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Career Paths beyond the Academy

Christopher Barthel

My path to a career beyond a traditional tenure-track faculty position was not one that I had planned while working to finish my PhD. At that time I did not think I had the spare capacity to begin developing other skills and professional experience, nor was the pursuit of a non-academic career a clear priority for me. I defended my dissertation in the summer of 2010, and then taught the following academic year while applying for postdoctoral and tenure-track faculty positions. For a number of reasons – including the desire to find work in the city where my spouse had already established a successful career – I began looking at non-academic jobs.

I had given talks to high school teachers and gallery educators at a local museum and those experiences led me to a position at the museum administering a fellowship program. During this time, I also tutored at a college writing center. I kept an eye out for academic positions but made the decision not to take on adjunct teaching that would interfere with the acquisition of other skills and experience. I had not entirely abandoned the search for a tenure-track faculty position, but I was enjoying my work and calculated that continuing it would increase the odds of starting a new career in the city in which I wanted to live. I agonized over the decision at times, though it was certainly made easier by the grim state of the academic job market and my reluctance to ask my wife to uproot her life so that I could pursue a permanent academic position.

By no means did I always feel certain that my work experience was leading in a productive direction, but after a year and a half of non-academic work, I successfully applied for an American Council of Learned Societies Public Fellows position at the Center for Jewish History. As Senior Manager for Academic and Public Programs, I manage the Center's fellowship program and develop public programs and exhibits. My prior experience managing a fellowship program was undoubtedly an important factor in my hiring, as was my academic focus, which was related to an upcoming initiative the Center was planning.

Every PhD seeking a non-academic career will have to find her/his own way. I would offer the following observations:

»  Doctoral programs prepare students for careers as scholars. One develops lots of widely applicable skills along the way but there is no getting around the fact that most non-academic positions will require additional experience. Sometimes experience simply helps to overcome stereotypes of academic work habits and predilections, and other times it adds valuable skills. I suspect that non-academic work experience can be decisive even in a program like the ACLS Public Fellows competition that is open only to recent humanities PhDs.

»  Experience that will help in the non-academic job search can be acquired in lots of ways, and not necessarily at great cost. Short-term, part-time, or even volunteer positions that might be irrelevant to an academic CV could be an important component of a recent PhD's resume.

»  It's okay to feel uncertain about the trajectory of your new non-academic career. Deciding to pursue non-academic work means negotiating an even greater range of possible careers, and setting out in one direction does not indicate a lifetime commitment. It can be helpful to have some time away from graduate school before committing fully to a new profession, particularly if additional education is required. In any case, it may well take several years before you feel that you're established in a new field and this feeling can be a difficult one to wrestle with after completing a degree that provides the skills and experience necessary to become a scholar.

»  Your goals and priorities may diverge from the expectations of your doctoral advisor and committee members. It may be unrealistic to expect a scholar at an elite research institution to fully grasp the current state of the academic job market, or to understand your desire/need to seek non-academic work. If this turns out to be the case, try not to feel guilty about reaching the decisions that make the most sense to you.

»  There are no authorities on the non-academic job search but many people will have at least a helpful detail or two to share, and one never knows where a conversation will lead. Never forget that people tend to enjoy talking about themselves and their work.

At this stage of my career I still have plenty of questions about where the next five to ten years will lead me but I no longer feel the same degree of uncertainty I experienced upon completing the PhD. My transition to a non-academic career would have been easier if I'd prepared for it while still in graduate school but in that case I might never have finished my dissertation. If you're interested and able to find time to gain non-academic experience while in graduate school, it will be an asset down the road. If not, it may take a bit more time but the skills honed in graduate school will ultimately be valuable. Thankfully, the number of resources for PhDs seeking non-academic work has increased in the past few years. Identifying fields that are of interest and speaking to people who are already working in them – both those who have PhDs and those who do not – would be a good place to start.

Christopher Barthel is senior manager for academic and public programs at the Center for Jewish History