What should I be when I grow up? (Post-PhD edition)
September 21, 2014 12:59 PM   Subscribe

Now that I've finally figured out that "tenure-track professor in the humanities" isn't actually a real job that exists in 2014, I'd appreciate help figuring out what job possibilities might be a good match for my strengths, weaknesses, and priorities.

I am a woman in my late 20s, and I am beginning what I hope will be my last year of my PhD in the humanities. The process has clarified for me that I almost certainly don't want to go into academia (or, it has clarified for me that my advisor was the last generation for which a tenure-track humanities academic job actually existed - one or the other…). I have spent much of the past year coming to grips with leaving academia, and in recent months I have been trying to brainstorm specific alternate career paths. There is one that I am very much leaning towards, but before making the jump, I wanted to crowdsource other possibilities that I might not have thought of. I thought I would lay out my personal strengths and weaknesses, as I see them and in no particular order (and likely I have forgotten to add significant things), and then I thought I would list, also in no particular order, my priorities for a job/career.


1. I read extremely quickly, am able quickly to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of an argument that I am reading, and I write quickly and well.

2. I am generally good at insightful analysis, and I love grappling with the various factors of a situation and the challenge of drawing a best-fit line and an argument/recommendation that justifies it.

2. I am an extrovert, and I enjoy working with people and I am good at it. I have heard from several people independently that people intuitively like and trust me very quickly upon meeting me. I have done some teaching, and have received positive feedback from my students, especially in terms of my role in facilitating seminar discussion. I am used to working on my own (being a PhD student in the humanities), but I believe I could work well as part of a team, especially if everyone on the team had clearly defined complementary areas of work.

3. I am generally confident (not cocky, but confident), and I feel comfortable navigating new situations. I have spent time living abroad, and I enjoy interacting with people who are culturally etc. unlike me, and I do not find this threatening.

4. I am generally able to avoid taking criticism personally.

5. I have a good memory.

5. I generally am able to remain calm in emergencies and other high-pressure situations.

6. I think I generally am able to see both big-picture and detail in a given situation (maybe through all of my historian training).

7. I have been in a couple mostly-male boys'-club environments, and I handled it well. I wouldn't mind going into a career that were either dominated by men or had a testosterone-driven feel to it.

8. My dissertation is in modern history, and is a topic that intersects with policy, law, religion, etc. I'm not sure whether this has any relevance outside the academic world.

9. I have multiple degrees (undergraduate and graduate) from what are generally considered to be among the most famous/prestigious universities in the world. I have gotten excellent grades in all of my degrees. I have won a variety of scholarships, fellowships, academic prizes, grants, etc.

10. I am an American citizen, so I have the right to work in the US, and English is my native language.


1. I want a job that involves working with people, ideally in a way that makes me feel like I am impacting those people's lives for the good. One of the most difficult parts of my PhD has been the loneliness and isolation, which has really depressed me. Although I loved undergrad and master's, I realized during my PhD that I definitely don't enjoy sitting in a library reading for 8 hours a day and then going home to write by myself for another 5.

2. I have a general intolerance of piles of paperwork and bureaucracy (although I can deal with it if need be).

3. Along with that, I have a low tolerance for boredom (although I can deal with it if need be).

4. I have been so focused on academia that I have not held any internships, and I don't have any other connections to the "real world". My degrees are all in the humanities.

5. I like having some degree of autonomy and agency in my work, and I don't simply want to be a company's yesman/propaganda artist.

6. I do not know any modern foreign languages to the degree of verbal fluency that one would need to know them in order to work in them. I also do not hold citizenship or work permits in any other country besides the US.

7. I do not yet have any publications, although it is not impossible I will have one or two in a year's time.


1. Having been burned in academia, I have zero interest entering a field where the jobs are scarce and unstable, especially if this involves taking on debt and/or more schooling to do so. I want a job that is grown-up, stable, and can provide a home for me for a long while.

2. As I mentioned above, I am looking for a job ideally where I get to work with people (ideally in a way that leaves me with confidence that I am impacting those people's lives for the good, and/or maybe involving collegial teamwork).

3. Really important to me is a job that I find interesting. It doesn't necessarily have to be interesting in an academic/intellectual way, but it needs to have new problems, and space for my analysis. I would prefer something too with a fair amount of interesting new things, and as little mundane and bureaucratic as possible.

4. I also want a job where I can exercise judgement and agency.

5. Also important to me is that the job is well-paying. This was not at all important to me five years ago, but it has really grown in importance as I have remained broke and have watched friends be able to afford to get married, buy apartments, start a family, etc. I will be starting all of this eight or so years behind everyone, and I would really like to be able to afford to do all of these things in the next few years. Also, I have been having an extremely allergic reaction to the DWYL ideology, and I have reached the point where I believe I should be decently compensated for my labor - in actual money, rather than in prestige, degrees, free pizza, warm fluffy feels of altruism, or any other denominations of counterfeit currency grad students are paid in.

I'm sure I have missed some key things above, and I am happy to clarify anything in the comments. I'd love anyone to weigh in on what careers they think might be a good fit. I'd also love to hear from anyone who has ideas about what careers *wouldn't* be a good fit, as narrowing things down would be helpful too. Are there any jobs where a humanities PhD would be an asset? I would be willing to go back to school if need be, but wouldn't want to do it unless I were virtually certain that there would be a good job waiting at the end of it. And just to clarify, I have less than zero interest in adjuncting, and I am also very disinclined at this point to sink 3-5 years more in postdocs and VAPs and the like, all for a shot at rolling the dice at a tenure-track job half a decade down the line. My preferred plan would be to exit academia immediately post-PhD, and start investing in something more stable (or at least, more well-paying).
posted by ClaireBear to Work & Money (26 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Do you read Professor Is In? There is a lot on alternative careers there.
posted by k8t at 1:10 PM on September 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

First, I think you're making a smart decision and have many great options! I know of a few PhDs who ended up working for the federal government. I can't speak to specific agencies or positions but here's the official hiring website for starters, and other MeFites can surely give you more pointed suggestions. Those PhD friends mentioned being very happy with their work, pay, and benefits; the few who switched into the private sector found the transition easy due to their experience and education.
posted by smorgasbord at 1:17 PM on September 21, 2014

Response by poster: I *love* Karen Kelsky! I have been reading her site religiously since I found it over a year ago, and it really helped me clarify my resolve to leave the academy. I have read a bunch of the stuff on there on alternative careers, and found it really helpful. I was actually thinking of potentially booking a few sessions with her when I can scrape together enough money, but hopefully Metafilter will stand in for now… :-)
posted by ClaireBear at 1:21 PM on September 21, 2014

Following up on Smorgasbord, I was surprised a few years ago to find out how many US government agencies hire contract historians to document their history. They are usually fairly short contracts (2-3 years) but they might be a good way to get experience outside academe, while using your new Ph.D. as a credential.

The #alt-ac site is worth perusing, too.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:22 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Whoops, meant to link here.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:24 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Consider the U.S. Foreign Service.
posted by eugenen at 1:24 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a management consultant, I suspect that while PhDs are always in demand, you might need at least some grounding in business or economics or data science for that to be a likely path.

That said, if "modern history" means "geopolitics", there are specialty consulting groups that focus on assessing global risks (eg, what the business implications are for companies operating in Ukraine right now). That would give some of the benefits of working for the State Dept. but with less bureaucracy and better pay, and would be right in line with your skill set.
posted by tau_ceti at 1:50 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about teaching public school? You'd have to deal with some paperwork and you'd probably want to look at salaries.
posted by alphanerd at 1:52 PM on September 21, 2014

Think tanks like CSIS and the Carnegie Endowment might be places to look.

But basically, your resume of advanced degrees at prestigious colleges says, "management consultant." They hire people who are smart and have advanced degrees from prestigious universities because those are the kind of people they want interacting with clients.
posted by deanc at 2:06 PM on September 21, 2014

Everything about your personality description is telling me you would be fantastic in sales. Sales is so broad, but keep in mind you could be selling software, or cars, or solar panels for huge buildings, or anything that requires a contract negotiated between two entities. Sales people work in cubicles and from airplanes, and are in the field a lot. Some don't have a real cubicle office because they are home or in the field and don't have much of a boss. Good sales people are very smart and others trust them. You probably fit in this category. Find a fascinating industry and talk to the people that do the sales. Also talk to everyday people in your area that do sales. Take a car test drive with the express reason of asking the sales person about the job. (Go to an expensive dealer and make sure it's someone that is successful in the job.)
Bad sales people don't last more than a year or two, and they hate the job. Good sales people make huge salaries and get promoted quickly. You will know quickly if it's a good fit.

Or perhaps as a lobbyist, but the pay isn't always good.
posted by littlewater at 2:28 PM on September 21, 2014

Management consultancies such as McKinsey do hire Ph.D.'s, and they have a separate application process for them. I am most familiar with the process at McKinsey, having participated in their Insight Science & Engineering summer program in the past. The impression I got was they expected people to have quantitative skills. APD candidates (what they call Ph.D. and postdoc candidates) have to take a problem solving test as part of the first round interview process, which tests "data interpretation and critical numerical reasoning." It's different from a math skills test, and I've known people from fields like biostatistics or engineering who failed it.

So if you are interested in management consulting this is something to keep in mind, seconding tau_ceti's comment above. I suggest arranging informational interviews with alumni from the prestigious universities you have attended - I think in most schools you can arrange this through the alumni office. They might have more specific advice, or suggest careers you hadn't thought of.
posted by research monkey at 2:55 PM on September 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I wonder what particular humanity your degree is in, and I wonder why you didn't say.

Anyway, when you consider gov't jobs, don't overlook the CIA.

I suppose if you felt a call to the ordained clergy, you would have mentioned that, too.

I also think you might look into philanthropic organizations and other non-profits. There is huge variety; there are not all trying to feed the needy. My daughter worked for one that promoted transfer of leadership skills from one generation to the next.
posted by SemiSalt at 4:16 PM on September 21, 2014

Seconding the U.S. Foreign Service. It fits your profile/wants very closely.
posted by whitewall at 4:27 PM on September 21, 2014

the last generation for which a tenure-track humanities academic job actually existed

Gonna go all Devil's Advocate here:

This is very exaggerated thinking. It's fine to decide it's not for you or to honestly assess your odds against more ambitious or productive colleagues or those from better programs. But any professional career you choose, including all those discussed above, will be competitive and somewhat insecure at levels where your PhD is a credential of value (and sorry, McKinsey is not hiring humanities PhDs with no quant skills, for their soul killing paper chase).

In my humanities field it's looking to be an excellent year in the job market for TT aPs. Simply totalizing the field as a whole as an impossible charade is the inverse of looking at other options through rose colored glasses.

You should consider all your options. They are not mutually exclusive. But you just spent 5-7 years preparing mostly for an academic career. Don't just believe all the doom and gloomer bullshit, unless you know you are simply not competitive. Why would you have continued to a phd in history if you didn't hope to teach?
posted by spitbull at 5:38 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Touche, spitbull. I appreciate the pushback, and it's certainly possible that I've overdosed on Rebecca Schuman and William Pannapacker of late. That said, in my field, I really don't believe things are at all as rosy as you're painting it. This weekend, I just flicked through the last mailing from the American Historical Association with the job stats, and it confirms everything that I have read elsewhere about the future of the academic job market in my field. It seems clear to me that the academic job market in History - which has been extremely competitive for decades (with a few anomalous years) - really went off a cliff in 2008 or so and doesn't seem poised for a recovery anytime soon (the number of academic jobs posted last year went *down*, even as the number graduating from History PhD programs went up). It seems probable to me that the problem isn't simply situational (i.e. with regard to the recession), or even a normal ebb and flow, but signals the acceleration of major permanent structural changes that have been going on for a while (adjunctification of the academy, primarily). To quote the AHA magazine (who, frankly, have every incentive to make the situation look rosier than it is, not bleaker):

"The number of positions advertised with the AHA during academic year 2013-2014 was 7 percent lower than it was in 2012-2013. This is the second year in a row that the number of jobs has fallen. The 2013-2014 total of 638 is still higher than the nadir of 569 jobs reached in 2009-2010, but is still far from the pre-recession peak of 1064 positions advertised in 2007-2008. This decline is especially disconcerting when we consider that the overall economy has been improving and the US jobless rate declining. It raises the possibility that this downturn in academic positions for historians is not entirely attributable to the recession, but may be with us for some time… We clearly cannot be sanguine about the possibility that a recovery in the academic job market for historians will closely follow the US job market in general. Even if the academic job market returns to what it was before the recession, the last two years suggest that it will be a bumpy ride back up." (Mikaelian, pp. 14-15, "Perspectives on History")

I was at a conference a few months ago - one that was very competitive for grad students to get a spot to speak. All that all of the other grads there were talking about was how they had just been on the market and didn't get offered a single tenure-track job (and these were people finishing up at places like Harvard, with publications and various other honors). Virtually all of us were fairly convinced that we wouldn't land a permanent position, and a number of us (maybe half) were talking about getting out of academia entirely, with several of the most ambitious having already begun to make concrete plans (taken the LSAT, started networking with the administration to try for an academic admin job, started volunteering at a non-profit, etc.). I don't know a single person who has landed a tenure-track job in my subject. I do know several people who have gotten VAP positions - in which the universities have proceeded to dangle the carrot of a possible permanent position opening up, which was used to extract extra (unpaid) labor from these people, only for them to be dropped at the end of the year. Also, it seems that the evolution of such an extreme buyers' market has created an exploitative situation where colleges hiring a tenure-track Assistant Professor can essentially set all the terms (that incident this past spring that went viral - the one where Nazareth rescinded their offer to "W" when she tried to negotiate - being a case in point). I guess other humanities fields may be faring better (one can only hope), and perhaps yours is one of them.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:08 PM on September 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all for your ideas - lots of food for thought! This is what makes AskMetafilter so awesome - thank you!

One follow-up question (which perhaps should be next week's question). I am intrigued by the recommendations to look at management consultancy. Are there firms that are not so heavily quant-/science-/business-focused in their hiring preferences? Tau_ceti mentioned a particular specialty consulting niche. How would I learn about what other potentially-relevant niche consulting there might be? The suggestion to speak with my careers office and also alumni is a good one, but for a variety of unusual circumstances this is not going to be possible for me (starting with the fact that for most of this year I am far away on fieldwork research, and various other complicating factors).
posted by ClaireBear at 7:31 PM on September 21, 2014

I'd rather dig ditches than work in management consulting. I've known a few PHDs who did that and hated their work lives as a result. You make a lot of money to be a machine who thinks about how to screw other workers over ever more perniciously.

Again, not that it's really any easier to get a job in consulting than in teaching with a relatively un-sizzling research topic for your dissertation and no significant quant skills, just saying for truth.

Be careful to check the actual color of the grass on the other side.

I'm going to bet, by the way, that "only" 638 jobs somewhat exceeds the number of new PHDs coming annually out of *top tier* (usually top 20) programs (and I'll bet the total number of PhDs in history is about twice that). This is why it matters where you go to grad school, for future readers of this AskMe.

It is simply not true however that there are no more decent teaching jobs in the humanities. It's a panic, which is great for the students who do tough it out as others face the reality: you must do the PhD in a fully funded top tier program, and you must choose your research area strategically from the start. If so, your odds are simply not hopeless, even if it is still very competitive.

We need to shrink the enterprise. We don't need 1000 new history PhDs a year. But we still need college history teachers. Apparently about 638 this year.

Your best bet, in my opinion, is to develop your tech skills. The academic jobs of the future demand digital fluency. So do most alt.ac career paths.
posted by spitbull at 1:05 AM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also, publish. You cannot compete in the TT job market with no publications as a fresh ink PhD any longer.

(Or learn Chinese, and there are huge opportunities in the modern academy.)

By the way, piles of paperwork and bureaucracy will characterize any career for which your degree is a credential. Certainly management consulting is all about generating paper and billable hours.
posted by spitbull at 1:12 AM on September 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

There's a nice list of resources for non-academic career seekers at the Academic Jobs Wikia, including Beyond Academe, which is for historians and has a decent FAQ that may help you think through a few other ideas.
posted by BlooPen at 5:35 AM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Take a look at Versatile Ph.D. - among other things they host Q&A sessions with Ph.D.'s working outside of academia.

This week, they're hosting panel discussions on "Subject Matter Consulting":
Versatile PhD will hold two simultaneous panel discussions on “Subject Matter Consulting” – humanities and social science specialists in the Humanities forum, scientists and engineers in the STEM forum. Panelists are all PhD or ABD with significant experience as subject matter consultants, either as independents, as employees of consulting firms, or as internal consultants within an organization.

There's a good chance your university might already be a subscriber, in which case you log in by clicking on your university's link on the front page, and then setting up an account. This way you get access to all the premium content.
posted by research monkey at 6:09 AM on September 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I agree with some of your points above, spit bull, and I appreciate your healthy challenging of what I'm saying. My sense is that my particular topic is quite hot (it has proven pretty electric at conferences, and big scholars in my field have gotten excited when I have talked to them about it, and said that they couldn't believe no one had written on it before); my sense is that, given this, and with a publication or two (or three), I might reasonably be as marketable as the next PhD-from-an-elite-school. It's just difficult for anyone to know their odds in advance. I guess my big issue is that I really would want to know that I will actually be a history professor at the end, before investing yet more prime years into academia. I would be willing to go through the postdoc/VAP slog for 3 or 5 or however many years, if I were confident of eventually landing something. If academia were structured like medicine, where the bottleneck is at admissions and virtually anyone actually matriculating at an American medical school is guaranteed to be a doctor (although there is a lot to slog through before you do - science, rotations, residency, etc.), then I would be having a different reaction. But I'm way too risk-averse to be willing to gamble maybe up to half a decade more of my life just for the chance to to roll the dice at a tenure-track job: there is a non-zero chance that I'd end up washed up, 35, and in a similar position to the one I'm in now. It seems like a hugely unreasonable position to put people in, to ask them to risk this. I couldn't agree more with you that we need to shrink the enterprise and admit fewer History PhD students, and it seems to me cruel to have young people waste 10-15 years, only for, what, over half to be draw the short straw of joblessness at the end of it (at which point they're so invested in the system that they remain at the margins, adjuncting, and perpetuating the whole rotten labor system).

For the record, the one career that I have been strongly leaning towards (the career I mentioned in my question but didn't specify) is medicine, which, if I could manage to get in and make it through all the science, would I think be an excellent fit. I've done about 150 hours of shadowing and volunteering over the past six months or so. Obviously it's a long an expensive path, and I wish I had set on it earlier rather than spending my 20s chasing butterflies, but that's how it goes I guess. However if I can't get in, I have been toying with the idea of management consultancy.
posted by ClaireBear at 6:17 AM on September 22, 2014

several of the most ambitious having already begun to make concrete plans (taken the LSAT)

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Don't do this.
posted by snuffleupagus at 6:57 AM on September 22, 2014

If you want to impact people's lives in a positive way, management consultancy is probably not the way to go.

There are a lot of great careers in medicine that aren't M.D.s. Do you have any basic science under your belt (physics, chem, bio)? Nursing, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, speech pathology. I know a lot of humanities folks in speech path. You'd probably have to do some more undergraduate level courses to cover your pre-reqs, but - you'd get to work with people, profoundly change people's lives everyday, you get paid pretty well and you'd never be out of a job.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:06 AM on September 22, 2014

You should be an entrepreneur. Come up with a business idea, make a plan, get investors, etc.

Tha job market is still pretty rediculous and unless you have connections, I'd bet the most likely outcome of a job search for you would be some kind of admin or executive assistant, which isn't inherently bad, but i get a sense that you would feel like that type of work is not making use of your talents / underpaying you/ boring, because it is all of those things, all while having very little agency, especially if you work in some corporate grind house.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:24 PM on September 22, 2014

Response by poster: I really appreciate all of your thoughts and ideas, folks. Lots of good things to think about here - thank you!
posted by ClaireBear at 5:16 PM on September 22, 2014

For the record, the one career that I have been strongly leaning towards (the career I mentioned in my question but didn't specify) is medicine, which, if I could manage to get in and make it through all the science, would I think be an excellent fit. I've done about 150 hours of shadowing and volunteering over the past six months or so. Obviously it's a long an expensive path, and I wish I had set on it earlier rather than spending my 20s chasing butterflies, but that's how it goes I guess.

The daughter of a family friend was working on a Ph.D. in philosophy and one day walked into her advisor's office, told her advisor she was quitting, and went on to go to med school and is now a psychiatrist. It worked out well for her. Med school is a lot harder to get into now than it was back in the 90s and early 00s, but, as an old gf of mine once said, it's a blue chip investment. Also more personally fulfilling than management consulting.

Then again, you might as well apply for some of those TT positions while you're at it.
posted by deanc at 8:12 PM on September 22, 2014

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