I think it’s useful to consider not so much a specific job or career, but rather an approach: a way of seeing one’s work through the lens of academic training, and of incorporating scholarly methods into the way that work is done. It means engaging in work with the same intellectual curiosity that fueled the desire to go to graduate school in the first place, and applying the same kinds of skills—be they close reading, historical inquiry, written argumentation, or whatever else—to the tasks at hand.
When I have heard other PhD candidates say they are considering a non-academic career, others have often responded with a multisyllabic “Ohhh-h-h,” the wavering intonation of which betrays (a) puzzlement and (b) mild disdain. It also reveals the extent to which we are all trained to believe that anything that is not a tenure-track professorship is in some way second best. That I am choosing this path when I haven’t even gone on “the job market” yet (as if there were only one) must, then, be foolish, premature—as if what has come to be known as an “alt-ac” career were only ever valid as a back-up plan.
Instead of imagining graduate school as a pipeline, keeping everyone contained and moving in one direction to a pre-determined endpoint, what if we thought more about a sprinkler, with water exploding out in all directions? (Ibid.)
And so while I have known for several years now that I want to take my own particular skill set elsewhere, to switch “tracks” as it were, I have not until recently readily admitted that fact—even to myself. Consider this, then, my public admission (if my tiny readership a public makes.)
One recent afternoon, instead of editing a paragraph of the dissertation I will complete this summer, I found myself applying for a job. Not an academic job, not even a job at a university, but a compelling job whose description called for every skill and tidbit of experience I’ve picked up along my uncommon path—and still promised to be interesting. (And no, I don’t yet know if it’s mine.)
If I were more entitled to make this analogy, I’d say that last week’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute was like a coming-out party. Some participants came from the academy, sure, but others were artists, writers, market researchers, librarians, archivists, game designers — and most of them held PhDs. In such an atmosphere, where people from all these different disciplines and professions collaborated and investigated and problem-solved, learned while they taught each other, and presented their findings to what one participant described as the biggest audience he’d ever have, how could I not come to embrace what I had already known inside?
Of course, I’m aware that my decision has been easier to make because I now know that I will be staying in New York, where there are many more “alt-ac” opportunities than, well, other places. My partner, a political geographer, has accepted a tenure-track position nearby. (Just fancy! There are areas of employment where one can not only admit one has a husband, but talk about him too! As for the child question…) Anyway, my partner, a brilliant and passionate teacher who is doing really important work, is exactly the sort of person most academic departments need.
However, despite what those same departments, along with dissertation directors, graduate advisors, and other students might tell us, the life of the mind can and should be relevant outside the narrow pipeline known as the tenure track. We are already researchers and analysts, oral and written communicators, time and project managers, collaborators. As Katina Rogers suggests in the perspicacious essay that inspired this post, we do this all the time already, and to such a degree that we no longer even realize it — although apparently Google does!
What’s more, intellectual curiosity is not institutionally bound. If the kind of community-building that occurs in the Digital Humanities tells us anything, it is that teaching does not only take place in the classroom, research continues beyond the stacks, collaboration infuses life into learning, and ideas are better disseminated by any means other than the limited-access, subscriber-only academic journal.
Humanistic scholarship prepares us to ask questions differently, to read closely and critically, to consider the “other point of view.” These life skills don’t disappear when we venture outside the academy; if anything, they expand, take root in new soil, continue to grow.