Ph.Ds are defining success in a new way

As doctoral candidates deal with a shortage of professorships, they're being challenged to discover different ways to use their skills.
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October 30, 2017

Inside one of Durham’s brick-faced, vestigial tobacco buildings, Nick Troester Ph.D. ’10 speaks quietly. “I don’t know that anyone at any point in time says, ‘You’re a failure if you don’t find a tenure- track job somewhere,’ but it’s an expectation that I think I had,” he says.

The space, now featuring neon-toned walls and open-desk designs—the employees clad in flip-flops, the La Croix freely flowing—is less ivory tower than Instagram. Troester, who studied humanitarian intervention for his doctorate in political science, seems comfortable working at Research Square, which primarily helps non-native-English-speaking authors better communicate and prepare academic papers. Yet his role of learning and development coach falls into a category that “didn’t become appealing until I was a few years outside of the Ph.D.,” he says. The shift from the academy to a new environment doesn’t always come easily. Those set on becoming professors have to, as Troester says, “psychologically and emotionally make peace” with the fact that they’re leaving such a path behind.

Many Ph.D.s do end up with what are commonly termed “alt-academic careers.” They’re responding to a not-so-new problem: Advanced-degree holders, whose quantity greatly outstrips the number of vacant professorships, face towering odds to secure tenure-track positions. As this supply-demand imbalance has gained notoriety, and as institutions move to better support students, the pivot has become easier. But after investing five-plus years doing coursework, fulfilling teaching responsibilities, and generally becoming creative scientists or dogged scholars, many graduates find that anything less than the ideal role will seem lacking.

“There’s this belief that you might dedicate seven years of your life to this project and then you might have to go work in Starbucks,” says Ashley Rose Young, a current Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke. Or, if you’re not a fan of pumpkin spice lattes: “It’s professor or McDonald’s, really,” says biology professor Sönke Johnsen, of how he felt when he was getting rejected from jobs after earning his doctorate.

“Graduate students put a lot of pressure on themselves to succeed, and sometimes they’re working with a very narrow definition of what success looks like,” says Maria LaMonaca Wisdom, who came to the Duke graduate school in late 2016 as director of graduate-student advising and engagement for the humanities, a new role. Students, particularly within the humanities, may believe they need to become a faculty member, to the exclusion of any other possible path; they often carry the perception that their advisers, too, feel the students should.

Higher education also isn’t kind to half measures. The need to not violate what Johnsen calls academia’s “underlying assumption that you have this continual upswing in productivity” means that a brief break—testing another industry, even taking leave to have a child—may put a fledgling career on involuntary hiatus. “If I want a job as a Duke professor one day,” says Lindsay Leverett, a doctoral candidate in the university program in ecology, “it’s gonna be very hard to get that job if I take time off between a Ph.D. and a postdoc.”

These inescapable pressures—overwhelming competition in pursuit of a college or university teaching position, potentially lifelong regret if they ever abandon this pursuit—can frustrate graduate students. But one side effect of such a clogged system could be beneficial: By needing to survive in the world beyond the academy, these students could have an even wider impact than they initially thought.

They may just enjoy it, too.

THE EXPLANATION for how the Ph.D. field became so crowded, sometimes termed the “Ph.D. glut,” is straightforward. “Do the math,” says Johnsen, who was the biology department’s director of graduate studies for much of the past decade. “Most professors are training ten to thirty people in their career, and academics— of all types—isn’t really a growth industry. So those ten to thirty people are competing for that spot the person already held.”

While the system turns away a striking majority of candidates, the most direct solution of reducing the competition probably isn’t the right one. “It’s hard for me to imagine a world in which we have too many highly educated individuals participating in society. This idea that we’re graduating too many Ph.D.s I find misplaced,” says Kathy Franz, chemistry professor and department chair at Duke. Producing more people with Ph.D.-level skills implies a citizenry that can understand and engage with complex issues, from income inequality to climate change.

However, those well-educated non-professors do need to turn elsewhere. Students have a well-worn path to follow in higher education: persistent scholarship, innumerable job applications, and perhaps a postdoc or short-term teaching role in hopes of an eventual appointment as a tenure-eligible faculty member. Otherwise, they have to innovate when hunting for jobs: Had he not landed where he did, Johnsen says, he would be an Alaskan hiking guide or designing biomorphic playgrounds. And while it’s sometimes assumed that the doctoral degree will give students a leg up, finding a good job is never easy. “There’s an idea sometimes, especially early in grad school, that if you don’t go the academic track and say, ‘Oh, I’m more interested in outreach,’ that that will make things easier. But it doesn’t,” Johnsen says, referring to jobs like running the science desk at National Public Radio. “Because there are more people applying for those jobs, because more people can apply for those jobs.”

It’s especially tricky in one particular area of study. “For people who focus on the humanities, it’s often harder to see the obvious connections between what their skill sets actually are and non-faculty jobs that exist,” says Wisdom. And while there are these job opportunities, she says, “we don’t have obvious or easy ways to talk about those kinds of transitions.”

Such a move is indeed less common for these students. The most recent data from Duke’s graduate school—based on students graduating in the decade leading up to May 2017—show 74 percent of humanities Ph.D.s working in what the school calls “Academia / Higher Education,” as faculty (either tenured, tenure track, or non-tenure track), staff, or administration. For the physical sciences and engineering cohort, 13 percent of Ph.D.s landed under this umbrella. (When including postdocs and similar “Further Training” positions, the numbers change to 79 percent and 44 percent, respectively.) Only 29 percent of the humanities cohort work for private businesses, in K-12 education, for nonprofits or other public roles in the “Beyond Academia” classification; 52 percent of those scientists do.

It’s partly due to the opportunities that exist for scientists: There are simply more jobs in private labs than in, say, private libraries. Those opportunities further manifest themselves in soft differences, as Ph.D. graduates who enter the private sector build a bridge to the outside world. Franz’s chemistry department, for example, convenes a yearly alumni panel highlighting the potential of these other paths.

Conversely, humanities graduate students are “looking for role models,” Wisdom says. “They’re looking to see, ‘Who was like me and what did they do, and how can I emulate that?’ ” These students must learn to do what workers everywhere have had to do in today’s economy: adapt.

WHEN NICK TROESTER first entered the job market, months before completing his Ph.D. in political science, he found himself the victim of circumstance: The fall of 2009 was the first hiring season after the financial crisis. “Universities work on multi-year funding cycles, and 2009 was the first year for many universities on that cycle,” he says. He bounced around—a postdoc at Princeton, then adjunct positions at Duke and Chicago—but it steadily became clear that the right opportunity wouldn’t arrive. After six years in the Ph.D. program, his passion had diverged from the duties of a research-university professor: Notably, he preferred teaching to conducting research. Plus, life happened. His now-wife had fallen in love with the Triangle area, and the academic job search presaged potentially living in far-removed places. “I mean, I had a phone interview at a college whose [town’s] full-time population is 300 people,” Troester says.

Instead, what he does now is similar to teaching a class. In a class, “you’re having twenty to thirty meetings with five or ten or forty-five people, where you have to get everybody on the same page in order to advance them through the same set of expectations over and over again,” he says. “You make sure the people who are really talented are being sufficiently challenged and that you’re helping out the people who are struggling to get them to an acceptable level. And at a certain level, that is project management.”

Troester, despite a teaching-assistant debut that he deems “miserable,” now enlists those honed skills daily. That type of translation is what Duke’s graduate school and Provost’s Office hope to achieve with a new program called Versatile Humanists @ Duke (VH@Duke). Originating from a Next Generation Ph.D. Implementation Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, VH@Duke, which is led by Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies Edward Balleisen, marks an attempt to “rethink doctoral training,” says Wisdom, who oversees the day-to-day activities of the program. There needs to be a “culture change” for graduate students, she says, to destigmatize nonacademic careers.

In a sense, the program—which features curricular experimentation, advising, internship opportunities, and networking—aims to enable students to navigate both office culture and higher education, to gain fluency in grant writing and business-speak, to understand how to work well with either a supervisor or an academic adviser, and to be, generally, “capable of sharing knowledge with different audiences....It’s not like we’re trying to turn out two tracks where these students are going to be professors and these students are gonna go do other stuff,” says Wisdom. “It’s the idea that we’re going to have a humanist, a doctoral student who’s so well-rounded that they can pivot at any moment in their career.”

Like Ashley Rose Young, who will complete her dissertation this fall. By mid-July, she hadn’t ruled out an academic job, yet she envisioned for herself a role more directly serving the public. Young’s studies reflect her idea of bringing knowledge to a broader audience: She’s a food historian. “Food is brilliant because it’s relatable,” she says. “People have very personal connections to food. It informs their identity; it informs their sense of community.”

This past summer, as one of eight interns sponsored by VH@Duke, Young found herself at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In addition to curating an update to the FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2015 exhibition, she hosted a program called “Cooking Up History,” which featured a live demonstration kitchen of historically themed dishes, during which Young would comment on the impact of both migration and food culture through the years. The internship bolstered her public- speaking skills; it also improved her dissertation about the role food played in historical New Orleans. The experience “more than anything gave me a space to talk through my ideas with the general public,” Young says. “So often with a dissertation you’re in your own head, you’re spending hours a day writing about your topic, and you’re not necessarily communicating it to anyone.”

In short, Young relearned the notion of accessibility. “You get to a place like the Smithsonian where they’ll say, ‘We have to tell this story in 150 words—that’s how long this label can be, so what is the key idea?’ ” she says. As she edited her dissertation this past summer, weighing the major concepts that deserved emphasis, Young realized a principle of the humanities that Wisdom highlights: Clear ideas, meaningful ones, are paramount.

This perspective, maybe more so than any other, links the academy to the outside world. Among Ph.D. students, a common theme is that “you can study something incredibly complex, and you become an expert in something so incredibly specific that you didn’t even know it existed when you started,” says Leverett. “But you can still explain to your grandmother or the president, maybe, why it’s important for society and what it actually means at a fundamental level.”

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST QUESTION facing Ph.D.s is not about success or failure, but rather contentment. “I see what my adviser does for a living, and they seem very happy and they’re very good at it, but I don’t know that that’s what I want for myself,” Leverett says. “The earlier that you can realize that, the better.”

After a Ph.D., odds are you’re burnt out, crippled by imposter syndrome, hyper aware of your competition, or interested in something different. By virtue of meticulously completing a dissertation, every Ph.D. student has the ability to do research, to learn something very quickly and then communicate it, skills that will be useful in most any job. In this way, the Ph.D. glut indirectly serves society in the way Kathy Franz described: Those landing outside of higher education can have a positive impact across a variety of sectors. They can impart knowledge to business leaders, to the next generation of thinkers, to a cross section of America—such as the millions who will view Young’s curation in the D.C. museum, where she’ll start working full time in January as the historian of the American Food History project.

Of course, the transition won’t be as smooth for everyone else. During the post-Ph.D. period, fear and regret will still simmer. Academic CVs and résumés, while in theory representing the same person’s accomplishments, will still have wildly different formats. For some students, the monomaniacal priority they place on tenure-track jobs will still make good options seem like barista work. Others will still get ensnared in the short-term numbers game and ignore the long-term likelihood of success. “Everyone ends up having a happy outcome,” Leverett says, “but for some reason we still think that there’s no hope.”

So if feeling hopeful is too ambitious, perhaps graduate students can simply take solace from a few precedents: The journeys of Young and Troester show that such challenging, enjoyable positions really do exist beyond the tenure track. And given that he still can read and teach the theories of Albert Hirschman and Thomas Schelling in the office, Troester is proof that the academy doesn’t have to be cordoned off from the rest of society. Knowledge can be applied anywhere.

“I think I held back from making the full transition for a while, because I was frightened of the possibility of having to give up something essential that I really valued about myself, that the process of getting a Ph.D. was an expression of,” Troester says, now two years into his time at Research Square, four years into the business world.

“Something that I’ve come to realize is that I didn’t have to give any of that up at all.”

  • Lucas Hubbard '14 is the Clay Felker Fellow staff writer at Duke Magazine.