Getting a Job with a “Useless” PhD

If you have an advanced degree in a field everyone else questioned, like theology, philosophy, or literature to name a few, then you are an individual who is passionate, reasonably intelligent, and above all else determined! What you may not be is employed. Tenure tracks are out! Adjuncts are in! Those fortunate enough to do a lot of teaching still need side gigs to pay the bills. The good news is that you have some pretty valuable skills to offer an employer outside the academy.

I am writing this from my experience as a man who earned his PhD in theological studies from a top-tier university in 2011. I was an adjunct for a bit at a small college and a program administrator at a big university. Now I am the director of a local learning services organization. Each path is unique, but my own path has taught me a thing or two about skills my professors never knew they were giving me. I am going to extrapolate some of those skills from my own experience and offer a few “success stories” of their use. I apologize if it sounds like I am boasting sometimes. My purpose is only to make the theoretical or hypothetical a little bit more concrete.

You Are a Creative Problem Solver

You have spent the better part of your adult life learning to see subtle things, things that most people miss. You can digest the finer points of complex arguments, see where things do not quite fit together, and propose more consistent and desirable alternatives. A PhD in the humanities is a PhD in problem solving.

You have a proven track record of creativity. Indeed, novelty is one requirement of your dissertation. You would not have passed your defense if your work had not been new. Such creativity is all the more impressive when you consider all the thousands of people in your field competing for a limited number of opportunities for publication.

Back in 2012, I had noticed that our organization was still doing manual data entry and spending loads of money on paper catalogs and applications. So I asked if I could investigate getting an online application system. My executive director gave her approval, but she added, “We looked into that a few years ago and were quoted an initial startup cost of $50,000, not to mention yearly upkeep in the tens of thousands, minimum.” But within a month, I had constructed a system out of resources nobody had known about and thought to put together. There is nothing quite like telling a potential employer, “I increased productivity and customer service while saving our organization about $200,000 over the long term.”

You Are a Skilled Reader

Exegesis refers to the art understanding, interpreting, and explaining a text. It is generally used in the context of holy writ but applies equally well to Shakespeare, credit card terms of service, tax law, and institutional policies. As someone with a doctorate in the humanities, you have honed the ability to decipher the arcane, the obtuse, and the poorly written. You can understand text and subtext, find fallacies, and leverage reasonable ambiguities to the benefit of your organization. Your skills as an exegete go beyond your own field. The intellectual “muscles” you have strengthened over the years have given you powers to interpret a wide variety of texts.

For example, a number of years ago my supervisor came into the office with a document in hand stating that, from now one, there must be one adult supervisor for every ten minors on campus. She was upset because, while it is a good policy for younger kids in a day program (it was our policy for younger kids in our day programs), it would not work for teenagers in residence. (For instance, it would require an adult to be stationed outside the showers every morning; and it meant a kid who got sick in class could not go see the nurse.) It was a dumb CYA (cover your ass) policy written by lawyers who cared more about not getting sued than protecting kids. I asked to see the wording of the text, then ran some quick numbers. Overall, our student:staff ratio was around 7:1. I pointed out that the wording of the policy left enough room for interpretation so that we could reasonably argue we were already in compliance. My supervisor read the policy and saw the probable intent of the drafters (none of whom worked with kids). I looked at the policy and saw the loophole.

You Are a Shrewd Negotiator

Chances are, your advisor was a mentor to you in more than just the subject of your dissertation. She also helped you learn about people and the internal politics that can get in the way of your success. The fact of the matter is that diplomacy is just as important to getting your degree as a strong dissertation. Over the years, you have learned that your best ideas are the ones people in charge think they came up with and that getting things done requires giving the right people “cover.”

Professional environments are not that different than universities when it comes to the politics of the people in charge. The higher up the organizational ladder you climb, the bigger are the egos of the people you encounter, and the more delicate the relationships you need to maintain. Getting things done requires moving laterally without seeming to go outside the system or going over the heads of superiors without seeming to be insubordinate. You need to clear roadblocks without rolling over others, and you need to convince the people in charge that your best ideas are the ones they helped you come up with. Every academic needs to be just a little bit Machiavellian.

Somewhere around 2013 my program tried to hire a professor to teach a literature class for a weekend event, but we found ourselves blocked by a dean who said that she could not teach for us because 100% of her “effort” came from her own department. So we could not hire her. But I noticed a loophole. This person worked for another program that involved mentoring new students. The reason for that inconsistency, the dean explained, was that the provost considered that program to be a “priority program.” Within a couple of months, our own dean (who was quite powerful) had gotten us declared a priority program as well. Problem solved! We were able to be right while allowing the dean who had stood in our way to save face by enlisting him to become part of the solution to the problem he had initially created.

You Are an Effective Communicator

People with advanced degrees in the humanities spend a great deal of time arguing with their peers. Sometimes these arguments are little more than “pissing contests” (a crude colloquialism with masculine implications because it is often male academics doing it), but more often than not these are arguments among friends. There is a genuine interest in understanding the point the other person is making, if for no other reason that that it informs your own counterpoint (hopefully, though, the willingness to change your own mind is also involved). The complexity of the topics discussed, and their multifaceted implications, require avoiding distractions and red herrings, maintaining an even temper, and keeping your attention focused on the fundamental issues under discussion. This skill will serve you well in all sorts of meetings.

Meetings are the mainstay of the professional world. People get together and disagree with one another. Meetings are also a place where feelings get hurt, leading to gossip, long-term frustration, and a toxic work environment. As an academic, you are well-practiced in the art of maintaining harmony while moving discussion forward to the main goal. When two people start to disagree, you can keep the peace by pointing out how each different view subtly affirms the other. You can help create distance between the issues discussed and the personal stakes people have in them. You know how to “bracket” what does not matter to keep the objective in sight.

I was recently involved in a meeting involving the implementation of a new technology. The people who worked hard on the technology had opinions about the way it should be implemented. Those of us who were more on the operational end of things had some concerns. One individual said, “Shouldn’t the people who are teachers be able to do this if they are so smart!” I agreed that they should, but the fact was that they wouldn’t. They would be distracted, busy, and cause errors. When I was talking through one scenario, a colleague said, “Well what happens when [X].” I replied, “Good point. Let’s hold onto that for a second because we are trying to figure out [Y] first.” After 90 minutes of this, we had a plan in place, and we all still liked each other after it was over.

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Of course, these skills only come into play after you have a job. Getting a job is another matter. I will offer some practical tips for that in another post. In the meantime, I recognize that, because I am drawing on my own experience, there is a lot I may be missing. For other humanities academics who have found success outside the standard (and rare) path of the tenured professor, what skills have you found you possess for a job outside academe?

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