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Careers outside the Academy

Even if we significantly reduce the size of current graduate programs while offering PhD candidates greatly enhanced and intensified training for work in a range of two- and four-year colleges as well as in research universities, the supply of job seekers in our disciplines will in the short term outnumber the appropriate, full-time tenure-track positions available in the fields the MLA represents. For this reason, although our committee defines the PhD as a degree primarily designed to prepare candidates for teaching on a postsecondary level, we investigated careers outside academia, devoting one of our meeting days to interviews with two English-literature PhDs--Jane Wyman, a technical writer and editor at Tandem Computers, and Neil Baldwin, the director of the National Book Foundation. Both testified to the ways in which graduate-level research techniques and other strategies gained from learning and teaching at universities had prepared them for off-campus professional work. At the same time, both confided that they had had to develop entirely on their own the skills needed for a transition from the "ivory tower" to the "real world." Therefore, besides making teacher training more flexible and variegated, graduate programs might need to offer at least a minimal introduction to strategies through which abilities developed by a higher education in the humanities can be translated into proficiencies useful for nonacademic careers.

Not surprisingly, the student members of our committee expressed interest in acquiring such proficiencies, and--what is especially poignant--the letter from a disappointed job candidate quoted at the beginning of this report stresses their centrality to his situation:
I do hope your new [committee] on professional employment will be able to discover some course by which the liberal arts may find greater applicability in the non-academic world. ... I hope the liberal arts can become less hermetic and self-contained, so future humanists will not go through my difficulties if academia shuts them out. I hope their programs will provide them with options and strategies for alternative employment. It angers me occasionally to think such realistic guidance was not part of the humanistic culture I came through. (Marusiak)

That problems like this job seeker's have some practical remedies (even if there are no instant miracle cures) becomes clear not only from the positive experiences recounted by such PhDs as Wyman and Baldwin but also from the high levels of job satisfaction widely reported by a range of other humanists who left the academy for intellectually stimulating and fulfilling work off campus. Writing in Profession 1996, for instance, Mark A. Johnson and Alison T. Smith "challenge the attitude that literature and language PhDs are worthy of working only with other educational elites" (Johnson 61). Declares Johnson, a technical writer, "Graduate students and new PhDs would do well to question the belief that the corporate world is categorically venal and utterly beneath a literature PhD," adding that "my experience in the software industry tells me that the world at large can never have too many literate critical thinkers" (62), a point that Jane Wyman also repeatedly made to our committee. Similarly Smith, a secondary-school teacher of Spanish and English, confesses, "Settling into my new job, I wondered why this market with such tremendous need for qualified teachers has been ignored." Even though "teaching at the secondary level has been endorsed officially in the MLA Newsletter," she points out, "it has not been embraced as an appropriate career path by large numbers of MLA members," and she complains that on renewing her membership in the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, she "was struck by the categories that simply relegated me to 'other' because I was neither a professor nor a graduate student" (70-71).

Two studies of PhDs who earned degrees during the employment crisis of the 1970s and established careers outside rather than inside the academy are also encouraging. Lewis C. Solmon reports that humanities and nonhumanities PhDs holding a range of government jobs are in positions he judges appropriate for the highly trained. He also reports that most of them believe they are working at a professional level commensurate with their education. Similarly, Ernest R. May and Dorothy G. Blaney, using Solmon's work as well as additional data drawn from studies of humanities PhDs working in the private sector, report higher levels of satisfaction among PhDs outside the academy than among those within. May and Blaney conclude that "all people who are enthralled by literature, history, or philosophy are not necessarily people for whom teaching offers the most satisfying career" c75-76).

Perhaps the most important finding for the fields our organization represents is that a majority of humanities PhDs in nonacademic employment consider their traditional graduate education useful (Solmon 99; May and Blaney 60). Conclude May and Blaney, "Although graduate training is an asset for people who become teachers, it is equally an asset for those who pursue other careers. ... Teachers and non-teachers alike see it as having enhanced critical thinking and ability to do research, the latter something almost as prized outside academe as within it" (93, 96). From the perspective of such professionals--as from the points of view of Wyman, Baldwin, Johnson, and Smith--the definition of jobs outside the academy as "alternative employment" is misleading. For work toward a doctorate, even when undertaken with the goal of a professorship in mind, can facilitate a broad spectrum of careers, most of which should not be dismissively defined as alternative although they may differ from jobs in higher education. The PhDs who do not find appropriate, tenure-track positions within a few years of earning their degrees can gain rewarding employment in nonacademic settings--and their institutions ought to help them do so.


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© 2014 Modern Language Association. Last updated 09/25/2003.