Sunday, October 9, 2011

The AHA Says "No More Plan B"

Like many others, I was pleased to see the recent statement from the AHA urging history graduate departments to do a better job in training their students for nonacademic careers. The statement calls for grad programs to do two simultaneous things: to expand their graduate training to include an emphasis on skills and careers outside of academia, and to stop characterizing nonacademic careers as "alternatives" or "plan Bs."

This statement was made in large part due to AHA's recognition that the job market in history is not facing a "transient 'crisis," but that tenure track jobs are disappearing and that "we owe it to our students and to our profession to think more broadly."

Their statement is getting attention in the blogsophere and positive feedback at Inside Higher Ed. I'm, obviously, very pleased to see that. It probably won't shock any of my readers to hear that I support graduate programs training their students for nonacademic careers ... not as a fallback "Plan B," but as a different yet completely valid career choice.

So I think the AHA statement is a wonderful first step, and I would like to see other professional organizations follow suit ... and graduate departments follow up by actually beginning to implement their recommendations.

I'm not holding my breath, though, for two reasons. First, graduate departments are staffed by tenured faculty, many of whom have been in academic jobs for decades. These faculty may not have any idea of how much the academic job market has changed, and thus have no idea of how bleak their students' prospects are. And if they do have an accurate idea of the market, these career academics may have no idea of what kind of nonacademic jobs are out there or how to prepare their graduate students for them. I have no doubt that most departments probably have a faculty member or two who can offer good mentoring for nonacademic jobs (or who will at least know how to put students in contact with people who can help them find nonacademic jobs); however, I am not optimistic that most grad departments as a whole will stop characterizing academia as the one and only valid job to get. 

Second, I don't expect other disciplines to follow the AHA's lead in this, because the academic job market in other fields is not as bleak. (Don't get me wrong - the market in all disciplines sucks. It just sucks less badly in the non-humanities).

But the AHA's statement talks mainly about the need for nonacademic career paths because there are so few tenure-track jobs in history. In other words, they are looking at the situation as "a crisis of no jobs" rather than "a generalized need to give students broad training in a range of skills." So other disciplines will look at the statement and think "well, we don't have that bad of a job market, so there's no need to change our focus!"

I cry foul on that. Every single day, this blog gets fresh hits from people running searches on how much they hate grad school and want to drop out. My most popular blog post - by far - is the one titled "I Hate My Research." I get emails and comments from people - never from a historian, as far as I know - talking about how much they hate the academic life and want to leave ... but have no idea how to do it. You know, Type 1 (potential) leavers, like me.

Now, I'm sure a lot of faculty would just say "well, those people who are miserable just need to leave." And there might be some truth to that.

But what if - just if - instead of urging people to leave, we expanded our ideas about what graduate school should look like ... not just in response to a lagging job market, but just because it might help students?

I mean, look. There is a dedicated crisis hotline for graduate students out there. The high rates of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and attempts have been well-documented. Clearly, grad students are not a happy bunch, on average. And while there are undoubtedly a range of factors that contribute to the average person's mental well-being, as I've argued before, I suspect that the particular demands and culture of grad school may actually be causing mental disorders in some of its students. And that for a lot of those people, they may be far, far better off in a different line of work. I know I am.

So what's the harm to a graduate program in expanding its offerings to include seminars on nonacademic careers or courses that teach transferable skills? Why shouldn't a graduate department begin to offer, say, an option for students to earn course credit by working or volunteering in order to gain nonacademic work experience while finishing their degrees? Students who are truly happy in academia won't take those courses, so it wouldn't take away from their academic career prep. But for the students who want something different, it can provide them some hope and a needed lifeline ... so they're not sucking down anti-anxiety meds and conducting late night internet searches to see if they're crazy because they don't love academia.

And in the end, the department can point to their successful grads in academic jobs and their successful grads working in think tanks and government organizations and other important positions, and feel proud of their wide range of successful outcomes. Why would that be a bad thing? Grad programs would still be producing working academics, but they'd also be helping the rest of their students find careers of their own choosing after years of contributing via teaching and research to their grad departments. That sounds like a fair trade to me.

Of course, it won't happen. For now, the focus in most disciplines (and I suspect, in many corners of history as well) is on pursuing academic careers at all costs, unless the job market becomes too embarrassingly bad to ignore. I'm glad that at least a few high-profile historians are jumping off the "academia or bust" bandwagon, but I'll refrain from offering up a standing ovation until there is wider recognition that everyone who started out in grad school at age 22 may not want the same career ten years later.


  1. That's almost exactly what the career counselor at my university said. Even though my department would not help me find a nonacademic job and may even shun me for it, they would jump at the chance to talk about "successful placement of Ph.D.'s outside academia" as well as in it. You would be amazed at how fast those "plan B" graduates' successes end up in the department brochure.

    And thank you from all of us early future post-acs for acknowledging that the dreams and goals we had at 22 are not likely to be the same as the ones we have at 32. What a novel idea, that one's hopes would evolve!

  2. Academia seems to expect that no one will ever evolve, don't they? From assuming everyone still wants the exact same job upon graduation that they wanted a decade earlier to assuming they will want to study/teach the same narrow subject for an entire career ... there's not a lot of room for people with wide-ranging interests or goals, that's for sure!