Reframing the PhD: Takeaways from the English Department’s Careers Panel

 October 30, 2019

Image of the word "job" set against sunrise

Given the state of the academic job market, I was worrying about job prospects before I even entered my English Ph.D. program. I remember, when I visited Duke with my prospective cohort, asking the Director of Graduate Studies about their job placement statistics. I received a carefully worded response about the impressive number of people who had secured tenure-track jobs within three or four years of graduation. I remember wondering, well, what happened to everyone else?

To defuse some of this anxiety about jobs, in and out of academia, graduate students in the English department organized a panel involving three recent graduates who had found employment outside the tenure track, with support from The Graduate School’s Professional Development Grant. One of our panelists, Stefan Waldschmidt, was working with a company that provides college admissions counseling. Another, Abby Seeskin, was teaching English at a secondary school. A third, Astrid Giugni, was teaching at Duke as a visiting assistant professor. After briefly introducing themselves, the panelists and attendees had a wide-ranging discussion over the next hour and a half. Five key points stood out.

Leaving academia is not that scary and not that traumatic.

I was impressed with the way each of our invited panelists discussed their time in a Ph.D. program: focused on the positives and without regret. Even talking to advisors and committee members about leaving—just considering that prospect ties my stomach into a knot—did not warrant that much angst for our panelists, as the advisors all seemed to understand, and sometimes even support, the decision to seek employment outside the tenure track. It was also helpful to hear, first-hand, how you can continue to lead a happy and intellectually engaging life beyond the ivory tower, whether by participating in community reading groups or maintaining contact with mentors and friends from grad school.

Prepare yourself in case you do have to make a tough, but practical, decision.

The panelists described how various experiences and opportunities helped them to make their respective transitions. Each decided to seek other career opportunities at different times. Some went through a few cycles of the faculty job market. Others decided they did not want to pursue an academic job well before they finished their dissertation. However, all the panelists discussed how important it is to seek out and take advantage of teaching opportunities, internships, or part-time work that helps you get a better understanding of your career goals and that may lead to future opportunities.

Plan ahead if you have a spouse or partner in academia.

Having a partner in a faculty job, or seeking one, adds to the stress of looking for your own job. It helps to have a frank conversation about what sorts of compromises, or even sacrifices, you both are willing to make for each other. Think about who is most likely to get the tenure-track job and, then, might be able to negotiate a spousal hire. Talk about how long you are willing to live apart or who would be willing to move if the other does find a job. Wherever you end up, make sure both of you are valued for your work and no one is left feeling like the “trailing spouse.”

Think creatively about how to translate your grad school experience to other professions.

A Ph.D. in English develops a number of skills that employers value: communication, writing, critical thinking. The career opportunities you might find after graduating depend on how you supplement your research with other experiences during your program. Classroom or tutoring experiences can lead to opportunities teaching in secondary schools. Work in Digital Humanities, with demonstrable coding skill, can prepare you for a job in tech or software development. And don’t be afraid to think creatively in order to explain how your experience matches certain job requirements. As one panelist said, “Teaching in a classroom is a lot like management, actually. You are learning how to deal with people.”

Don’t be afraid to negotiate!

If you do find that dream job outside the tenure track, be ready to negotiate for better benefits, like health, vision, and dental insurance, and a higher salary than we’re used to as grad students at Duke!

In the days after the panel, I was able to discuss it with many of those who attended. We all appreciated the perspective that the panelists were able to provide. There is a lot of anxiety surrounding job prospects nowadays, and it was helpful to learn that it is possible to find work, and happiness, outside the academic tenure track.


Chris Huebner
Chris Huebner

PhD student, English

Chris Huebner is a doctoral student in the English department. His research focuses on representations of time and narratives of progress as they relate to environmental change in the nineteenth century.