Diverse Career Pathways: Getting from a Humanities PhD to Careers outside Academia

Written by
Emily Tobey

Jul 20, 2023

Jul 20, 2023 • by Emily Tobey

Whether you are just beginning work toward a humanities PhD, you have recently completed your doctoral studies, or you are somewhere in between, you’re probably considering what your career opportunities will be. You might feel conflicted about whether to pursue a job in or outside academia, and you might be overwhelmed with how and where to begin exploring the many career possibilities and pathways in front of you.

For the MLA’s recent webinar Diverse Career Pathways for Languages and Literatures PhDs, Ayanni Cooper, program associate at the Modern Language Association, spoke with three panelists who have pursued a range of career pathways after completing their doctoral studies in languages and literatures, and asked them about their careers outside the academy, how they have used the transferable skills from their doctoral training, and about navigating distinct job sectors.

How Did You Get from There to Here?

Jill Coste is an implementation and training specialist with TeachingBooks.net. She earned her PhD in children’s literature from the University of Florida; her goal was to leverage her degree into a teaching career. When the COVID–19 pandemic hit just as she was completing her degree, she knew she had to pivot, at least for the short-term. She soon discovered an opening for a job that would allow her to work remotely and use many of the transferable skills she honed in her PhD program. As Jill explained, “[I]t didn’t feel like I was abandoning what I had spent so much time doing. For me it was the circumstances of the pandemic that led me to alt-ac, but in a way [that enabled me to] figure out how to use what I had learned to transfer those skills to an alternate environment.”

Benjamin Fancy is the associate director for the writing center in the writing program at Princeton University. “I didn’t even know that alt-ac was a thing when I applied to do my PhD [in French studies at Brown University],” Ben said. When he applied for and got a job at the writing center at Brown during his second year, he never imagined this would become a career for him. It was just something he was interested in doing as a way to supplement the training he was getting as a PhD student. It turned out, however, that he loved it. Ben emphasized that it was because he was open to exploring and open to not looking at every step as one leading to what he thought his career would be, he was able to see a “potentially different kind of pathway.”

Emily Moline is a senior curriculum designer at Duolingo. They decided to pursue a PhD in linguistics because they loved the topic, not because they had a particular future job in mind. When Emily started freelancing at tech companies doing applied and computational linguistics work in the last year of their PhD program, they realized, “Oh! Even though I’m extremely qualitative in what I do, I have skills that are applicable to this world of tech. That really opened it up for me because in my program I wasn’t getting much exposure to the outside world, to what was happening outside the ivory tower.”

What Advice Would You Give to PhDs Applying for Jobs outside College Teaching? 

Emily: “Playing up all of your non-PhD work is really key. . . . The PhD is the baseline. That’s what you don’t have to prove when you apply to jobs. . . . You don’t have to show you are an expert in your subfield or your topic. The opposite is true. You have to prove that you can work with people and that you can get things done efficiently.” Emily added that the timelines can be very different at these jobs than those you navigate being in a PhD program, so you should show potential employers that you have had experience getting things done (whether that’s completing your dissertation or meeting deadlines for a freelance job) in a timely fashion.

Ben: “The pathway to promotion and movement within or across companies is not linear and not set in stone the way it is for the tenure track. So, being willing to apply to things that don’t seem like they need the PhD and being willing to be patient to the extent that that’s possible for you can be really helpful.” Ben’s first full-time job was not one that required a PhD, but it led to one that did.

Jill: “Don’t be afraid to pull on any experience you do have. Whatever you’ve come with, . . . whatever work you have done is work. Doing a PhD is work experience. So, then it comes to the matter of how you phrase it. . . . Doing a PhD is project management. You are managing a huge project with multiple moving parts.” Jill added, “I think it’s a matter of using the skills we gain as humanities people—finessing language—to . . . lay out all the things you have done in the classroom and that you have done to manage your project . . . and think about how you can apply that. How does that translate?”

These are just a few of the many valuable tips shared with attendees of the Diverse Career Pathways webinar. To learn more, watch the entire webinar and access the career resources list shared with participants. And for even more advice about pursuing a range of career options, check out the articles on this topic on the MLA Job List blog. Wherever you are on your path from PhD to career, hearing from others who have traveled ahead of you is like having a really good road map.