Those who can’t teach do? The importance of “failure” to the survival of the humanities

Educating scholars: doctoral education in the humanities has an interesting set of chapters addressing the question of what happens to PhD students after they leave their programmes, with or without a degree.

The study of focussed on graduates of prominent departments in ten elite universities who were in programme in the period between 1991 and 2001 and so is looking at both a fairly strongly marked class of student and a strongly marked time period: the students they are following had what they describe as high “departmental prestige” when they entered the job market; and, while predictions of the faculty shortage in humanities that in part prompted this study (4) never actually appeared, their subjects do appear to have graduated into an academic job market that was more open than that immediately before or afterwards.

So with all these provisos in mind, what happened to the students? A number of sets of figures stand out.

Most graduates work in four-year colleges

The first is that within three years of graduation, a majority (71-76%) of students were working in what the Americans describe as four year colleges (i.e. Universities that while varying widely in quality and conditions nevertheless involve some combination of emphasis on teaching and research; 188). Of these between 52% and 57% were in tenure track jobs (i.e. jobs that, in addition to offering the possibility of tenure, also lead to opportunities for the the traditional career progression of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and (full) Professor).

The second set of figures shows that the percentage of graduates in four year colleges and with tenure track appointments three years after graduation fell throughout period: the high in each case was for students graduating in the period 1992-1994 (76% in four year colleges, 57% in tenure track jobs); the next two graduation cohorts, 1995-1997, and 1998-2000, did progressively worse (72% and 71% in four year colleges, and 55% and 52% in tenure track jobs, respectively). (In Canada, based on my experience on hiring committees, I’d have said that the vacancies in fact rose during the mid-to-late 2000s, ending with the recession; but that may be an Albertan exception due to the availability of oil money).

“Leavers” may have done better than graduates

The third interesting set of figures, however, has to do with the overall employment rate and type of occupations for both graduates and “leavers” (i.e. those who left graduate school without receiving a PhD; 182). The employment rates on the whole were quite high (97% three years after graduation for both graduates and “leavers”). And the quality of the jobs also seem to have been relatively high, perhaps especially for the “leavers”: at least 61% of this group, for example, were employed in managerial or professional positions (manager, journalist, PR, IT, eduction, law, etc.) three years after leaving their programme, with only about 12% being employed in “other” or (low level) clerical categories. Among graduates, on the other hand, only between 12% and 17% (depending on cohort) were employed outside education, and only 4% seem to have been employed in what we now call alt-ac positions, or “positions within or around the academy but outside of the ranks of the tenure-track teaching faculty,” as Nowiskie puts it.

Fewer taxi drivers than you might think

One thing that might be surprising here is the relative absence of taxi-driving PhDs/”grad school drop outs”. This is not to say that they don’t exist (and perhaps now more than ever during the Great Recession). But it is to say that taxi-driving and similar jobs were not a major employment outcome for either graduates or “leavers” of elite Humanities PhD programmes (at least) during the decade preceding the current recession.

More professional/management positions

The other thing that might be surprising is that the relative outcomes for “leavers” looks on the whole like they might be better than for graduates. While love of teaching and working in universities can be its own reward and while you can’t speculate too precisely about job quality on the basis of the categories this study uses, it looks like about 20% of the graduates of elite universities surveyed as part of this study were employed in what appear to be relatively insecure para-professorial jobs (sessional teaching, adjunct and visiting professorships, and postdoctoral positions) for years after graduation (which in the case of the humanities also means well into their mid-to-late 30s).

This also agrees with my own experiences as a graduate (and one who was lucky enough to find a tenure track position) in the mid-1990s. As a PhD student at Yale who lived in Amsterdam while writing my dissertation and who taught in para-positions at the University of York and Louisiana State before getting my tenure track job, I had the opportunity to see a lot of students and new graduates from a variety of different institutions. On the whole, my impression was that the “leavers” I knew were far happier than the “(barely) hangers on.” I’m not sure that I agree with Nowiskie and other #alt-ac bloggers that junior tenure-track positions are all that oppressive (though I have been surprised in talking to American junior faculty in particular about how irrational and constipated the demands of their departments seem to be). But I did (and do) know a lot of people who were very unhappy and frustrated in those para-positions.

The intrinsic value of graduate school

Presumably there is also a loss involved for both “leavers” and graduates who are employed outside academia. I imagine a majority of them went to graduate school out of a love for some combination of research and teaching relatively esoteric subjects and/or the traditions and rhythms of university life. While in most cases they seem to be in jobs that call on the skills they developed in the course of their studies, they are presumably making less use of the direct knowledge they acquired: in the end, there remains less call for studies of scribal variation in medieval manuscripts or teaching Latin in private industry than in academia.

But what I find encouraging, both about these statistics for non-academic employment by graduates and “leavers” and the more recent movement to assert the value and satisfaction involved in alt-ac careers, is that both are to a certain extent vindications of what we have long claimed to be the core values and worth of the Arts and Humanities: study that is on the one hand valuable for its own sake and, on the other, involves the development of high-level skills and methodologies that are economically valuable both within and without academia.

We need to recognise the extrinsic value of what our students do

This doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go. A major problem, in my experience as a student and now as a faculty member, is that we in the Academy often don’t really believe  that the training we are giving our students has any purpose other than producing future professors. When I came to consider alternate careers before getting hired in a traditional position at the University of Lethbridge, I was genuinely at a loss to say whether my six years at Yale had left me with any economically valuable and transferable skills; and I was shocked when I discovered, after volunteering as a public relations person and campaign flunky for the Liberal Democrats in the 1997 U.K. election, that I actually was able to do things others found difficult and, when I stopped volunteering,  were willing to pay considerable amounts of money for me to do.

But I think the winds might also be changing. At least some graduate schools seem willing to investigate training students to recognise the generalisable value of what they are learning in the pursuit of their more esoteric research and teaching; and the alt-ac movement (as well perhaps as some remaining backwash of pre-recession entrepreneurial enthusiasm from the last decade among our students) seems to be making the first baby steps to arguing the positive case for the transferable value of humanities education while breaking down the disdain many academics seem to feel to those who “failed” to end up in tenure track jobs.

The importance of alt-ac (and ex-ac) in defence of the academy

At least I hope I’m right. Because ironically the extra-mural success of those supposedly “failed academics” who left grad school without a PhD or who graduated with a PhD but did not end up in traditional tenure-track jobs is the best argument that exists for the value of the advanced research and teaching those who didn’t “fail” do within the walls of the academy. Whether they left with or without a PhD, the success (and hopefully happiness) of those students who “left” academia validates the claim we always try to make when funding gets tight that the liberal arts teach skills, methods, and approaches to understanding the world that are both intrinsically and economically extremely valuable.

And if, as I believe, a lot of the intellectual malaise that the Humanities in general seem to be suffering at the moment comes from our lack of a sense of engagement with the issues and concerns of the wider society we inhabit, this validation may also improve the intrinsic quality of that “esoteric” research and teaching as well.


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