From Anecdote to Data: Humanities Scholars Beyond the Tenure Track

July 18, 2013, 10:30 | Long Paper, Embassy Regents C

Though humanities graduates have long engaged in a range of stimulating careers, little data has been collected on humanities scholars working outside the professoriate. Consequently, discussions about alternative academic careers—those within the orbit of universities and cultural heritage institutions, but off the tenure track—have been largely anecdotal. In order to ground the conversation, the Scholarly Communication Institute (SCI) initiated a study in 2012 to investigate perceptions about career preparation provided by graduate programs. The study was a directive from SCI’s ninth summer meeting in 2011, which identified graduate education reform as an area of critical importance to the current humanities landscape.

The main goal of the study, which focused primarily on the context of North American higher education, was to establish a body of data that can serve as a foundation on which to base recommendations for new and revised methodological training. The results of the study reveal clear patterns that highlight the current strengths of graduate education relative to non-professorial employment, as well as significant opportunities for improvement.

The changing nature of career paths for humanities scholars is an issue of particular concern to digital humanities practitioners, who have long been working in the kinds of hybrid roles that the term “alternative academic” has come to describe. Many of the skills implicit in digital humanities scholarship and work products—including collaboration, project management, and technological fluency—are becoming increasingly important in new models of graduate training, even among programs not specifically allied with the digital humanities.


While doctoral study is a time of intense focus, it is also deeply exploratory. This exploration traditionally takes shape through the research process, as candidates follow the winding labyrinth of a line of inquiry, its antecedents, and its significance. Universities understand and value freedom of this nature; indeed, the fundamental structure of academic employment—tenure—is built around the importance of protecting the freedom of academic inquiry.

Increasingly, though, students need space for another kind of exploration, one more directly related to their future employment opportunities. The myth of a single (academic) job market persists in graduate programs today, perpetuated by departments that measure prestige by the tenure-track placements of their graduates. However, the convergence of increased casualization of the academic work force, a period of high unemployment, and steady enrollment in graduate programs means that people with advanced humanities training increasingly seek intellectually satisfying positions outside the professoriate. Following the 2011 launch of #Alt-Academy, a collection of essays edited by Bethany Nowviskie, the neologism and Twitter hashtag #alt-ac became a widely used shorthand to describe these kinds of careers, together with the excitement and challenges that accompany them.

In addition to the rich narrative material gathered under the #alt-ac umbrella, several other studies provide groundwork for SCI’s recent work. In particular, the 2012 report by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service titled “Pathways Out of Graduate School and Into Careers,” provides a valuable look at graduate education and employment in the U.S. across all disciplines. An earlier study, “Ph.D.’s—Ten Years Later” (Nerad and Cerny, 1996), explores the experiences of Ph.D. holders working in business, government, and non-profits. It provides incredibly useful context, but the data from the study no longer accurately reflects the current academic or employment environments.

While both of these studies provide useful baseline information and analysis, the disciplinary scope of each is quite broad, making it difficult to assess finer-grained issues particular to the humanities. By focusing on a narrower segment of the academic population—humanities scholars working outside the tenure track—SCI’s study can probe more deeply into issues that concern that group.


The study consisted of two main phases: one public, one confidential. The first phase involved creating a public database of self-identified alternative academic practitioners. The database was built within the framework of the #Alt-Academy project in order to leverage the energy of existing conversations.

The second phase of the study comprised two confidential surveys. The primary survey targeted people with advanced humanities degrees who self-identify as working in alternative academic careers, while a second targeted employers that oversee employees with advanced humanities degrees. Because we were working with a somewhat nebulous population, our subsequent distribution focused on “opt-in” strategies—especially social media, listervs, and traditional media coverage. While this method has limitations, we hoped to learn something not only from the content of the responses, but from the number and type of respondents.

Data collection extended from July to October, 2012. Overall, the surveys had a very strong response, though the response rate also highlighted an important discrepancy. Nearly 800 people completed the main survey—almost four times our initial goal of 200 respondents. The employer survey, however, fell slightly short of our more modest goal of 100 respondents, totaling about 80 responses. The uneven response rate underscores the significant difference in engagement level on the part of job seekers compared to employers.


Analysis is still in progress; the final report will be completed and published by August 2013, at the end of SCI’s current phase of funding. The preliminary results of the surveys strongly suggest that while humanities graduates can and do apply their knowledge and skills to wide assortment of careers, there are many ways in which graduate programs could better equip them for the paths they take. Further, many of the skills employers report as desirable for alternative academic roles—such as project management, collaboration, and communicating with varied audiences—would also enhance the research, teaching, and service of those who do pursue academic roles.

Unsurprisingly, the data shows that a large majority of students enter graduate school expecting to pursue careers as professors—a total of 74%. What is perhaps more interesting is their level of confidence: of that 74%, 80% report feeling fairly certain or completely certain that this was the career they would pursue. These expectations are not aligned with the actual career outcomes of the respondents, or with humanities graduates more broadly.

Deepening the problem, students report receiving little or no preparation for careers outside the professoriate, even though the need for information about many different careers is acute. Only 18% reported feeling satisfied or very satisfied with the preparation they received for careers other than the professoriate. The responses are rooted in perception, so there may well be resources available that students are not taking advantage of—but whatever the reason, it is clear that students do not feel that they are being adequately prepared.


Through a series of conversations with experts in the coming year, SCI will explore strategies to better equip students for a variety of careers without sacrificing disciplinary rigor. Based on the outcomes of the meetings, SCI plans to draft recommendations encouraging humanities departments to consider evaluating and modifying required aspects of their graduate-level curricula in ways that best serve students and the health of the discipline.

One way to move toward curricular change is to encourage humanities departments to form more deliberate partnerships with the inter- and para-departmental organizations that are already engaging in this kind of work. Traditional and digital humanities centers have jump-started excellent training programs, research projects, and public-facing work, though opportunities frequently take the form of extracurricular fellowships or informal training programs (such as the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and THATCamps, which both provide short-format, non-credit training opportunities). If departments that wish to move in similar directions connect with these centers, there may be opportunities to share infrastructure (physical and digital), expertise, time, and funding.

While informal programs have been a good starting point, incorporating successful training elements into the structures and core curricula of departments is an important move, especially in terms of sustainability and increased access (for all graduate students, not only those who win competitive spots in small programs). When individuals and small centers are supported by robust partnerships with traditional academic departments, the possibility for sustainable change becomes even greater.


This study represents an important step in the path of rethinking graduate education and academic employment, and we hope it helps to lay the groundwork for further study and concrete action. By making our data publicly available, we hope that other scholars will deepen the analysis of the responses that we have received. We also hope that an increasing number of departments will accurately track—and publish—data on the career paths of their former students. Increased information and transparency are critical to fostering an academic community that recognizes the value of permeable boundaries. Finally, we hope that the humanities community will strengthen its efforts to engage with the public. If, rather than feeling constrained by the exclusivity of a tenure-track career path, students instead feel free to explore ways to apply their humanities training to a broad spectrum of paths, their work would enrich both the academic community and the broader public.


Council of Graduate Schools (2012). Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers. 19 April 2012. http://pathwaysreport.org.
Nerad, M., and J. Cerny (1999). From Rumors to Facts: Career Outcomes of English PhDs. ADE bulletin 32.7. 11. (30 July 2012). http://www.mla.org/bulletin_124043.
Nerad, M., and J. Cerny (2012). “Ph.D.’s—Ten Years Later.” (30 July 2012). http://depts.washington.edu/cirgeweb/c/research/phd-career-path-surveys/phds-ten-years-later/.
Nowviskie, Bethany, (ed). (2012). #Alt-Academy. MediaCommons (2011). (1 Oct. 2012). http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/.
Scholarly Communication Institute (2011). New-Model Scholarly Communication: Road Map for Change. July 2011. http://uvasci.org/past-institutes/new-model-scholarly-communication/sci-9-report/.