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  Written by
  Chris Smith

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Life begins at 33.8
The average age of graduating Ph.D.s has remained steady over the years, but their options have changed drastically. Is there life beyond the ivory tower?

THIRTY 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.

But 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?"

"So 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 favorite professor).

It 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.

When 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.

The 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.

According 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.

Humanities 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.

It's 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.

Basalla 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.

They 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."

The 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 positions.

"Acceptance 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 around."

A 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.'"

This 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."

ENTER CAPS, 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 I go?

The 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.

"The 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.'"

"People 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.

But 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."

"Our 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."

CAPS 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.

"Even 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."

"That's 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."

The 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.

Once 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 peer institutions.

DeAudray 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 an academic.

"The 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."

Brown 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."

According 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."

The 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?"

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