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A truth universally acknowledged
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It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that an individual in possession of a humanities PhD must be in want of a job

The paucity of jobs in academia has been a reality for some years and whilst a few PhD graduates will ease into a permanent lectureship, for many the post-completion landscape is rather less certain. Some may spend years in the academic hinterland, as sessional tutors or temporary staff, before reality comes knocking, truncating hopes of academic glory. For others, doubt may creep in earlier as the PhD itself can draw into sharp relief the gulf separating the perception and reality of academia.

However, although my cautious – and somewhat sceptical – nature resists an over reliance on statistical 'evidence', recent data summarising PhD employment trends gives cause for optimism. With an unemployment rate for Arts and Humanities PhDs hovering at 4% – below the rate for other arts and humanities degree levels – it would seem that employers are more than receptive to PhD applicants. Or are they? Most Arts and Humanities PhD graduates are heavily concentrated within the field of education; indeed 70% are employed within this sector, mostly in higher education. Of these, 44% are lecturers, 22% are researchers, and 7% are teaching assistants. That leaves over a quarter working in other educational capacities, as administrators or staff developers, for example.[1]

It is easy to see why so many PhDs gravitate towards universities. They are comfortable bedfellows, often sharing common goals, language and ethos. PhD graduates from arts and humanities disciplines are commonly found in the administrative network of many higher education institutions (HEIs) both 'old' and 'new'. The advantages to the PhD applicant are clear: previous experience of academic culture, structures and terminology allow for a smooth transition into the workplace, with less need to play down or re-orient academic experience. A further bonus is the opportunity to remain in touch with the research environment, without the pressure to 'publish or perish'. Universities are quick to capitalise on the interest of PhD applicants, and humanities disciplines translate particularly well into administrative or management roles. The capacity to synthesise complex information, marshal convincing arguments and present material in clear and cogent terms, lends itself to roles in research co-ordination, admissions, staff development and policy formulation. Detractors are quick to point out the obvious: a PhD is rarely deemed essential to fulfil administrative roles; indeed it hardly makes an appearance on the desirable lists beyond the implied benefits of a 'postgraduate qualification'. But what universities recognise – and value – is the academic credibility conferred by the doctorate, and humanities PhDs have responded accordingly. Occasionally co-opted to sit on interview panels, I have noticed the frequency with which PhD applicants make the shortlist. They must be doing something right.

Moving further from the comfort zone of HE, PhDs may cast their eye towards secondary or college teaching. Increasingly, teaching is seen as an attractive and rewarding career in its own right, not just a contingency plan for the thwarted academic. But it is worth remembering that a PhD will not usually confer exemption from postgraduate teacher training except in the independent sector where the PGCE hasn't acquired mandatory status. A PhD can still hold sway with private schools, as it can be a useful marketing tool to lure prospective parents, but it won't guarantee a financial premium.

So, what of the humanities PhD trying to navigate less familiar terrain? Beyond the HE environment, a PhD may be more of a hindrance than a help. Here comes the reality check. The non-academic employer's immediate reaction to a PhD applicant with an encyclopaedic knowledge of 7th century iconography is less awe, more shock. What have they been doing for the last three years? Employers share a common goal: achieving the best match between applicant and organisation. In practical terms, this requires an (all too often) brief assessment of the candidate's ability to do the job and fit in. And here lies the problem. Recruitment is a costly business; the employer will not spend time pursuing applications that miss the target. A lack of work experience outside the university, coupled with an overly academic frame of reference, can make it hard for PhDs to hit the target and score the job.

In essence, the PhD is faced with something of a workplace dichotomy: a reluctance to enter the job market at entry level, yet little or no professional experience to attain more senior roles. Academic scholarship in a humanities discipline does not provide automatic qualification for work in publishing, museums, archives or NGOs. Experience counts. Take publishing, frequently cited by PhD students as a potential destination, offering apparently seamless convergence between skills and job requirements. But without experience of copy-editing, marketing, desktop publishing, vetting and issuing contracts and myriad other tasks, a candidate would struggle to submit a credible application. Taking an entry level position is the key to building experience and the foundation to a successful career. A source working in the public sector acknowledges the strong skills portfolio of PhD applicants, but finds they are often disadvantaged by their limited experience and unrealistic expectations. He is quick to assert that experience cannot be studied for, yet it is often what employers want, 'so patience is sometimes required'. It's not all doom and gloom though. Employers have observed that once they are in post and are able to flex their intellectual muscles, PhDs can make swift progress within their organisations. For those prepared to defer gratification, a PhD may offer a career advantage. A willingness to accept that a PhD does not confer automatic entry to the job market may be a small price to pay for future success.

Getting experience should be the easy part. After all, what employer turns down a well qualified applicant for a low wage – or wage-less – job? Many, it would seem. Is this simply a product of organisational myopia, or a more deep seated prejudice? My own experience of working with both employers and PhD students, suggests the fault lies on both sides.

'I can't get a job without experience, and I can't get experience without a job'. Traditionally the clarion call of 21-year-old graduates, this dilemma is even more acute amongst postgraduate researchers. *Sarah, a former PhD student, now works for a market research consultancy in the UK, but her road to employment was littered with rejections from companies who dismissed her as 'too academic' or 'overly narrow'. Her experience is not unusual. Some employers will readily confess to making negative assumptions about PhDs, perceiving them to lack commercial awareness and to be unable to work collaboratively. Moreover, their suspicion is often compounded by a fear that a PhD graduate will leave at the merest sniff of an academic job. A stereotype certainly, but is it one the PhD has helped to perpetuate?

It is usually at the point of application that the PhD graduate unwittingly colludes in their own demise. A CV littered with publications, conferences and research interests spells out only one thing: frustrated academic. This impression, once made, is hard to dispel. To help counter these negative perceptions and market the PhD researcher as a versatile, multi-skilled individual, equipped to meet the demands of a knowledge economy, university careers advisers have encouraged PhDs to communicate the benefits of postgraduate research as a series of generic, or transferable, skills – with mixed results. This approach translates well in the education sector, but elsewhere the demand for concrete experience, remains undiminished. A CV exposing a work history confined to teaching, tutoring or pastoral support may raise more questions than it answers. For PhD students considering a life beyond the Ivory Tower, the message is clear: start thinking now.

Let's give the final word to Dr Tracy Borman, former Learning Director of English Heritage and now a freelance writer. Tracy is unequivocal in her belief that 'you need work experience; you can't rely on a PhD alone'. If you are interested in heritage work, shadow a museum employee or volunteer at weekends. For those attracted to not-for-profit roles, consider how you could get involved in local campaigns or fundraising activities. Want to work in publishing? Why not find an online proofreading course to hone your skills? Combine the skills of academic research with sector experience, and doors may well open.

Helen Stringer
University of Warwick
June 2008