Mainstreaming the PhD, Part 2

In her Atlantic article earlier this year, “What Can You Do With a Humanities Ph.D., Anyway?,” Elizabeth Segran ends by quoting Victoria Blodgett, who is the director of graduate career services at Yale University:

We should be in the business of putting Ph.D.s in government, non-profits, the media and lots of industries where we will be better off if we have people who are trained to think as deeply as they are.

It’s a great insight, but one, I’m afraid, that’s lost on most corporate recruiters, managers, and “innovative” CEOs. Because the conversation about alternative careers for those with Ph.D.s, when there is one at all, is still happening in academic circles. (Even there, the conversation is a marginalized one, conducted by adjuncts and their allies, and given sporadic attention at annual conferences by groups like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association.)

So, what would it mean to have that conversation in a non-academic setting? What would be the conditions for such a conversation? Could it even take place? If it did, what could it achieve?

I ask these questions seriously, because I’ve lived in both worlds–the world of graduate teaching and training where any career outside of an academic one is frowned on, particularly by advisors who are committed to advancing knowledge in their fields and chary of time spent mentoring a doctoral candidate who might leave the fold–and the corporate world where skill is measured by incremental experience over the course a career and credentials are not typically a gateway to access.

I’ve written a bit about my experience living in these worlds in a previous post. Yeah, it was hard to leave the academy. Yeah it made me sad. Yeah I was a bit scarred for a period of time. That narrative, in fact, is fast becoming a standard in #altac discourse. What’s more interesting, I think, about my experiences moving between these worlds, is the demand I felt to wipe clean the slate of previous experience with every transition.

I was in my early 30s with a degree in journalism and working in university communications at Tufts when I took a graduate class in English literature. And while I was interviewing interesting people and writing interesting articles and managing publications for the university’s interesting capital campaign, that class opened up a world where a different kind of thinking mattered. And I loved it.

So I left a pretty good, pretty interesting job behind and started graduate school in earnest. And when I began to embrace life as an academic, I felt compelled to erase the career that came before. In part, this had to do with that feeling you get as a graduate student that you’ve finally found an intellectual home. It’s an exhilarating, addictive feeling that prompts you to dismiss whatever falls outside of this new, crazy wonderful experience. The world was all before me and through Eden I took my (mostly) solitary way.

But underlying that feeling, and this is where I think things get dicey, was the institutional mandate to erase that history from my official biography–the academic CV, a document that began with my academic affiliations, described my dissertation, went on to list my conference papers, scholarly articles and reviews, classes I taught, and ended with professional affiliations and a list of professors who had written letters on my behalf. It made no mention of the fact that I had been very successfully pursuing a writing career prior to graduate school. It made no mention of the fact that I had skills collaborating with people across a complex university system. And while my CV documented papers I wrote even for graduate student conferences, it simultaneously erased the very sophisticated and comprehensive writing I did to engage major donors–arguably a high-profile audience that counts significantly in university life. In effect, my career before graduate school simply ceased to exist. 

When I think about that now, I’m just baffled. Looked at from the perspective of “what makes a person employable and successful,” erasing that information made absolutely no sense. Any resume coach with half a brain would have counseled me to include it. But of course there was no resume coach in that insular academic world–not because departments wouldn’t fund career services, but because the “resume” itself was an artifact of that other world we all had worked so hard to leave behind. This erasure of the past was fundamental to establishing my identity as a scholar, as necessary to my success as a strong dissertation, publications, and references from the right mentors.

Today, #altac commentators are quick to make the case that graduate students should prepare simultaneously for an academic career and an “alternative” one. Learn how to present the skills of the teacher-scholar in a language that signals employability beyond the academy, they advise. Meant to counter the dismal outlook for many doctoral candidates, this advice assumes, if not an open door, at least a bridge between the academic world and the worlds of “government, non-profits, the media” and “lots” of unspecified industries that seem just beyond the imagination of even a skilled career services professional like Victoria Blodgett.

To look at how sound that bridge is let’s fast forward a few years in my own personal story. Oops! Looks like that tenure-track job isn’t materializing! And I have a decision to make about how to move forward with my life. Surely now is the time my combined experience in journalism, fundraising and communications, teaching, public speaking, curriculum development, research and writing, and, most important, thinking beyond the surface of things, will help me find a rewarding career in the “knowledge economy.” That experience, after all, has everything to do with how I approach complexity, how I solve problems, how I communicate ideas, and how I help the people I work with and for succeed.

But of course the world outside the academy makes its own demands on identity–and in many ways those demands are more subtle and complex than the academy’s publish-tenure-publish-promote rules of ascent. Here’s what my academic life looks like at the bottom of my current resume:

Education  Ph.D. in English, Tufts University

The labor, thought, skill, and successes of those years have been–indeed, continue to be–eclipsed by the demand for “currency,” (the weird idea that only the most recent experiences are meaningful ones), “relevancy,” (the stubborn belief that skills are not transferable, though we continue to pay lip service to the idea that they are), and of course “suitability,” (institutional conformity by no means the exclusive purview of the academy). In the world outside of the academy (and I am generalizing here), a doctorate in the humanities signals, at best, idiosyncratic and, at worst, irrelevant passions and pursuits. In spite of that, Segran points out some successes in her article:  “a Ph.D. in Greek and Roman history landed a marketing job at a wine estate; a Ph.D. in English serves as a VP at an educational technology company; a Ph.D. in British history is a branch chief at the National Parks Service; a Ph.D. in Classics is a director at a hedge fund; the list goes on.” These successes are important, and should be celebrated (well, perhaps with the exception of Hedge Fund Guy), but I can’t help but wonder whether these individuals secured those jobs not because of, but in spite of, the doctorates they brought with them.

What’s the point of this fable of erased histories? Honestly, it’s not (all) about me. But I think my experience points to the still unbridgeable gulf between a world dedicated to sustained thought (the academy) and a world dedicated to swift action (business). False dichotomy? No doubt, but it is one that has real effects. Businesses today clamor for innovative ideas. But they are structured for short-term gain that crushes the deep and careful thought needed for innovation. Academic institutions today face a perfect storm of forces demanding change. But they remain conservative to a fault, convinced of their ability to transcend history. Both suffer from a failure of imagination: Businesses have relinquished the cultivation of “human capital” to “human resources” professionals who (yes, I will say it) are the least prepared to understand, embrace, and find a place for those who fall outside specific (and usually badly articulated) Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities. Academia continues to replicate itself by churning out PhDs who will have no place in its narrowly structured logic, and yet shames those who would take the passionate connection to ideas that academic life cultivates and use it to inform–maybe even transform–the culture of business.

Writing a better resume isn’t the answer. Writing a better story to deepen our understanding of what will strengthen both business and the academy just might be.

2 thoughts on “Mainstreaming the PhD, Part 2

  1. So well put, Bonnie Burns — I too am a PhD (in American Lit) who has pursued a career writing about academia in a way that makes it interesting and relevant that makes it into the public mindset. My PhD lets me research topics well beyond my field (American Lit.) but also gives me a knowledge of human history and psychology that allows me to translate all kinds of scholarly endeavors so that people respond both emotionally as well as intellectually. I am conversant with all kinds of writing styles and can craft stories that are compelling enough that people actually read them. I couldn’t have done this without the breadth and rigor required by a PhD.


  2. Go Bonnie Go!! It’s simply a pleasure to read your words, hear your voice, and be privy to the depth of thought. Thanks

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