The versatile Ph.D. and the skeptic

Discussions about alternative post-doctoral careers are burgeoning. The American Historical Association is embarking on a major study of career paths for historians, with conversations beginning at its conference in January. The venerable National Coalition of Independent Scholars offers a newsletter and forum with various discussion threads. We’ve mentioned #alt-ac in this space before.

I recently learned about a web community called Versatile Ph.D., already familiar to some of you. General membership is free; another level called “premium” membership is purchased by institutions – some of which are professional associations like the AHA, not universities. There are some 23,000 individual members, making it a larger community than #alt-ac.

Versatile Ph.D. is dedicated to exploring alternative careers. The managers and community seem to do this very well. They’ve posted panel discussions by people who have been successful in other fields after the Ph.D. – editing, for example, or grant writing or government. (STEM panels will be added in 2013, and there is already a STEM forum.) Panelists and others then join in extended discussions. My unscientific survey of these conversations found a lot of concrete, specific advice on how to do it – how to market yourself, build a portfolio, build a network, and so forth; what niches are out there that you didn’t know about; what opportunities to watch for, and so on. It looked as though it could be genuinely useful.

Still, I wonder to what extent we – by which I mean anyone who’s cheerleading for alternatives – are just funneling underemployed scholars into other overcrowded fields. This is probably particularly true in the humanities and social sciences. Librarians, editors, museum staff, journalists, university staff in things like counseling or student services, secondary-school teachers – there are already lots of people out there who have trained specifically for these careers, and there are not enough jobs even for them. What does it mean for Ph.D.s to compete with them? Does our advanced degree give us an edge? Probably not, unfortunately.

Moreover, lots of these fields have their own degree requirements, often at the master’s level (yes, there are masters’ programs in “student services administration”). So in order even to begin, we would have to invest time and money in yet another degree. Or, if it happens that we acquired the professional degree before the Ph.D., we’d probably need to update our skills through more coursework. Yet there’s no guarantee of a job if we do.

It’s a problem.


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