But this is not because I think that scholarship is wasteful, or academics are useless. The best part of my job is interviewing smart academics who tell me about all the stuff they’re expert in. I understand why professors love their jobs, and why graduate students want them (and, by extension, why those jobs are so hard to get.) And I applaud any effort by programs to deal with the disastrous financial, social and emotional reckoning often faced by students who have invested 10 years in a PhD and then find themselves without a tenure-track position.
Disclaimer issued, let me start by asking a question: what, exactly, does this alt-ac vision entail?
Interesting little article. Talks about “alt-ac” tracks, PhD’s designed for non-academic track people. She makes some good points about the job market:
From the outside, a humanities PhD does not seem likely to ever be a career-enhancing move, for the simple reason that a PhD is a lengthy apprenticeship designed to teach you the skills needed to do exactly one thing: be a professor. . . .The ponderous, jargon-filled style of academic articles, constantly multiplying out the caveats and contraditions to their very last implication, fills a real purpose in scholarly discourse. But no one else will wade through it. . . .Masterful command of a narrow(ish) scholarly area has zero economic value outside the academy. Nor does the ability to spend months or years working on a single problem, or small group of related problems. . . .Graduate students learn to teach, but they mostly learn to teach students at large research institutions, which is not necessarily great practice for teaching many other groups.
I found a lot of that out in my stint at a Large Bank. The higher-ups need actionable items, a concise summary of results and what can be done with them. And relaying quantitative and statistical information is tricky as well, to those who’ve mostly presented to other academics who want to endlessly explore the details of analyses. I’ll admit that that can be frustrating, but it can also open one’s eyes. If you exist in the bubble of academia, you just have no clue that other people aren’t that interested in discussing the endless caveats and limitations of your research, and — the most important thing — you have to learn to integrate those in some way into your results. Yes, people tend to want simple answers, but you must include cautions as well. I recall when we were developing a simple linear model to predict some aspect of said Bank’s monthly report to investors and some were trying to get the confidence limits lower and lower and lower, which gives a false sense of certainty. I managed to keep it reasonable, so as to avoid the trap of over-predicting; making your model so tight that the usual variation will almost certainly fall outside of your prediction sooner or later. We got a little award for it, too, although about 6 months later it failed miserably due to outside circumstances. But learning how to synthesize like that was enormously helpful to me.
I don’t look on that simplifying as necessarily a negative either. Even academics need that sort of simplification outside of their own areas of expertise. One doubts, for example, that many of them will spend hours and hours analyzing their own investments; rather, most I would assume want a financial adviser to tell them where to put their money most effectively.
Two other things related to the alt-ac job market:
Unfortunately, in many cases a PhD sends a negative rather than a positive signal. Some employers are suspicious of people they figure will be a smartypants pain in the ass with no real skills (I’m not endorsing this view, just reporting it). But a bigger problem is that employers know why people get a PhD in Comp Lit or Religious Studies: so they can be a professor. If you go on the job market with that degree, they know that it’s almost certainly because you failed to get a job as a professor.
. . .
If you want a meaningful alt-ac track, you need to somehow overcome this–to convince employers that a PhD is a general purpose degree. I think that this is a very tough row to hoe, an a transformation that will take place over decades if it happens at all.
I tend to put this more on the students than the institution personally. You have to know why you’re getting that PhD. If you are dead-set on academia, you have to know that with absolute certainty; in most cases, those who are comfortable in academia will be okay. I think a lot of people have some idea of what academia is like, and figure getting a PhD will get them there by default. Not true. This is one area where maybe programs can start being a bit more honest about what you are getting into, besides just saying (like most really do, albeit informally) “The job market sucks”. But if you’re not going the academic route, you really need to sell yourself outside of it, and make employers really believe that you’re not in academia for a reason, whether that’s because you didn’t intend on it in the first place or because other life choices (marriage, kids, etc.) have made that route unproductive. But it’s your job to sell it and be comfortable with it, because otherwise they’ll give the job to someone who they think really wants to be there and isn’t just settling for it. And that usually means you honestly do want to be there.
Caveat: I won’t argue against getting a PhD if that’s really what you want to do. If the benefits you perceive from getting one, and they’re not all monetary, weigh favorably against the costs, then go for it. I did and I don’t regret it at all: I wanted to get a PhD and so I did. But I worked my way through grad school, decided fairly early on that I didn’t really care for the academic culture, and despite some difficulties, emerged relatively intact both financially and personally.
Anthropology/archaeology is similar to the humanities (comp lit and such), although archy tends to have something of an outside market in CRM to absorb some of the PhDs. Some programs are even tailoring their MA programs towards the CRM job market, and I think even students can tailor their own PhD work towards CRM as well and be rewarded for it, financially and otherwise. Anthropology generally is probably more similar to humanities degrees, although as we’ve seen, even they are starting to go the alt-ac route on their own. SO, definitely worth a read and worth considering.
UPDATE: A small bit to add. One thing I’d like to argue is that getting a PhD (or an MA for that matter) is, or can be, inherently of value, both personally and professionally. Like anything that requires hard work and dedication, just the doing of it and doing it well can be personally rewarding and a clear sign that one is willing to put in the effort for a larger cause. Plus, you know, if you get a deep sense of personal satisfaction from delving into the details of a particular subject because you love it, it may be worth the time and expense.