STUDENTS SIT in a scattered buckshot pattern among
108 chairs, laughing nervously at jokes about "starter
jobs" and "discovering their skills." It appears
to be a typical scene-a small group of undergraduates gathered
in early February in Ida Noyes Hall to hear a lecture on "getting
that all-important first job," preparing themselves for
the big, bad world.
the scene is not typical because these are not undergraduates.
They are Ph.D. candidates who are considering eschewing academe
for another career-working for the government, for nonprofit
agencies, or in the private sector. The problem is, most of
them have been in school for so long that they don't know what
they could do beyond the narrow specialty defined by their dissertations.
"You've been studying 1830s French literature for the past
seven years," one's loving aunt might say at a family reunion.
"How nice. So what are you going to do with that?"
what are you going to do with that?" It's more than a question,
it's an attitude, a view that the skills gained in undertaking
a Ph.D. are useful for one thing and one thing only: going to
work for a college or university where you can teach classes,
write papers, and clone little bitty versions of you (and you
are, the thinking goes, just a little bitty clone of your own
is also the title of the afternoon lecture, and (properly capitalized)
the book upon which the lecture is based. The authors-cum-speakers,
Susan Basalla and Maggie Debilius, are themselves recent recipients
of Ph.D.s from Princeton University, and they are spending a
day at Chicago-one stop along a tour of graduate schools across
the country-to let students know that there are options.
the National Opinion Research Center released its annual report
on higher education statistics in February, the new Ph.D.s were
just suddenly there, like cherry blossoms blooming overnight
along the bank of the Washington Tidal Basin. Yesterday there
were a certain number of Ph.D.s in the country, and today there
are about 40,000 more-41,140 more in 1999, to be exact, a slight
dip from the previous year, but on the whole part of a steady
upward trend that saw about 10,000 new doctorates in 1960 and
predicts 47,000 in 2010.
report shows that of the two-thirds of new Ph.D.s who have definite
plans, almost half want to go into academia, but only half of
those will find academic jobs, and according to the U.S. Department
of Education, most of those jobs will be temporary, nontenure-track
positions. Despite these grim figures, the academic job market
in areas such as the social and physical sciences has steadily
improved in recent years. Meanwhile, the robust economy of the
past decade has led many graduating students from the sciences
to abandon the classroom for a shot at the boardroom as their
quantitative skills are sought after in areas such as management
consulting and investment banking.
to the American Anthropological Association, 71 percent of anthropology
Ph.D.s went into academe in 1997. Today about half do, even
though academic job opportunities in the field have risen 84
percent in the past five years. The American Physical Society
reports that there are currently more than two jobs in the physical
sciences industry for each job-seeker. Ten years ago, about
half of physics Ph.D.s went into academe, as opposed to 30 percent
today. This is partly because of the need for physical scientists
in the booming industries of information technology, computer
manufacturing, and microchip design, and consulting firms and
dot-coms have siphoned off many potential academics. Whether
these Ph.D.s will go ducking behind ivy-covered walls now that
the dot-com boom has gone bust-and whether there will be tenure-track
jobs waiting for them-remains to be seen.
Ph.D.s are faring far worse than their social- and physical-science
counterparts. According to a 1997 report by the Modern Language
Association-the country's largest organization for humanities
scholars-as many as 60 percent of humanities graduates could
not find tenure-track work in academia in the early 1990s. But
even with jobs scarce, the number of humanities Ph.D.s grew
15 percent between 1995 and 1999, and more and more of them
are starting to take advantage of the generally healthy economy
and find work in the private sector.
no surprise that the statistics for Chicago Ph.D.s lean toward
the classroom. According to Mark Hansen, the William R. Kenan,
Jr. professor of political science and associate provost of
the University, approximately 75 percent of Chicago Ph.D.s remain
in academia in some fashion-in tenure- and nontenure-track positions,
in postdocs, or pursuing further study such as law or business
school. The remaining 25 percent go directly into nonacademic
fields-two-thirds of them into for-profit work and one-third
into nonprofit and government jobs.
and Debilius refer to these former future professors as "post-academics"
to escape the insinuation that they fell out of the ivory tower
rather than climbing down knotted bedsheets. "We don't
like using 'alternative' or 'nonacademic' careers because those
terms have a pejorative slant," Basalla tells the Ida Noyes
crowd. "They reflect a worldview in which there are only
two choices in life: be a professor or be anything else in the
universe except a professor." They are here to turn
that idea on its head, to show graduating Ph.D.s that the academic
world is one of several options, and not necessarily the one
that's right for everybody.
are not the only ones who roll their eyes at the notion that
Ph.D.s who don't work in academia are no more than failed academics.
Over the past decade, a string of books has been published on
how to pursue a successful career in the professional world
with a Ph.D., and several annual conferences have sprung up
around the country on the topic. The Modern Language Association
has called for graduate programs 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." The MLA
has also worked the student end in a recent report on careers
outside the academy, quoting a contributor to its publication
Profession 1996 who encouraged new and future graduates
"to question the belief that the corporate world is categorically
venal and utterly beneath a literature Ph.D."
problem for graduate students is that the main influence in
their lives is generally the one person who most wants them
to become college professors-their own faculty advisors. Advisors
spend years helping each student to carve out his or her own
narrow specialty, and it's natural that they want these students
to continue the work as postdocs or-as soon as possible-in tenured
for those people who go outside of academia to look for jobs
is tepid among faculty," says Michael Bloom, AM'94, a Chicago
Ph.D. candidate in political science who has been questioning
his interest in becoming a scholar. "It's mixed, but they
encourage you to at least try the academic world. It's helpful
that certain consulting firms are now openly courting Ph.D.
students, because it gives you another way of looking at what
a Ph.D. can get you. A few years ago, those opportunities weren't
specialist on Progressive Era reform, Bloom came to graduate
school from the University of Colorado-Boulder looking forward
to a life of teaching and university administration but was
disappointed to discover the long, unpredictable, publish-or-perish
path of an academic career. "My real facility is working
with people, not texts," he says. "I'm looking for
a place where I can still use the things that brought me to
academics, but I think I can apply them outside of academics."
Even though he's only a year away from defending his dissertation,
he says he will leave early if the right job comes along. "One
of my mistakes was staying in grad school as long as I did,"
he says. "Eight years is a long time, knowing that three
years ago I was encountering these problems. But I thought,
'I've invested this much, I have to finish.'"
is a common mindset among doctoral students. The investment
of time, effort, and money in a narrow area of study is a commitment
toward a limited career path, and it's hard to justify abandoning
it for a new-or even a related-field, especially one outside
of academia. "I would like for my career life to start
conforming to a timeline," says Bloom, who hopes to carve
a niche for himself in public-sector consulting, focusing on
customer service and conflict resolution. "My ultimate
decision to leave academia didn't have to do with how much I'd
invested, it was more about how close I am to my career goals.
And I think with a nonacademic job you get there faster."
the University's Career and Placement Services department. Employing
three full-time graduate career counselors-Malaina Brown, who
mainly works with students in the physical and biological sciences;
Jim Howley, who specializes in helping social-science students;
and Cynthia Petrites, who counsels students in the humanities
and the Divinity School-CAPS may be the light at the end of
the tunnel for struggling Ph.D. students. Brown, Howley, and
Petrites don't just help students find jobs, they help them
make life decisions-decisions that often start with the central
question of a freshly minted Ph.D.: Should I stay or should
CAPS program is one side of a distinct contradiction, for there
is arguably no institution in the country more serious about
training future scholars than Chicago. This creates an underlying
friction between faculty, who are concerned with training tomorrow's
leading academics, and the CAPS advisors, who are concerned
with helping students make the right career decisions for themselves.
friction never comes at us directly, but it certainly comes
at us in the form of students not wanting their advisors to
know that they're here," says Brown, who is working at
CAPS while completing her Ph.D. in paleoethnobotany at Washington
University in St. Louis. "All of our services are confidential
for a reason. Even in trying to get students to interview for
this story, I had people say, 'No, I can't be public with that
information right now.'"
don't come to the University of Chicago to get a Ph.D. to become
management consultants," says Howley, who holds a Ph.D.
in sociology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"They generally come here to get Ph.D.s to become academics."
CAPS helps students land academic jobs as well-teaching them
interviewing skills for faculty positions, showing them how
to ask professors for recommendations, and helping students
write their curricula vitae.
the staff's main task lies in helping students decide what career
is right for them and how to translate their graduate school
experiences into a solid skill set. "If you've always thought
that you were going to be a professor, and you're just beginning
to think about what else you might do, it helps to have a little
bit of guidance in terms of where else you could look,"
says Brown. "Because you feel sometimes that there isn't
anything else you could do, that no one would want to hire you
to do anything else."
students aren't very good at realizing their own value,"
adds Howley. "They have tremendous value on both the nonacademic
and academic markets, so it's up to us to demonstrate to them
just how valuable their skills are."
saw more than 1,000 graduate students and alumni last year (all
CAPS services are available to alumni). Some students come in
once or twice for a résumé evaluation or a seminar;
others come in regularly over a period of years to network,
hone their interviewing skills, and see what opportunities are
available on the job market. There is no average student at
CAPS, but there is a common characteristic among Ph.D. students
who are looking for work: insecurity.
though only 1 percent of the population gets a Ph.D. in this
country, our students are at one of the most-if not the most-elite
institutions," observes Howley, "so they're constantly
surrounded by all these supersmart people they compare themselves
to. It's easy to see how our grad students feel not at the top
of the game, because they are surrounded by all that pressure."
an attitude we encounter with folks who are on both the academic
and the nonacademic job markets," says Petrites, who is
at CAPS on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship while completing her
comparative literature Ph.D. at Princeton. "They come to
us sometimes with fairly uncreative career options for themselves
because they haven't thought much about the kinds of skills
they have. We get them to look outside what they've been doing
and how they've been training themselves as academics."
first step in this process is an individual assessment-an attempt
to get the student to lay everything out on the table: talents,
experiences, values, ambitions, and interests. Students may
take an intimate (no more than 15 people) five-week career exploration
seminar that includes this self-evaluation, as well as a Myers-Briggs
Type Indicator personality questionnaire and a number of selected
readings that show students how to assess their skills. CAPS
also offers a battery of lectures, panels, and workshops throughout
the year on cover-letter and résumé writing, interviewing,
networking, and career-specific opportunities.
students have an idea of their skills, they investigate potential
careers through research, informational interviews, and contact
with working alumni. More than 100 recruiters are invited to
campus each fall and winter to interview undergraduate and graduate
students, and CAPS holds several career events each year-including
job and internship fairs on campus in January and October, a
Ph.D. virtual career fair in March, a science career forum in
March co-sponsored by Northwestern University, and an April
"Ivy Plus" virtual career fair with ten of Chicago's
Brown has spent the past year using CAPS services to strengthen
his résumé and interviewing skills, hoping to
land a temporary job in investment banking or consulting so
he can pay off his loans. He will be leaving Chicago with an
A.M. this summer, three years into a Ph.D. program in music.
A singer and student of gospel music, he recently realized that
he could still write about music without having to live like
reason most people get a Ph.D. is to teach, and that was never
my plan. The program here is designed for people who want to
become professors. As long as I'm able to learn the things that
I wanted to learn while I was here, that's the most important
part for me." Brown hopes to eventually move to New York
and find work as a singer and a journalist. "I still plan
on doing research and writing about music, but at this point
in my life I really want to get out there and perform. The door
is always open for me to come back to school and do my Ph.D.
if I decide I want to do that."
is one of the lucky few who has confidence in his talents and
a good idea of what he wants to do with them. "One of the
questions I always encounter is, 'What do people who don't go
into academia and have my background do?'" says Petrites.
"And the unsatisfying but completely honest answer to that
is, 'Anything.' They can do whatever they want to do. They may
have to get some entry-level experience, but those doors are
not closed. Typically what I encounter in humanists is a great
deal of confusion, overwhelmed by a sense of not knowing what
to do or what's out there."
to Malaina Brown, the road to a graduate student's future is
indeed rugged and uncertain. "Sometimes it requires encouraging
students to see everything they can do because graduate school
can batter the self-esteem," she says. "You can go
into grad school thinking you can do a lot of things and leave
thinking you can't do very much at all."
road is rugged, but the off-ramps are in sight for those who
choose to take them. That's the reason the students are gathered
on the third floor of Ida Noyes, munching on free cookies and
discreetly gathering job-fair flyers from the rear table as
if their advisors may walk in at any moment and drag them out
by the ears. But each one, in the back of his or her mind, is
asking-perhaps seriously for the first time-"so what am
I going to do with that?"