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."
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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.