Sharon Marcus

Professor of English and Dean of Humanities at Columbia University

Scenes From the Life of a Graduate Adviser

Full women archery

Image: Archery at Camp Wooden Acres, Photo by Conrad Poirier (via Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

As doctoral programs begin training this year’s new cohort of graduate students, every faculty adviser should already be thinking about how to prepare them for the job market — and not just the faculty slice of that market.

In fact, we should all stop referring to the “academic” market and the “nonacademic” market and start calling it what it is: “the job market.” For decades, about 40 percent of Ph.D.s have ended up in careers outside postsecondary education. Yet most professors only know how to advise the other 60 percent. Since we cannot predict early on which students will end up in a nonfaculty career, we need to assume that all of them might.

My own ideas on how to advise graduate students about their employment prospects have changed a lot over the years. I first began to think about these issues in 1993 when, in my seventh year of graduate school, I applied for tenure-track jobs for the first time. I had been worrying about that moment ever since I had told my parents that I was choosing a graduate program in comparative literature over medical school. It would be putting it mildly to say that they had strongly discouraged me. Actually, what they said was: A doctorate in literature is less useful than a piece of toilet paper.

I knew they were right to be worried. Every application I mailed out inspired new anxieties about unemployment. My fears had one salutary effect: I came up with some alternative career plans. My two favorite ideas were that I might work in a daycare center, or find a job at a publishing house or a magazine. I mentioned those options to one of my professors, who was supportive but had little practical advice. Looking back on that moment — when I didn't yet know that my academic story would have a happy ending — two things stand out: first, how unambitious and haphazard my thoughts about the wider job market were; second, that it never crossed my mind, or my adviser's, to send me to the campus career center.

Back then, I felt that I could ask my advisers for help in getting an academic job, but if that didn't work out, I was on my own and would have to slink off in shame to lick my wounds in private. Instead of treating my thoughts about other work possibilities as a sign that I was in touch with reality, I turned them into a deep, dark secret.

The daycare idea was mostly a fantasy. What strikes me now is that when I thought about working as an educator outside a university setting, I aimed as low as I could possibly imagine. My interest in publishing and book reviewing made more sense, given my area of study, but my strategy for pursuing it remained hazy. A career counselor probably would have encouraged me to think about teaching high school for a year, or helped me craft a résumé to send to publishers.

In the end, I was one of the lucky ones. It was a good year in my field, and I was offered a great academic job. Nonetheless, in reflecting on how I thought about my options, I would extract two lessons for faculty members who advise graduate students:

Lesson No. 1: Encourage all of your doctoral students to think about careers outside the professoriate.

Lesson No. 2: Encourage them to aim as high in other career paths as they have aimed in their academic one.

The story I'm telling is a progress narrative about how my thinking about the job market for humanities Ph.D.s has evolved. Like many protagonists in such narratives, I had nowhere to go but up. Flash forward to my second or third year as an assistant professor when I was beginning to work with graduate students. One of them — I'll call him “Jed” — seemed different from the others, in ways both positive and negative. He wrote easily and quickly, wasn't too concerned about his committee's suggestions for revision, and seemed intent on finishing as soon as possible. Other things about him were different, too: He had children, and a job with a software company.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so surprised when Jed told me that after finishing his dissertation he would be taking a full-time job with the software company. He seemed a bit worried that I would think he was selling out. In fact I was supportive, because I respected the world outside academia, but also, I must confess, because I didn't think he was that good at being an academic. With hindsight, I can see that I wrongly assumed back then that jobs outside academia were second-best choices for second-best students.

If I could go back in time and counsel my younger self on how to be a better graduate-student adviser, here are some other lessons I would offer:

Lesson No. 3: Career paths outside academia are as demanding, exciting, and rewarding as academic ones.

Somewhere around my sixth or seventh year of teaching, I had a very different experience with a graduate student I'll call “Liz,” an academic star who came to us decked with prizes from her Ivy League undergraduate institution. Liz wrote great seminar papers, sailed through her exams, and was making slow-but-steady progress on a very good dissertation topic. When I visited her discussion sections, I also saw that she had the makings of an excellent teacher. For all of those reasons, I felt some disappointment when, with only two chapters of her dissertation completed, Liz told me that she was thinking of applying to law school.

"Why are you thinking about leaving academia?" I asked.

"I've come to realize that I don't really like teaching," Liz answered. "And this summer I've been working for a public interest law firm and I like putting my energy into something that makes a concrete difference in the world."

Who could argue with that kind of clarity, self-knowledge, and common sense? I told Liz I supported whatever decision she made but that I strongly encouraged her to finish her dissertation. To my relief, she said that was her plan.

What I learned from that experience was that just because Liz was a great graduate student didn't mean that an academic career would satisfy her. And that brings me to:

Lesson No. 4: Being good at something is not sufficient reason to devote your life to it.

The next story I have to tell was not as happy, although it was instructive. “Jo” struggled every step of the way in graduate school. She had trouble coming up with ideas and then had trouble executing them; she missed deadlines, ignored feedback, and had a lot of personal issues. It was not surprising that, even after several years of sending out applications, she did not have an academic job. Jo thought about going to law school, but that seemed like a default decision, and her LSAT scores were too low for the top institutions on which she’d set her sights.

In retrospect I wish I had encouraged Jo to work with a career counselor who could have helped her to think more imaginatively about her options and to identify the obstacles blocking her way. In other words, I wish I'd been quicker to grasp:

Lesson No. 5: Someone who is having trouble succeeding in academia may also have trouble succeeding outside academia.

At this point you may be wondering at my naïveté, but I don't think I'm alone in my cluelessness about life outside the ivory tower. Academia, like any profession, rewards specialization. Successful academics tend to know a lot about their own line of work and very little about what it takes to enter or succeed in other arenas.

The last story I'll tell concerns “Steve,” who was not one of my advisees but a friend. After finishing a postdoc with no full-time job in sight, Steve began to think about doing something else. My graduate students had announced their career decisions once they were final; this time, I witnessed the process unfold. I saw how each new academic job listing gave Steve new hope, new applications, and new disappointment. I saw how confusing it was to contemplate an entirely new identity in which the knowledge one had spent years acquiring might initially seem worthless. I saw how daunting it was to share this process with advisers.

Feeling at sea, Steve began to spend a lot of time playing bridge online. He had always thought of himself as a humanities person, but soon learned that he was also very good at math, logic, and problem solving and had a great head for arcane, complicated rules. In fact, he had already been using those skills as a literary critic working with poetry written in a dead language, but because humanists tend to see numeracy and literacy as incompatible, he had, too.

At some point Steve tore himself away from acquiring master points on his online bridge forum and began to meet regularly with a career counselor. I listened, fascinated, as he described those sessions. The counselor helped Steve identify what he did and did not like about academic work. He liked teaching and working with people, and had never relished the isolation that most humanities research requires. He discovered that he was happiest getting immediate and positive feedback — a recipe for misery in academia, where the more professors like something, the more they criticize it.

All of which brought me to a realization I should have had much earlier:

Lesson No. 6: Always send doctoral students to the career center when they begin their academic job search.

To the lessons above, we can add some concrete practices. Encourage graduate students to acquire work experience outside the academy. Organize talks and workshops on diverse career paths for Ph.D.s (and make sure those events include free pizza). Keep track of former students who now have successful careers in law, consulting, museum work, educational testing, administration, and advising. Mention those options to students the first time they go on the job market, not the third.

As we look to the future, the most important step we can take is to develop closer cooperation between the faculty who run doctoral programs and the professionals who run campus career centers.

There's a Japanese saying: "Mochi wa, mochiya." It means: If you want rice cakes, go to the rice cake dealer. By the same token, if you want your students to get the best possible career advice, send them to the career center. Academics are great autodidacts, but helping our students to succeed in a job market that most of us never entered ourselves is one rice cake we are not going to be able to make on our own.

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