Like many PhDs of the last decade or so, I spent countless hours staring at academic job ads and occasionally venting my frustrated amusement with friends at the laundry list of requirements—oh, they want an exemplary scholar and teacher with experience in grant writing and supporting research in the digital humanities, who can administer a program, help students find internships, and run a large annual conference! While such job ads are (rightly) frustrating to individual seekers on the job market, both in the extent and type of skills they require, in the aggregate they offer an interesting provocation to traditional models of graduate school career preparation. If academic job ads routinely ask for a wide range of skills, why does graduate school training often devalue the activities that would build these skills?1 What does a faculty member do—actually, fully? If graduate students often struggle to imagine how their skills apply to nonfaculty careers, at what point could their training productively intersect with the broader potential careers of the humanities ecosystem?2
The project I present in this article is an experiment in one way we might answer these questions. I analyze a small dataset of one hundred recent job ads (fifty faculty, fifty nonfaculty) and trace the similarities between career paths academia has traditionally separated.3 I break these ads down by requisite skills and responsibilities to find the points where traditional faculty roles are most fully aligned with nonfaculty careers. In addition to showing the broader applicability of research and teaching skills, I identify thirteen transferable skills. These skills are not emphasized in most graduate programs but are in demand in both faculty and broader humanities ecosystem markets.
If academic job ads routinely ask for a wide range of skills, why does graduate school training often devalue the activities that would build these skills?
These points of overlap, I argue, are opportunities to reimagine graduate education in order to more fully prepare graduate students for both faculty and nonfaculty careers. The single-minded focus of most graduate programs on research and teaching does not reflect the breadth of what the world is asking humanities graduates to do. A greater awareness of and training in these transferable skills could ease the transition from graduate school to a first position, whether as an assistant professor or in other humanities ecosystem roles in a college or university, nonprofit organization, or business. I close with suggestions for concentrations of skills that graduate programs could incorporate to better prepare their graduates for all types of careers.
At the heart of this project is the theory that when we fully acknowledge the labor that scholars of all sorts do, the divide between different paths breaks down. Academic researchers are project managers. Teachers are supervisors and leaders. On the flip side, administrators do research. Librarians teach. Therefore, fully appreciating and training graduate students for the real labor of academia will also offer them more solid preparation for the world beyond.
All of the one hundred job ads reviewed are job ads posted in 2018, accessed during summer 2018.4 To locate a random selection of assistant professor job ads, I entered the following search in the ChronicleVitae job search engine: “English OR Spanish OR French OR German OR Chinese.” Working backward from the most recent postings, I collected all job ads with the words “assistant professor” in the title (or which otherwise seemed to clearly indicate a tenure-track, entry-level modern language position). I found fifty-eight jobs from 2018 still available at the end of the summer. While coding, I discarded two ads that appeared on further review to be for non-tenure-track jobs and later removed six ads to bring the number to an arbitrary but even fifty.5 They include a mix of English literature, foreign language, composition, creative writing, and media positions, typical of the types of positions that appear in the MLA Job Information List.
Identifying nonfaculty positions that may be of interest to humanities graduates is a harder task. Since these jobs live in so many different fields, there is no single database of all the opportunities. I used several tools, but primarily relied on Indeed, to identify a list of seventy-four possible positions, mostly collected during a few search periods in early summer 2018. Most of these positions require or prefer a candidate with a graduate degree or other specialized academic experience, which would make a recent PhD or MA humanities graduate a strong candidate. Over the course of analyzing the data, I divided the positions into rough career categories and tried to adjust my choices of the fifty specific job ads to ensure some sort of representation across categories, though the final figures do remain skewed toward the easier-to-find categories. They include the following:
- academic administration (3)
- academic advising (6)
- business or nonacademic (4)
- digital scholarship (4)
- instructional or faculty support (2)
- nonprofits (4)
- other college or university offices—e.g., in development, communications (6)
- program coordinator, usually associated with a particular topic—e.g., centers for humanities, diversity, writing (10)
- special collections—e.g., library positions that usually require training in handling rare materials and experience in relevant academic disciplines (11)
I do not claim that this breakdown of fields is in any way representative of the job market; however, this list, overall, does denote several options that are potentially appealing to PhDs and MAs.
At the heart of this project is the theory that when we fully acknowledge the labor that scholars of all sorts do, the divide between different paths breaks down.
I started by identifying a set of thirteen transferable skills in the faculty list. I chose to focus on faculty ads first to reinforce my point that the changes in graduate school training I am suggesting are triggered not just by the requirements of the broader humanities ecosystem but also by the diverse labor required of faculty positions. I then coded the entire data set with these skills, using NVivo.6 This method is, of necessity, somewhat subjective; not everyone approaching the same data set would code it exactly the same way. What it offers is essentially an aggregated collection of close readings and arguments about the one hundred individual texts. After completing and checking this work, I exported aggregated data to determine which skills appeared in which job ads.
Common Academic Skills in the Nonfaculty Data Set
The first and most obvious question to ask of a collection of nonfaculty ads is whether anything in the most common roster of academic skills is useful in nonfaculty roles. I identified and tracked four traditional academic skills in the fifty nonfaculty job ads (fig. 1).7 Teaching appeared in forty out of the fifty job ads, reflecting the wide applicability of this skill. I categorized ads with the teaching tag if a job candidate with college teaching experience could plausibly transfer those skills, whether or not the job ad explicitly asked for teaching. In other words, the teaching tag covers both the digital humanities librarian position at the University of Alabama, which lists “University-level teaching experience” as one of its preferred qualifications, and the academic adviser position at San José State University, which states that the position’s duties include “providing information and guidance to students; helping students think through problems and select suitable solutions or courses of action; evaluating student needs” (“Digital Humanities Librarian”; “Academic Advisor”). The latter, and descriptions like it, seem to be a pretty good explanation of teaching, even if the term is not explicitly mentioned.8
For research, I was looking for the process of research, whether it was academic or whether it pointed to extensive writing of some kind (e.g., for grants) on academic topics. This skill appeared in twenty-five of the job ads; the high number is not surprising, considering the large percentage of academic positions on my nonfaculty list, particularly those in libraries and discipline-specific centers such as humanities, writing, and special interest centers. For field-specific knowledge (twenty-one results), I was looking for jobs that required knowledge of a particular academic field someone might plausibly focus on in graduate school, such as a field associated with the organization’s special collections (e.g., a position requiring a “PhD with an emphasis on the American West” [“Curator”]), with digital scholarship, or with composition and rhetoric. Together, these two categories—research and field-specific knowledge—suggest that both the practice and content of research can be valuable to a job candidate in the right position. Foreign language skills did not make as strong an appearance; perhaps because of my own blind spots as an English PhD, I did not actively seek out nonfaculty job ads requiring strong foreign language skills. Even so, foreign language appeared in eight percent of the job ads on this list, which is fairly suggestive, even though the number itself (four ads) is small.
Overall, with a little close reading into the language of the ads, the traditional academic skills make a strong showing in a broad range of job ads. This may not be surprising—after all, most of us have been making the case for the meaningfulness and applicability of a humanities education for some time—but it is pleasant to have added confirmation for this. More unexpected, perhaps, are the possibilities offered by skills that appear relatively frequently in both faculty and nonfaculty job ads but which are not consistently emphasized in academic programs.
The Transferable Skills
I tracked thirteen transferable skills in the data set, which I’ve defined as follows:
- Administration: supervising others, leading programs, and maintaining order and accountability
- Advising: offering mentorship and advice on personal or professional matters, usually in a one-to-one situation with someone less experienced (e.g., a student or an employee)
- Assessment: analyzing data, designing assessment structures, evaluating program effectiveness, and working with outside assessment standards
- Business connections: writing professionally for technical, business, or medical fields; coordinating internships or professional development opportunities
- Digital scholarship: engaging with emerging technological methods for research, including working with data or digital exhibitions
- Digital–social media–Web: writing for the Web or social media, designing for the Web, creating multimedia
- Diverse populations: working with people from diverse backgrounds and experiences; fostering diverse environments
- Educational technology: supporting online, blended, or digital pedagogy; learning and teaching tech tools; using specialized software
- Event planning: organizing talks, conferences, and so on
- Grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting: managing finances, supporting fund-raising efforts, or identifying and obtaining outside sources of funds
- K–12: teaching high school, working with future or current K–12 teachers, or otherwise being involved in secondary education
- Program development: creating new curricula or organizing new initiatives, centers, or departmental structures
- Public engagement: forming connections with the public, including through outreach, public-facing programming, or public service
As mentioned, while this list was created with an awareness of common nonfaculty positions, it originated from the faculty half of the list. Each of these skills is requested routinely enough in assistant professor job ads to make a clear, visible pattern (fig. 2). The data reinforce the idea that these skills are, indeed, transferable; by and large, these transferable skills gain even more currency in the market beyond assistant professor positions. By gaining experience in a field like administration, perhaps through leadership in student organizations or a special teaching assistantship, graduate students can set themselves up to be stronger candidates for an assistant professor job while also widening their options more broadly.
Because of the small size of the data set, it is hard to make broad generalizations, and perhaps it is enough to say that this study strongly suggests that graduate students might find developing these transferable skills useful for a range of job opportunities. All the transferable skills that appear most prominently on the faculty list also appear significantly on the nonfaculty list. There are a few categories that appear in a comparatively small percentage of the academic ads but which might be disproportionately useful to nonfaculty careers (specifically event planning and grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting); my sense is that their broad usefulness still makes them strong subjects to be formally added to graduate programs.
Potential Graduate School Concentrations
When starting this project, I imagined that the data would reveal relatively clear-cut connections between certain sets of skills. However, I did not find this to be the case; while some skills do appear more frequently together, each skill appears at least once with every other skill, and the differences I found in frequency were small enough that they could easily be an accident of the particular data set. A quick network visualization from Google Fusion Tables, built to weigh and place each skill node in terms of how many times it appears in the same ad as the other skills, shows the difficulty in determining which skills are most related (fig. 3).
Instead of relying too much on the network analysis, therefore, I propose the following combinations of skill areas that might be relatively easy to gain together. I do not intend for these to be definitive but offer them as potential starting places for integration into graduate programs. I did run a few statistical tests in SPSS and have noted when these tests revealed a correlation between skills based on how frequently they appeared in the same job ad. (There were a relatively small number of statistically significant correlations.)
On the basis of this logic, I propose the following potential concentrations of skills:
Administrators and Leaders
This concentration prepares future department chairs, program coordinators, and leaders of all fields and develops these skills: administration; advising; grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting. Administration is moderately correlated with both advising and grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting, according to a Pearson bivariate correlation test.
Advisers and Counselors
This concentration prepares those interested in supporting and mentoring students or others and develops these skills: advising; assessment; diverse populations. Advising is linked with assessment, according to a principal component analysis.
Innovators and Technologists
This concentration prepares those interested in pushing the boundaries with technology, particularly in research and the classroom, and develops these skills: digital–social media–Web; digital scholarship; education technology; grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting. Educational technology is moderately correlated with both digital–social media–Web and with grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting, according to a Pearson bivariate correlation test.
Librarians and Museum Curators
This concentration prepares those interested in working with old books and physical objects, whether for archival research or special collections positions, and develops these skills: digital scholarship; event planning; grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting. Grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting is correlated with event planning, according to both a Pearson bivariate correlation test (moderate correlation) and a principal component analysis.
This concentration prepares those interested in scholarly work on writing for the professions, as well as those interested in gaining writing experience outside the academy, and develops these skills: business connections; digital–social media–Web.
This concentration helps people gain experience for outward-facing projects in the humanities, both within and outside a college setting, and develops these skills: event planning; grant writing–fund-raising-budgeting; program development; public engagement. Grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting is correlated with event planning, according to both a Pearson correlation test (moderate correlation) and a principal component analysis. Public engagement is moderately correlated with both grant writing–fund-raising–budgeting and program development, according to a Pearson bivariate correlation test.
Teaching and the High School–to–College Transition
This concentration prepares those who want to help students navigate the transition to college, whether in the context of first-year programs, community colleges, or secondary education institutions, and develops these skills: assessment; diverse populations; K–12.
While concentrations like these already exist in some graduate programs, currently the bulk of the responsibility of preparing students for nonfaculty careers falls primarily on the individual graduate students themselves.9 Trying to prepare for a range of careers in a graduate program not designed for such opportunities is, understandably, a difficult task. A humanities PhD could not expect to immediately step into any of the nonfaculty jobs I have identified without at least some preparation, any more than a seasoned instructor of French could step in one day, with no additional knowledge or preparation, to teach a German class. Entering a position outside the professoriat requires interest, time, and some sort of experience that can be shaped into a convincing story about the candidate’s readiness to take on the position.
However, working for a university (which is, after all, what many graduate students are doing during their studies) could offer ample opportunities to build the experiences needed for both faculty and nonfaculty jobs—if graduate programs are willing to make this type of training a priority. The main obstacles are cultural rather than structural. It will take some reprioritizing for graduate programs to acknowledge, train for, and help graduate students appreciate the full range of humanities labor, much of which has traditionally been invisible or undervalued.10 With these mental shifts in place, preparation for one career need not come at the cost of preparation for another; instead, graduate students could be poised for success across the humanities ecosystem.
1. As Kelly Anne Brown and Rebecca Lippman note in a recent Profession piece, students “identify lack of work experience as one of the most challenging barriers to employment beyond the academy” despite their years of experience, a problem exacerbated by the fact that “academic mentors, administrators, and institutional pressures discourage them from translating their academic activities into a language that attests to the rigorous and varied work they perform while pursuing advanced degrees.”
2. I take the frame of the “humanities ecosystem” from the work of Stacy Hartman and others in the MLA’s Connected Academics program. As identified in Doctoral Student Career Planning: A Guide for PhD Programs and Faculty Members in English and Other Modern Languages, the humanities ecosystem is “a vibrant place, full of interesting organizations and smart, capable people doing important work” in which “the humanities and the value of a humanities PhD are, by and large, already understood” (9–10). The job ads I use in this study (including the assistant professor ones) all come from that ecosystem.
3. Like many, I’m troubled by the lack of a neutral terminology to neatly encompass the wide range of humanities graduate career paths, and my solutions in this piece are imprecise. Some roles in digital scholarship or libraries, which we are accustomed to think of as less traditional roles, are technically tenure-track or tenured faculty positions. My choice of the terms faculty and nonfaculty is meant not to minimize this distinction but to avoid broader inaccuracies created by referring to job ads as academic or nonacademic.
4. The raw data, including the text of the job ads, is available at www.bethseltzer.info/100-job-ads.html.
5. The six jobs I eliminated were chosen at random from my category of jobs that did not pertain to the transferable skills. Since this small data set intends no comprehensiveness—it is only an avenue for comparison—these ads had the least useful information. Elsewhere, I have more comprehensively explored the number of academic ads that contain such skills, across a year of the academic job market. For more information, see Jaschik.
6. My final list of transferable skills is based on what I found in this data set, but it does largely align with and is influenced by my earlier research into a full year of the academic market, which is reported in Jaschik.
7. I did not make a comparable study of these skills in faculty job ads, because research, teaching, and field-specific knowledge presumably apply to all academic jobs, and foreign language to all foreign language jobs.
8. For a particularly useful resource on transferable graduate school skills and other ways that they are discussed, including many of the ones I explore in this project, see Hartman.
9. Two examples of graduate programs that have already embraced similar models are the interactive technology and pedagogy certificate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Lehigh University’s literature and social justice–focused English PhD.
10. A study by the Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group at the University of Oregon notes that the “‘care work’ associated with teaching, mentoring, and advising” is often valued less than the more forward-facing work of administration and grant writing (231). Meanwhile, one Inside Higher Ed commentator argues that “the longer one spends as an alternative academic, the clearer it becomes that most of the work is invisible. Almost all the work of alt-acs is in the service of something beyond their own brands” (Kim).
“Academic Advisor (24552).” Indeed, www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=60190642d20c33c8&tk=1ch8a3q95a1kocq4&from=serp&vjs=3. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.
Brown, Kelly Anne, and Rebecca Lippman. “The Work of the Humanities.” Profession, 6 Dec. 2017, profession.mla.hcommons.org/2017/12/06/the-work-of-the-humanities/.
“Curator of the Western History Collections.” Indeed, www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=3edd6c3bd439a850&tk=1ch8851g5a34pa3b&from=serp&vjs=3. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.
“Digital Humanities Librarian.” Indeed, www.indeed.com/viewjob?jk=0e2348cf611f4ae1&tk=1ch887tc3a34p9l6&from=serp&vjs=3. Accessed 3 Sept. 2018.
Doctoral Student Career Planning: A Guide for PhD Programs and Faculty Members in English and Other Modern Languages from the MLA’s Connected Academics Initiative. Connected Academics, Modern Language Association, May 2017, connect.mla.hcommons.org/doctoral-student-career-planning-a-guide-for-phd-programs-and-faculty-members-in-english-and-other-modern-languages/. PDF download.
Hartman, Stacy. “Resource: Transferable Skills and How to Talk about Them.” Connected Academics, Modern Language Association, 4 Apr. 2016, connect.mla.hcommons.org/resource-transferable-skills-and-how-to-talk-about-them/.
Jaschik, Scott. “The Ph.D. Skill Mismatch.” Inside Higher Ed, 5 Jan. 2018, www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/01/05/study-shows-academic-job-searches-languages-value-alt-ac-skills.
Kim, Joshua. “If It Isn’t Counted, Does It Count?” Inside Higher Ed, 4 Oct. 2017, www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/work-alternative-academics-mostly-invisible.
Social Sciences Feminist Network Research Interest Group. “The Burden of Invisible Work in Academia: Social Inequalities and Time Use in Five University Departments.” Diversity and Social Justice in Higher Education, special issue of Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, vol. 39, 2017, pp. 228–45. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/e90007861.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Beth Seltzer is the educational technology specialist at Bryn Mawr College. She holds a PhD in English literature and was a member of the first MLA Connected Academics Proseminar. She chairs the MLA Committee on Information Technology.