is there a job for humanities PhD?
December 14, 2016 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Let me admit first that I am a jobless humanities PhD (media studies). So this question has a very practical side to it. On the other hand, I think I am not the only one who has this problem. And I still hold the belief that there are ways to deal with the problem more than "don't give up" and "try everything you can".

If you are a humanities PhD and have secured a job please could you share your thoughts on how you deal with the situation.
If you have seen a humanities PhD hired in your company please share what you know about it.
Or if you have some ideas that you think would work.

Oh let me clarify one thing: "job" here means non-academic job. We are talking about a Kafkaesque situation that you are vastly over-qualified and under-experienced, that the hiring company doesn't want to take any risk in hiring someone who has not done exactly what they need but you think you can do the job.
One more personal note: I have a BS in computer science long time ago and I am interested in doing something related to education-technology. So there might be something specific for me.
posted by dliang to Education (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm ABD in philosophy, with a BA in the Humanities, and I work as a software developer. If you have programming chops and apply to enough places, you'll get interviews. With a BS in CS, you'll probably have better luck than I did (it took about 8 months for me to secure this position and I've been struggling to find a better one. But part of that is probably where I live).
posted by dis_integration at 9:44 AM on December 14, 2016

I don't know if by 'non-academic' you mean you don't want any sort of teaching job, but my high school had a couple of 'lateral entry' teachers who began teaching after having other careers.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:47 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is definitely a job for you. Can you get / do you have a subscription to Versatile PhD? There is a whole section with narratives by former humanities PhDs who have jobs in "e-learning and instructional design" (try those as keywords). Also check out Chronicle Vitae, Beyond Academia, The Professor is In (she has "out-ac" advising services you can purchase), search around for "alt-ac"/"post-ac" articles and blogs. Once you start reading up you will see that there are tons of humanities PhDs who successfully find jobs outside academia (and you, with your CS BA, sound particularly well-situated!). The hard part is figuring out how to translate your skills and experience for non-academic jobs; this is legitimately difficult, because you are entering a new field with its own terms, norms, and expectations. But it is not impossible. A service like The Professor Is In can help you figure it out.
posted by Owl of Athena at 10:11 AM on December 14, 2016 [11 favorites]

Media is media. Everyone uses media. The demand for content for cable and the internet is huge, and a lot of what is out there is bad. Ad agencies do media. Political campaigns use media. Media companies do media. And web development IS media.

You asked for examples. My daughter was a combined philosophy and math major. She signed up with a temp agency. They got her a nominal job at a brokerage firm. The firm eventually hired and promoted her.

A big problem for PhDs is that they tend to have blinders on. Their academic program focuses the attention on a tiny part of a big field. The think of finding a job that uses some skill they learned as part of the research, but economy will pay them more for insightful application of what they learned in media 101.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:36 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you considered teaching? A friend of mine has a film degree and teaches film, theatre, and public speaking to high school students in a smallish city in a relatively remote US state. (Not talking about a huge urban school system with a ton of resources, here.) I believe she only has an undergrad degree in film studies, too.

I have other friends with arts and humanities degrees that have a similar career path. One strictly focuses on teaching speech and debate after getting a music B.A. and a masters in education, and another two who teach history and theatre at the high school level after getting history and theatre PhDs, respectively.
posted by Sara C. at 11:25 AM on December 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

Do you have experience doing ethnography or interview-based research? If so, social networking companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, maybe LinkedIn, etc love to hire Communications and Media Studies PhDs as qualitative user experience researchers. This role involves studying how people communicate for the purpose of helping the product teams build better communications solutions.
posted by joan_holloway at 11:27 AM on December 14, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding all the tips Owl of Athena gave.

For someone in media studies with a CS background--have you looked into jobs in human computer interaction or UX design? While that field seems to have settled down a little into defined certification or qualification tracks, my impression is that it has historically been quite open to academics, especially if their research is empirical (qualitative or quantitative). I'm thinking of the work of people like Genevieve Bell at Intel, but I know of people who've been hired to do basic or applied sociocultural research at Facebook and Microsoft Research as well as less obvious places like Ricoh or Intuit.

A few of the people I know who seem to straddle academia and industry and do qualitative information studies/communication research (close enough to media studies? Depending on what you did?) talk about going to conferences like CHI or CSCW. If this sort of work sounds relevant to your experience or interests, maybe you should check out what companies send researchers to present at these events and investigate internships or job opportunities with them.
posted by col_pogo at 11:28 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

My department would definitely hire you (I mean, assuming your interviews went well, etc...).

I'm an instructional technologist at a university. This is not as sexy as it sounds--definitely not as sexy as HCI or UX, to be sure. But if you just need to pay some bills and get some work experience, universities and colleges have opportunities for people who are competent with computers, know their way around academic power structures and don't immediately piss off faculty upon contact. (The combo of stereotypical IT Guy + stereotypical Academic is, as you can imagine, sometimes not a great one and academic technology departments that aren't completely dysfunctional and desperate should keep their eye on that kind of culture fit ball.) The fact that you went through the academic meatgrinder for so long could be a benefit for a certain type of job that actually requires you to know what is what at an academic institution.
posted by soren_lorensen at 11:40 AM on December 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

Anne Helen Petersen has a media studies PhD, and is probably the best writer at Buzzfeed; her articles regularly show up on the Blue. A (not very optimistic) interview: What Can You Do With a Degree in Watching TV?
posted by 1970s Antihero at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great comments! Owl of Athena's answer points to what everyone should do in a similar situation. I am aware of those resources and especially impressed by some narratives on Versatile PhD but so far have not succeeded in bringing in another success story. Perhaps I didn't study them hard enough.

I didn't want to be selfish by asking a specific question about how to save myself from drowning. But it looks like specific details are actually helpful. So, a few clarifications:
1. I am currently teaching (this seems to be something people assume that I can do) but it is only part-time. And I feel this is going nowhere.
2. I didn't want to pursue the academic route in my own field because A) can't get a Tenure Track job B) I feel my field is overrun by zombies talking nonsense.
3. I feel an industrial job can actually do more good to the humanities.

I have looked into technical writing and instructional design. But they need previous experience which I haven't figured out how to get (soren-lorensen I would love to hold your word for it).
I am also interested in UX design-thanks col-pogo-- (I am actually going to teach a HCI class next semester: what an irony!) but again, no previous experience. Come to think of it, what I am interested is not design, but to theorize.
My own work is not quantitative but I am open to that line of research in, for example, UX experience research. But I feel they wouldn't hire me because I am not a experimental psychologist by training.
Recently I got interested in curriculum design, but so far my efforts bear no fruit.
posted by dliang at 4:10 PM on December 14, 2016

I have a PhD in English and work in UX strategy essentially, after stints as a researcher/analyst, managing editor, and business analyst. I find that UX strategy actually fits well with my skill set.

(Let me preface things by saying that this is by no means an endorsement of doing a PhD in English. A PhD in English, in spite of all the alt-ac talk, is still designed to prepare you for one job: being a professor of English.)

But I got here by having an interest in technology, albeit not a lot of expertise. That was enough to get me the research gig. I had research skills up to here, and if there's one thing being a grad student (in anything) prepares you for, it's for learning new things. So I was able to adapt pretty quickly and the company was forward-thinking enough to hire for research and communication skills while trusting it could teach the technical skills.

The editing gig was a bit of a detour, but it is where I started to learn about UX as a field. I had a lot of say not just in content but in the content strategy and platform, and being a good little recovering grad student I studied and read and crammed until I knew what I was talking about in those areas.

Then I was a "business analyst," which I put in quotes because that means a lot of different things at different organizations and a lot of what I did probably has nothing to do with by-the-book business analyst. What I did do was work a lot with web developers and software developers, soaking up all that I could about how they work and why they do what they do, and learning to speak their language and translate between them and business units. Eventually this took on a more strategic role where I'd have representatives coming to me with loose skeletons or ideas for things (usually web experiences) and I'd help them flesh it out, applying what I'd learned myself by reading broadly and deeply about UX. In my spare time, I learned to code. I'm not at the level where I could step in and hammer out some code with the devs (maybe I could, but I'd be very slow and need a lot of hand holding), but I can understand them better.

The role I am now is explicitly UX related, doing a lot of the stuff I was doing informally as part of my BA role as a formal job. I've only just started though.

So how did all this happen?

I'm really good at digesting a lot of information fast. I'm good at communicating. I can write, I can distill complex things topics down to their key points, I can present. I'm good at listening and interpreting. And I know a lot about storytelling and how words (and images, and the juxtaposition and arrangement of those things) can create meaning. I have strong research skills, and I know how to incorporate research findings into my thinking. I can make good arguments. On top of all this, I did the legwork I had to do to transition those skills into a new career.

These skills, abilities, whatever you want to call them, are ones that are possessed by most Humanities PhDs. I won't say that your PhD imparted those skills (or maybe they did, I don't know). But if you did a PhD, odds are you're not that dissimilar to me.

I'll also say, don't be turned off by jobs requiring experience. Sometimes they actually don't and the job ad is a wishlist. A good HR person or hiring manager will review your resume and see through your lack of experience for the other qualities anyway, if you're able to present yourself well. Second, you do have experience of a kind. One thing I had to do was shift my thinking away from looking for a "first job out of school" toward thinking of looking for non-academic work as a career change. Then I was able to mentally shift to translating my skills across career fields.
posted by synecdoche at 8:27 PM on December 14, 2016 [6 favorites]

If you're interested in curriculum design and you want to put in some volunteer work so you can get a project on your resume, consider helping with Software Carpentry or Data Carpentry.

If you'd like to volunteer to research/audit the user experience of some open source projects, consider reaching out to Simply Secure.
posted by brainwane at 5:01 AM on December 16, 2016

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