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Humanities PhD Holders in the corporate world: Unearthing Opportunities

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Among the humanities Ph.D.'s whom we interviewed were Robert Brawer and David Matthew. Brawer's degree, in medieval English literature, was from the University of Chicago. He taught for several years at the University of Wisconsin, was recommended for promotion, but was denied it because the line was not funded. Concluding that he did not want any of the other jobs then open, he made use of personal connections to get into the marketing department of Maidenform Inc. To his surprise and pleasure, he found the analytical problems in his new job not unlike those in his academic field. "Market research," he said, "is like any other kind of research. I'm very satisfied." He also commented that "the ability to sell is intimately related to the ability to teach."

Though Brawer had clearly left his academic discipline, he continued to teach part-time at night and to present scholarly papers. David Matthew became an entrepreneur and salesman halfway between academe and the world outside. A Ph.D. in English from Columbia, he taught for a time and truly enjoyed teaching. He became bored, however, with repeating the same material year after year, and he concluded that he did not yearn to produce the type or quantity of publication necessary for success in a prestigious university. After a long search for a nonteaching job, he found one that excited him-devising and marketing business training seminars and programmed learning systems. He said that in working on and selling these systems he was doing at least as much as he could as a professor to use his training in the humanities for educational purposes. And he added: "The difference between the university and business is that in business if you do a good job at what you're paid to do, you get promoted."

Interviews with people such as Brawer and Matthew, together with the survey data, convinced the two of us that the business world had many more openings for humanities Ph.D.'s than the large majority of either graduate students or professors even suspected. We did not suppose that humanities Ph.D.'s were any better suited for business than for government-federal, state, or local-or for employment by foundations or health-care facilities or other such in-between organizations. We did observe, however, that, largely out of prejudice compounded by ignorance, graduate students were disposed not to think of business as an alternative to academe. Aware that the private sector is where the majority of challenging and well-paid jobs are to be found, we sounded out some corporate hiring officers but found them almost equally prejudiced. They seemed to assume that humanities graduate students had made a definite decision against a business career and also that they were unsuited for such careers.



We thought that the barrier of misunderstanding could and should be broken. The New York State Regents agreed to sponsor a demonstration project. Funds came from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Exxon Education Foundation and from companies as diverse as AT&T, Time Inc., the Prudential and Metropolitan insurance companies, Dupont, Federated Department Stores, Pfizer, Sun Chemical, General Motors, and Ford. The NYU Graduate School of Business Administration agreed to offer a 7-week summer "Careers in Business" program.

In each of two successive summers, 45-50 outstanding humanities Ph.D.'s and near Ph.D.'s were recruited for this program. Once corporate personnel officers saw the quality of these people-many of whom had served several years as assistant professors-more than threescore major companies lined up to interview them. Alumni were hired for jobs ranging from administrator of a corporate foundation to analyst of economic forecasts for an investment management concern to account executive for an advertising agency to line manager in an insurance company. On the average, they were starting at salaries comparable to those of M.B. A.'s and far above those standards for junior faculty.

That humanities Ph.D.'s can find careers in business appealing and that business concerns can in turn see in humanities Ph.D.'s an untapped reservoir of talent is witnessed by the fact that NYU continued its 7-week summer orientation program, supporting it through a combination of tuition and corporate donations. Further testimony is imitation of the NYU program by Harvard, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, UCLA, and elsewhere.3 As a result of the demonstration project and its effects, students have had before them more role models to challenge their prejudices, and corporate hiring officers have had fresh examples proving that their assumptions at least require room for exceptions.

The chief point that emerges from survey data, interviews, Regents of the University of the State of New York, Careers in Business (Albany, N.Y., 1978), Careers in Business, 1979 (Albany, N.Y., 1979), and NYU Graduate School of Business Administration, Careers in Business, 1980 (New York, 1980) and the results of the demonstration project is that humanities Ph.D.'s and graduate students have open to them career opportunities that are at least as numerous and varied as those open to liberal arts B.A/s. Graduate training does not in itself disqualify anyone for any job. All that people with such training have to do is to define themselves in terms of their general capabilities, not their dissertation subjects or academic specialties.

All this, however, speaks only to the question of whether humanities Ph.D.'s can find jobs outside of academe. Whether doctoral training in the humanities has value in such jobs is harder to assess. It can be argued that the training enhances general capabilities, an M.A. or Ph.D. giving added value to liberal arts B.A. Training in law or in economics is thought somehow to provide advantages in business or government. The proposition is not farfetched on its face that literature, history, or philosophy can hone the mind at least as well as torts and real property, Phillips curves, or shadow prices.

Alternatively, it can be argued that graduate training in a subject such as medieval literature, Latin American history, or phenomenology should be considered an indulgence, like a college tennis player's taking a fling on the tournament circuit or a college actor's working awhile in a repertory company- personally rewarding but in practical terms simply postponing progress in a career. It can even be contended that graduate training imposes a handicap. When a group of executives from the news media met with the two of us to discuss the subject matter of this book, nearly all said that they were disposed not to hire Ph.D.'s. A Ph.D., they agreed, was too little likely to be comfortable with the approximations of truth required by newspapers, newsmagazines, and radio and television. Executives in other industries similarly expressed doubt as to whether people who took years to write a dissertation could accommodate themselves to worldly deadlines.

Because of the great variety within the sample, the HERI survey results do not say clearly which of these hypotheses has the strongest empirical support. A distressingly high 54% of the nonacademic rated themselves as underemployed, and only about a quarter of this group indicated that, for family or other reasons, they preferred to remain so. This group included not only the cabdrivers and tree trimmers but also a large number, mostly but not exclusively female, doing secretarial or clerical work-in most instances as employees of colleges or universities. Note should be taken, however, that the proportion rating themselves underemployed was not much smaller among teachers. In the faculty sample, 40% so described themselves.

The best evidence of how humanities PhD's appraise their training comes from the respondents' ratings of the extent to which particular skills or abilities had been enhanced by graduate training, coupled with their ratings of the importance of these skills or abilities in individual careers. Academics judged teaching ability and critical thinking to be far ahead of other needed skills, followed by a cluster that included general knowledge, insight, self-discipline, self-confidence, writing ability, and perseverance. Toward the bottom of their lists were research techniques, imagination, and leadership.

on-academics put critical thinking alone at the very top of their inventories. Self-confidence and self-discipline ranked high, followed by writing ability, perseverance, and general knowledge. Although the non-academics tended to mention leadership more often than did the academics, they also placed it low, along with research techniques, imagination, and teaching ability.

Reflecting on their graduate school experience, both groups concluded that it had enhanced more than anything else the one skill that both prized most highly-critical thinking. Many fewer than half of the academics thought it had equipped them with the other skill they valued-teaching ability. Both groups agreed that their other legacy was knowledge of research techniques, something to which less than two-thirds of the teachers and only a little more than half of the non-academics attached great value. Among skills that both academics and non-academics scored as important but of second order, self-discipline and perseverance were perceived by both as being helpful, followed by general knowledge and writing ability. Both groups agreed that graduate school had added little to their self-confidence, teaching ability, imagination, or capacity for leadership.
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