Feeling Your Way toward a Non-Faculty Job
Reflections from a PhD Career Advisor
Like many newly minted history PhDs, I struggled with the hyper-competitive market for tenure-track faculty positions. After multiple application cycles and a good measure of heartache, I found myself among the many scholars who—by choice or circumstance—ultimately use their historical training to work beyond the professoriate. Unlike so many would-be historians, however, my new job requires that I continue to confront the travails of the faculty job market on a daily basis.
In July 2016 I accepted a position as a career advisor for humanities graduate students at the University of Chicago. My position emerged from the university’s ongoing effort to help graduate students and postdocs launch meaningful careers in academia as well as in business, nonprofits, and government. I provide PhD students with one-on-one career counseling, and I help create opportunities for career exploration and skill building via UChicago’s NEH-funded career diversity program for humanities scholars, PATHS—an initiative that builds upon the work of the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians pilot program at UChicago. Since beginning my position, I’ve logged hundreds of hours helping early career scholars obtain work as professors, yes, but also consultants, curators, and high school teachers.
After watching so many PhD job searches from close range, I continue to be inspired by the creative ways that humanities scholars are using their training beyond the academy. Many are indeed realizing the AHA’s goal of “increasing the presence of rigorous and sophisticated historical thinking and knowledge in sites of decision making.” I often share these success stories with students during advising sessions, offering some hope and possibility at a time when the faculty job market seems to offer little of either.
But I’ve also come to realize that the can-do rhetoric of so many career diversity resources and initiatives can ring hollow to students confronting the sheer complexity and raw feelings that characterize a non-faculty job search. The least helpful of these career resources reduce the real emotional work of finding where you fit in this world to a series of checklists and quick tips—taking skills inventories, conducting informational interviews, writing snappy LinkedIn profiles. It’s been my experience, however, that the functional steps of job searching are no problem for the fiercely smart, capable people who earn doctoral degrees. Instead, the real struggle comes from having to forge new identities that are distinct from the academic projects, classes, and communities that defined them for so many years. Students so often experience this identity shift as a loss. As historian Erin Bartram explains in her widely circulated essay on job market grief, “I didn’t write a dissertation on 19th century Catholic women to learn the critical thinking skills of history and then go work in insurance.”
Even after two years of advising, I do not have easy answers for these students. I’ve found, however, that non-faculty job searches work best when PhD candidates make space for feelings of frustration, uncertainty, and loss. It’s not easy to find meaningful work, nor is it easy to construct a new story about who you are and where you’re headed. It can be tempting to try to quell this emotional turmoil by churning out job applications, hoping that some hiring manager somewhere will answer the questions of your value and purpose with an enthusiastic “You’re hired!” But it’s rarely that simple. Finding a satisfying job requires time and reflection, and even when you attain a new position, you may still have questions about how your past and future fit together.
If you are in the midst of a career transition, or if you are simply considering your options, a good first step is to give voice to your feelings. I’ve hosted many students in my office who use career advising appointments to grapple with the emotional as well as the practical dimensions of job searching. I’ve had run-of-the-mill cover letter review appointments become grief counseling sessions when students learn that their last hope for a tenure-track job has evaporated, and I’ve had career exploration discussions turn sour when students discover just how much time and work it will take to start over in a new field. It’s important to express these feelings, and I’d suggest finding an advisor, mentor, counselor, friend, or family member who can serve as your job search confidant.
When I hear students share feelings of pain or loss, I often ask them to explain which facets of their academic identities they are most grieved to lose. Did you come alive in the classroom? Did you enjoy reaching the public with new historical research? Did you relish the satisfaction of writing a perfect sentence? Identifying the labors and environs that you most valued—those that you cannot imagine forfeiting—can be surprisingly helpful in pinpointing other careers that might be a good fit. After all, teaching, research, writing, and public engagement are not solely the purview of postsecondary faculty members.
I often ask students to explain which facets of their academic identities they are most grieved to lose.
I also recommend that students look to the example of other historians to fully appreciate how their academic identities might translate to other careers. You might begin by reading or listening to the personal narratives available through Versatile PhD or the AHA’s What I Do: Historians Talk about Their Work and Career Paths series, which highlight the diverse ways that history PhDs employ their training. You can then set up one-on-one conversations with professionals in similar roles by using the AHA’s Career Contacts program or your university’s alumni association. As you read or listen to these historians, pay attention to how they construct narratives about their professional lives. Often, they attribute their pursuit of a particular career path to a desire to carry forward a favored skill or experience from graduate school. They always loved helping others find research materials, for instance, so it’s no wonder that they ended up as an area studies librarian.
Such career success stories are easy to tell with hindsight; the present of course shapes our narratives of the past. Yet this is the real challenge for non-faculty job seekers: turning your feelings of loss and confusion into a new story about the purpose and impact of your historical training.
Courtney Wiersema is assistant director of graduate career development at the University of Chicago, where she co-directs an NEH-funded career diversity program, PATHS (Professional Advancement and Training for Humanities Scholars). She received her PhD in American history from the University of Notre Dame in 2015.
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