Monday, November 15, 2010

Academe and the Loss of Human Capital

I heard a story on NPR this morning, "Flabby Skills Are Latest Worry For Unemployed," about the current recession and the impact of long-term unemployment (6+months) on workers' skills. "Any bout of unemployment can be painful, hurt your finances and derail a career," says NPR's economics correspondent John Ydstie. "But long-term unemployment is particularly damaging, both to the individual and the economy. One thing that can happen is that the skills workers possess, their 'human capital' in economics jargon, begins to erode."

So what exactly is human capital? According to one basic definition, it's "the set of skills which an employee acquires through education, training, and on-the-job experience, and which increase that employee's value in the marketplace." If you're unemployed for many months, your industry can simply "leave you behind"; some of your skills may even become obsolete. "And the losses can be significant and real harmful for both individual and economies," notes Ydstie. Moreover, "because of falling home prices, many Americans can't afford to move to get a new job. So they remain unemployed or trapped in jobs that aren't taking full advantage of their skills."


There's more human capital in my couch.

As I was listening to this story, I couldn't help but think about my own predicament as a, more or less, long-term un/under-employed Ph.D. If research fellowships here and there are removed from the mix, I have not held an actual teaching position in my field since 2007, when I was still in graduate school and working as a TA/lecturer. That is a very long time. I have also not held a full-time, non-academic (and relatively low paying) job since 2001. In terms of on-the-job experience, whether in the ivory tower or elsewhere, my human capital is crap.

But what about education and training? I have a Ph.D. and a string of fellowships--that should count for something, right? Um, no, not really. If I were to apply for a tenure-track teaching job at a liberal arts college or a state university, the first thing a search committee would (or should) notice is my lack of recent teaching experience. Although I supported myself through grad school by teaching or TAing multiple classes nearly every semester (and summer), at this point it's been a while since I was in the classroom. This gap could make SCs wary about my ability to hit the ground running next fall and not freak out when faced with a 3/3 teaching load.

SCs at R1s, on the other hand, may not care about the years I've spent doing research and writing rather than teaching post-Ph.D. They might see this as a bonus. It's hard to tell. But since most of the jobs in my particular subfield are more teaching oriented this year, I doubt I'll be as competitive as someone who graduated in 2009 and has since published a couple articles and worked as a visiting professor at a top 20 liberal arts college, for example. Only time will tell.

Then there are the non-academic employers out there. What would they think about my resume? While I may have spent the last decade earning a high-level degree, teaching, writing, researching, etc., none of that necessarily translates well or easily in another field. And fellowships? Forget about them. Who cares if I received a postdoctoral research grant from Harvard or Yale if I'm now applying for a job as an editor or a communications specialist or an academic administrator? My resume suggests, rightly so, that I've been out of "work" for a while now. Despite my skill set and potential for success, hiring me would be a gamble compared to another applicant with recent hands-on job experience and a professional narrative that builds towards X position in a meaningful and straightforward way.

The point of all this pondering, I think, is that I'm honestly concerned that my choice to become an academic, and tread water in postdoc land since graduation, may result in dramatic, long-term (negative) professional repercussions. As more post-Ph.D. time passes and my degree begins to look stale, I may never be able to land a tenure-track job. (Whether I really want one is another post entirely . . .) On the other hand, I may also fail to find a decent non-academic position in the next year, due to the recession, my declining human capital, and the fact that I'd be making a career transition out of academe and into something new. 

During a recession it's more obvious, both to employers and employees alike, what isn't valuable than what is. For those of us out there job hunting with Ph.D.s in humanities fields, finding, broadcasting, and, if need be, translating our value to potential employers should be our top priority. We don't have time to waste: getting all flabby is a big professional no-no.

12 comments:

KT said...

"The point of all this pondering, I think, is that I'm honestly concerned that my choice to become an academic, and tread water in postdoc land since graduation, may result in dramatic, long-term (negative) professional repercussions."

Yes, yes, yes - I understand this sentiment exactly. As I mentioned before I am entering the adjunct world, which isn't really what I want to do, but is a move I feel I have to make in order to keep my academic credentials current. I had a (mostly) enjoyable PhD experience, and at the time thought of it as a great "life goal" to pursue. I don't necessarily regret taking the PhD path, but let's just say that I'm more practical-minded now than I was anytime during my PhD program. I look around now and see recent college grads (like my brother's wife) who landed excellent, rewarding, high-paying jobs right out of college. They did this by taking interesting internships, not demanding "perfection" in their work experiences, and valuing paychecks and practicality over the instrinsic value of learning. I wish I had done more of that on my own journey.

It would be great to have non-academic connections in other interesting fields, like finance or business administration or nursing or...anything besides the ivory tower. But now that I have a PhD, I am labelled as an academic by those who have hiring power in non-academic organizations.

My greatest fear is that my transferable skills (of which we PhDs have plenty) will not actually be transferable after all because they were obtained in the ivory tower. This is all well and good if I can find a position in academia, but that is tough enough - and I believe incredibly tough if I am looking to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

As for adjuncting, I do enjoy teaching and welcome the opportunity to be in the classroom. However, I would rather at this point have a full-time academic position (teaching or admin; probably not tenure-track) or a steady 8-5 career outside of academia (but doing what? And how do I make that transition?). I can only hope that the drawbacks of adjuncting are outweighed by the potential benefits - and perhaps surprises - of networking.

Jane E. said...

I highly recommend the book So What Are You Going to Do With That?. The website is here: http://www.careersforphds.com/

Caitlin said...

Yes. Grad programs have blood on their hands. Humanities PhDs are responsible for a terrible waste of time, talent, and idealism.

If it's any consolation, Eliza, here's some Schadenfreude: Imagine being in your situation, BUT twenty years older and the parent of a young child. I recently met someone who adopted a child relatively late in life, while just beginning a PhD program in the humanities. Now she's 57 years old, the mother of a 7-year-old, $200,000 in debt from her PhD, no career prospect in sight, and her husband, the only breadwinner, has recently had a major health crisis.

At least you have decades in which to better your situation!

Eliza Woolf said...

These are all great comments. Glad to know I'm not the only PhD concerned about my loss of capital, human and otherwise! KT, you're so right: It is such a difficult juggling act trying to keep one's credentials current in multiple industries. Career changers especially have to think about whether or not they're spreading themselves too thin.

We do have lots of transferable skills, as the authors of So What Are You Going to Do With That? make clear, but I do believe that it is harder to make our case during a recession. If times were good we'd no doubt have an easier time moving into an entirely new industry, if need be.

I have at least resolved to stop freelance writing for the next 6 months, other than my column/blog, in order to devote more time to seeking full-time employment opportunities, either inside or outside academe. While freelancing can be rewarding, it's certainly not financially rewarding and has taken up quite a bit of my time over the past few months.

Caitlin, it makes me feel awful when I hear stories about other PhDs (particularly older PhDs) who are saddled with debt, and perhaps children, and still looking for work. There are so many of us. I hope the woman you met will find something soon.

Anthea said...

It's more than just the grad programs who have blood on their hands..surely it's the administrators of the university systems who see grad students and postdocs as cheap labor..cheaper than adjuncts. Yes, we do as PhD people have transferable and marketable skills but the question is will we have opportunity to deploy them when so many of us are just trying to keep our heads above the water financially.

Eliza Woolf said...

Anthea, I know what you mean. When you're struggling to pay the bills and deal with student loan debt, it's hard to simply start over, take a low-paying, entry-level job in another field, and work your way up the ladder.

My #1 hesitation thus far about changing careers has been $ worries. As someone who needs to start earning a professional salary asap, what if my skills don't transfer fast enough? What if I can actually make more $ as a professor, even a lowly asst. prof, than I'd make over the next 5+ years in a brand new career? People may say that leaving the academy pays off almost immediately due to the low salaries for profs, but with my current resume (and its gaping holes) I'm not so sure.

Anthea said...

Eliza,

You're right about that delay in getting those marketable skills to really work - time which as newly graduated PhD don't have. Why? Interest must be paid and one does have to live? I really think that one has to try while one is trying to finish that thesis to seriously consider what one might do outside of the academy prior to finishing. But ..this would involve the university sector admitting that there aren't enough jobs int eh system for everyone it trains...and that one can leave the ivory tower.

Corinne said...

I agree! It's only since I've graduated, and joined groups like Versatile PhD, that I've realized how much time I wasted angsting about course work, comps, my dissertation, TAing, and conference papers, etc. in grad school when I could have been working part-time in univ. admin. or academic publishing or a non-profit or something like that. I missed my chance. Most people who make successful transitions out of the academy begin with baby steps during grad school, but I never stopped to consider alternate careers, nor did my dept. ever mention them as an option.

Now, of course, I've already been out for a few years and all I've done for YEARS is teach undergrads. In terms of non-academic street cred, my resume sucks. Knowing I'm not alone helps some but I really wish there was help for all of us.

Anonymous said...

Last year I left academe for a non-academic job. I got my doctorate in history in 2007 and immediately accepted a two year postdoc at a top research institution. In those two years I published several articles, was offered a book contract and taught numerous courses. I also had 3 on campus job interviews but no job offers. The interview experience was absolutely soul crushing and each time it took me months to recover from the bad news.

I'm married and have one child. My husband is paid reasonably well and loves his job. My daughter loves her school and her various extra-curricular activities. It got harder and harder to justify moving them.

After I finished my postdoc last year, I was forced to make the decision to teach sessionally and make about 15,000 a year with minimal benefits, or to look for a permanent and better paying non-academic position with full benefits (husband works for non-profit witout benefits). With bills piling up and 40,000 in student loans to pay I began my non-academic job search.

Repackaging myself was difficult at first, but my university's career centre really helped me with my resume, cover letters, inteview tips. With new resume in hand, I scheduled "information interviews" with people in academic administration, non-profit and in government. In my experience, individuals in government and academic admin. have a pretty decent understanding of the value of a PhD and the skills that come along with it. In fact many of them also had doctorates.

Ultimately it took me about 3 months to land a position as an editor at the university where I did my postdoc. This is a union job, with full medical and dental benefits, generous pension plan, etc., and pays in the high 60k.

I must admit that adjusting to 9-5 office life has been difficult. The worst part is the loss of control (or perceived control) over my own time. Also, I'm not nearly as intellectually challenged by my current job as I was as a researcher and lecturer and this bothers me. But I also have SO MUCH less stress in my life and my family is so much happier (even though they were very supportive of my academic goals). I had no idea how much stress I (and they) was under until I left.

So while I admit to having had a hard time letting go of the dream to be a TT professor, I have come to appreciate the security and stability (emotional and economic) that this compromise has brought to me and my family.

And while I have let the academic dream die, I have not lost my professional ambition. My university offers fulltime staff free tuition (for me and my family) so in September 2011, I am going back to school part time to get an MA in archival science. My new goal is to work in special collections or an archive!

LMT

Anonymous said...

Last year I left academe for a non-academic job. I got my doctorate in history in 2007 and immediately accepted a two year postdoc at a top research institution. In those two years I published several articles, was offered a book contract and taught numerous courses. I also had 3 on campus job interviews but no job offers. The interview experience was absolutely soul crushing and each time it took me months to recover from the bad news.

I'm married and have one child. My husband is paid reasonably well and loves his job. My daughter loves her school and her various extra-curricular activities. It got harder and harder to justify moving them.

After I finished my postdoc last year, I was forced to make the decision to teach sessionally and make about 15,000 a year with minimal benefits, or to look for a permanent and better paying non-academic position with full benefits (husband works for non-profit witout benefits). With bills piling up and 40,000 in student loans to pay I began my non-academic job search.

Repackaging myself was difficult at first, but my university's career centre really helped me with my resume, cover letters, inteview tips. With new resume in hand, I scheduled "information interviews" with people in academic administration, non-profit and in government. In my experience, individuals in government and academic admin. have a pretty decent understanding of the value of a PhD and the skills that come along with it. In fact many of them also had doctorates.

Ultimately it took me about 3 months to land a position as an editor at the university where I did my postdoc. This is a union job, with full medical and dental benefits, generous pension plan, etc., and pays in the high 60k.

I must admit that adjusting to 9-5 office life has been difficult. The worst part is the loss of control (or perceived control) over my own time. Also, I'm not nearly as intellectually challenged by my current job as I was as a researcher and lecturer and this bothers me. But I also have SO MUCH less stress in my life and my family is so much happier (even though they were very supportive of my academic goals). I had no idea how much stress I (and they) was under until I left.

So while I admit to having had a hard time letting go of the dream to be a TT professor, I have come to appreciate the security and stability (emotional and economic) that this compromise has brought to me and my family.

And while I have let the academic dream die, I have not lost my professional ambition. My university offers fulltime staff free tuition (for me and my family) so in September 2011, I am going back to school part time to get an MA in archival science. My new goal is to work in special collections or an archive!

LMT

Anonymous said...

Last year I left academe for a non-academic job. I got my doctorate in history in 2007 and immediately accepted a two year postdoc at a top research institution. In those two years I published several articles, was offered a book contract and taught numerous courses. I also had 3 on campus job interviews but no job offers. The interview experience was absolutely soul crushing and each time it took me months to recover from the bad news.

I'm married and have one child. My husband is paid reasonably well and loves his job. My daughter loves her school and her various extra-curricular activities. It got harder and harder to justify moving them.

After I finished my postdoc last year, I was forced to make the decision to teach sessionally and make about 15,000 a year with minimal benefits, or to look for a permanent and better paying non-academic position with full benefits (husband works for non-profit witout benefits). With bills piling up and 40,000 in student loans to pay I began my non-academic job search.

Repackaging myself was difficult at first, but my university's career centre really helped me with my resume, cover letters, inteview tips. With new resume in hand, I scheduled "information interviews" with people in academic administration, non-profit and in government. In my experience, individuals in government and academic admin. have a pretty decent understanding of the value of a PhD and the skills that come along with it. In fact many of them also had doctorates.

Ultimately it took me about 3 months to land a position as an editor at the university where I did my postdoc. This is a union job, with full medical and dental benefits, generous pension plan, etc., and pays in the high 60k.

I must admit that adjusting to 9-5 office life has been difficult. The worst part is the loss of control (or perceived control) over my own time. Also, I'm not nearly as intellectually challenged by my current job as I was as a researcher and lecturer and this bothers me. But I also have SO MUCH less stress in my life and my family is so much happier (even though they were very supportive of my academic goals). I had no idea how much stress I (and they) was under until I left.

So while I admit to having had a hard time letting go of the dream to be a TT professor, I have come to appreciate the security and stability (emotional and economic) that this compromise has brought to me and my family.

And while I have let the academic dream die, I have not lost my professional ambition. My university offers fulltime staff free tuition (for me and my family) so in September 2011, I am going back to school part time to get an MA in archival science. My new goal is to work in special collections or an archive!

LMT

Eliza Woolf said...

Wow, LMT, I really enjoyed reading your personal story; thanks for sharing it here. You've definitely given me hope!

One trend I've noticed is that university career centers are in fact very helpful for those of with Ph.D.s who either can't or no longer want to find a tenure-track academic position. I am now convinced that a successful career change demands some outside assistance/perspective.

I wish you luck with your new position and plans to go back to school. If you ever return to the blog, I'm sure we'd all love to hear more about how you managed to land such a great 1st non-academic job.