humanities PhDs going on the non-academic job market is that we don’t have a clear sense of what these skills are, what their value is outside of academia, and how we can convince potential employers of their value. Professional development for non-academic careers should make sure that students learn how to apply these skills in other contexts and how to talk about them. Graduate programs should be places where students can be scholars and researchers, while also being comfortable to explore and talk about how to apply their scholarly and analytic skills in non-academic contexts.Report

More Dialogue
More Dialogue
Reply to  Torsten Menge
5 years ago

Is there anyone in the field currently collecting this sort of information and making it available in a public forum?

It seems like this would be a great project for someone to take on – it could be of great service to aspiring philosophers in particular.

Just happened across this blog entry via a link on Inside Higher Ed:
http://www.melissadalgleish.com/55831751e4b0def6c5fffc3e/2016/6/9/were-asking-the-wrong-questions-of-our-phd-alumni-or-rather-we-arent-asking-them-any-questions-at-allReport

Jack James
5 years ago

“PhD programs have an obligation to help their students achieve decent jobs.” Why? I disagree. Should we taint philosophy to make it more job aligned? No way. Jobs exist to serve consumption demands and profit making, they are mostly horrid and will remain so. If you want one you have to fit that role, behave and think that way, smile and accept when you dont want to, but if you want intellectual freedom study philosophy – free from that BS. I always hear ‘oh well philosophy has great things for employers to consider’… and this is true, but what has more weight is politics and power – subordination to $$$. So for me its chalk and cheese, and the last thing a philosophy supervisor should do is worry about your job prospects, they have more important concerns after all. Unfortunately if you want a job you have to play that game.Report

Alex
Alex
Reply to  Jack James
5 years ago

I assume your comment is directed at the idea that PhD programs have an obligation *to their students* to help their students achieve decent jobs. I don’t know where I fall on that claim. But what about the more general claim that PhD programs ought to help their students achieve decent jobs? If your comments are given in response to that general claim, rather than to the earlier more specific claim, then will not this sort of thinking you outline lead to philosophical training being available only at elite, privately endowed institutions? (I take that to be an undesirable outcome.)Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Jack James
5 years ago

” if you want intellectual freedom study philosophy – free from that BS”…then you can do that without enrolling in a PhD program. If not for the credential and the doors that it opens up to academic employment, what is the point of enrolling in a PhD program in the first place? You can always read philosophy and write papers, e-mail professors around the world, and even submit to journals and conferences without the PhD.Report

Karol
Karol
Reply to  ejrd
5 years ago

I dunno, I learned a lot from my professors (and from my fellow grad students). I don’t honestly think I could have done it on my own.Report

ejrd
ejrd
Reply to  Karol
5 years ago

Which is fair. Taking classes doesn’t require that you get a PhD though. Any program that has, as its normative endpoint, the granting of a degree which is necessary for employment should have an obligation to help its graduates seek (not necessarily *get*) employment with that degree.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Jack James
5 years ago

“If you want one you have to fit that role, behave and think that way, smile and accept when you dont want to, but if you want intellectual freedom study philosophy – free from that BS.”

But of course if you want to study philosophy as part of an academic program – and especially if you do so funded by a graduate fellowship/assistantship – you have to fit that role. And if you want to be a faculty member in a department that grants graduate degrees you have to fit that role, part of which is taking on some responsibilities regarding your students’ future prospects.Report

Laura
Laura
4 years ago

One thing that I often find missing from conversations on this topic is the benefit for the institution and for academia at large when MA or PhD-trained scholars enter into private industry or are employed outside of academia. A scholar who enjoyed his or her time engaging in in-depth study, and who sees the benefits and privileges of spending time in such an activity will be a powerful advocate for supporting academic institutions and higher education among those who did not have the same opportunities. They can also act as interpreters to non-academic colleagues who understand that scholarship is a “good thing” in the abstract, but who might not understand the nuts and bolts of academic discourse.
Those PhDs or MA who become bitter because they were unable to get “the only acceptable job” will not be good advocates. They will likely say that they wasted 5-10 years of their lives getting a useless degree, and this does nothing for those who have stayed in the profession. It is to everybody’s benefit for all scholars, and especially those with university positions, to take the time to “reclaim their intellectual communities;” that is, to redefine who can belong in an academic discussion and who cannot. We must open our communities to include scholars and thinkers who work beyond the professorate. When we tell students that there is only one job, and if they don’t get it, they will no longer be able to participate in the discussion that has been at the center of their lives for multiple years, then we will create more enemies than advocates, and the discussion will only take place among a smaller and smaller group of interlocutors. Academic positions are not multiplying; they are disappearing, and unless we enlarge the list of acceptable career options, we will find ourselves talking only to each other, and in doing so, will simply make ourselves and our work inconsequential.Report

Laura
Laura
4 years ago

And one last comment. My husband, who works for Goldman Sachs, has spoken with them about how hiring committees view those with liberal arts degrees. Contrary to what many think, they are very eager to find employees with this type of background (http://www.goldmansachs.com/careers/blog/posts/ask-the-recruiter-liberal-arts-edition.html)
Often we fail to look beyond academia because we doubt that others will find our skills valuable. It is simply not true.Report

An ABD dropout
3 months ago

I think preparing graduate students for non-academic roles is the wrong approach. Instead the ongoing, constant crisis of the academic job market should be “solved”. Either tenure-track professorships expanded, or, what is more likely: the number of graduate students accepted into PhD programs should be drastically reduced. The continuing shortage of stable professorships means that graduate students exist more to provide established professors with an opportunity to teach graduate level courses and TAs to grade bluebooks than to train young professors. If the universities aren’t going to hire these students they shouldn’t be offering them PhDs.Report

Julian Friedland
3 months ago

My view is that more than this, graduate phil programs should work to guide their students’ research into other relevant academic disciplines that could benefit from philosophical insights, particularly in the social sciences such as business, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics. What’s more, they will often have broader impact in such fields.Report

Julia
3 months ago

I am the placement director at a mid-ranking philosophy department. It is not realistic to expect that all our graduate students will find academic employment. We’ve been trying to work with the career center and successful alumni who work outside of academia to put on informational meetings where we talk about jobs outside of academia and paths towards getting such a job. I emphasize that we want all of our students to find fulfilling careers, whether within academia or in a different sector.
I am always disappointed to see how few students actually show an interest in those meetings. It pains me to see how many graduate students work as underpaid adjuncts and somehow can’t quite see that in a different industry, their gifts and talents would be valued much more. As others have said, getting a non-academic job often requires developing some additional skills. For professors it can be difficult to advise students unless the student themselves have figured out what might be suitable for them.
Also, I have noticed a few times that once a student decides they don’t want an academic job, they expect their professors to hold their dissertation to a lower standard. Understandably, this kind of attitude does not go over well with professors. I think sometimes professors have problematic attitudes about students who don’t want academic jobs, but occasionally the student’s attitude also contributes to the issue.Report

Helen De Cruz
3 months ago

Thanks for this stimulating discussion and for raising all these questions.

For those people who are currently grad students and considering alt-ac options, as well as for the mentors who support them (supervisors, placement directors), I put together this guide on how to concretely prep yourself/your advisees for the alt-ac job market.

I have used this approach as placement director at SLU and was happy to see several of our students get suitable alt-ac jobs right out of grad school. It’s true that a PhD was not *needed* for these jobs, but they did bring something unique to the jobs.

https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2020/11/dealing-with-the-collapse-in-the-academic-job-market-advice-for-mentors-and-people-on-the-job-market.htmlReport