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In my opinion

Promoting alternative career paths for arts PhDs

Humanities PhDs at work in the outside world.


The prevailing conditions of today’s academic job market bring pause. The number of PhDs awarded each year remains high despite comparatively few tenure-track positions. At the same time, university teaching is increasingly performed by contingent faculty for low pay and with little job security. These trends have led to a situation where scholarship and a stable career have become mutually exclusive for many talented, motivated men and women.

Moreover, little guidance about non-academic careers has been offered to doctoral candidates during their education, a point expressed in reports by both HEQCO and the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars/Mitacs. This represents a longstanding failure of Canadian doctoral programs to adapt to current realities.

To counter these trends, what measures can we take to minimize the all-too-common outcome for a newly minted PhD, facing either precarious employment in the academy or a steep, and not always successful, learning curve pursuing opportunities outside the academy? This question is especially pertinent for doctoral students in the Arts.

Growing awareness of the realities facing new PhDs has led to some positive steps. These include professional development workshops and guest talks by alumni who have branched into alternative careers. But when it comes to doctoral programs in the humanities, candidates face a gaping lack of opportunities to gain experience in non-academic careers related to one’s discipline.

Instead, arts programs prepare PhD students almost exclusively for the narrow career path of a university professor. If you decide to negotiate the non-academic job market, you will be at a serious disadvantage without outside work experience. Janice Allen’s recent piece in University Affairs highlights a possible answer in the form of internships. Her experience as a doctoral student in earth sciences shows that such placements can be a powerful means of honing professional skills that will have value in both academic and industrial settings.

Unlike the science disciplines, the arts programs at Canadian universities have not cultivated relationships with outside sectors to their full potential. Moreover, with the expectation that a PhD student will build a strong academic profile through research, teaching and presentations, the notion of devoting time and effort outside these endeavours might be viewed with skepticism by both students and their advisers. With these substantial barriers, can experiential learning with its inherent benefits be reconciled with doctoral education in its traditional form?

Initiatives such as Mitacs internships offer one means of bridging this gap, facilitating connections between academia and industry. However, for those who wish to explore careers that take advantage of their skills, but not necessarily in a research capacity – a capacity that may not even exist in their field outside academe – opportunities through the Mitacs program appear limited.

Nevertheless, it is possible to implement reforms that will result in humanities PhD students being better prepared for a career both in academia and the wider work world.

Working alongside co-op and alumni affairs offices, arts departments can start to build the ties to outside companies and agencies that other disciplines have long enjoyed. Through subsequent partnerships with employers, a form of limited co-op studies for doctoral students can be put into place. Work experience could be incorporated into a doctoral student’s funding package, instead of being tacked on as a separate requirement. By replacing a teaching assistantship with a work placement of roughly the same pay and hours per week, the student can benefit from experiential education in a manner that will not hurt the primary obligation of scholarship and the dissemination of knowledge.

Besides allowing students to explore career options, over time these ties will have significant extra benefits. For arts departments under continual budgetary pressures, agreements that allow outside partners to take on at least part of the student’s stipend during their placement can free up needed funds. Moreover, by demonstrating a good work ethic and their abilities, these students will allay employers’ fears that PhD-holders are unsuited for the workplace. The limited co-op will also be a credit to the disciplines themselves, when graduates with the highest qualifications are actively applying their skills and expertise in a wide range of settings.

In sum, initial steps like these will allow PhD students to graduate from their programs with not only the training necessary to compete for academic positions but also a foundation of skills, experience and confidence that can help carry them into other paths of their choosing. Though significant effort will be needed to put such a system into place, it will be worth the effort if it can align doctoral education in the arts with the challenges of the future. Everything begins with a first step.

Dr. Gies, after completing a PhD in history at the University of Guelph, moved into publishing sales and marketing with University of Toronto Press.


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  1. Kel Pero / November 6, 2013 at 11:59


    I have spoken on a number of occasions, at various Canadian universities, to groups of students pursuing doctorates in both the humanities and social sciences about the myriad things they can do with their tremendous skills and experience. It’s about time we turned the tide against the endless whinging and doom-saying surrounding the pursuit of graduate studies, in the humanities in particular, and started pointing to the very, very valuable experience that such studies give students. And, yes, a big part of that is getting students to look more expansively–and with more confidence–at what they’re learning and the skills they’re acquiring. Not only does a doctorate in history, English, or sociology (to name just three fields) stand to give its holder a broader and deeper understanding of humanity itself–still the primary gift of such a degree–but it also provides experience in everything from time and people management to communications.

    I left the academy after my PhD because I wanted to do other things–I never actually went on an academic job hunt. I didn’t choose the world outside the academy as some sort of sloppy seconds or a consolation prize. I had enjoyed my studies immensely, but I wanted a different life–and when a friend who worked for a placement agency pointed out that I had many wonderful, and marketable, skills of which I was largely unaware, I started to look at my entire graduate history differently.

    Now, after having worked for thirteen years in government and then in the non-profit sector, I run my own business, working as an editor, writer, and researcher. My degree has done me nothing but good along the way.

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