Alternative career paths for College of Liberal Arts doctoral students

By: Nick Santangelo

How do you go from getting an advanced education to getting a job? For many doctoral students, the most obvious answer is to look for tenure-track faculty positions. That's certainly one viable path to take—but it's far from the only one.

On Tuesday, the Center for the Humanities at Temple (CHAT) hosted a panel on alternative career paths for College of Liberal Arts (CLA) doctoral students. The panel of Council of Library Information Resources (CLIR) postdoctoral fellows shared their experiences building skills for alternative career paths with CLA students.

"In Europe and in every other part of the world, getting a PhD does not mean you have to stay in academia," said Elliott Shore, the founding co-dean of the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship, "but for some reason in America if you don't you're ruled as a failure."

Dr. Shore, who's also a Bryn Mawr College history professor, started his career working in a library. He says about a third of those who do so eventually become tenure-track professors with another third staying in libraries and the last third going into IT and other jobs. As for IT, the professor initially worried that increasing digitization would endanger library jobs. Eventually, however, he realized it was creating a need for professionals with both doctoral research and digital technology experience under their belts.

Working as a CLIR postdoctoral fellow helped University of Florida's Crystal Felima come to a similar realization.

"I didn't know if social sciences had a place in digital humanities," she said.

Dr. Felima has been applying to both academic and industry jobs while in her postdoctoral fellowship with CLIR. She's had job offers from academia as well as one from FEMA and she's even considering a library position.

"This postdoc has been amazing because there are so many different opportunities for bridging this world together," said Dr. Felima. "Digital humanities is not just for folks in English departments."

Speaking of, Alex Wermer-Colan of Temple University's own Digital Scholarship Center earned his PhD in English. Dr. Wermer-Colan said his dream job while a student was to become a writer, even though he joked about the harsh reality of trying to get paid for writing. And at first he thought many of his CLIR postdoctoral fellow duties weren't in line with that.

"I was doing a lot of work that I did not think was going to be valuable to getting a job," said Dr. Wermer-Colan.

But then he realized how rewarding library work can be. His entire career trajectory changed thanks to the archival work he's done in the digital humanities.

University of Houston's Lorena Gauthereau also gained some new perspective through that work, learning about metadata ("data about data"). She spoke about how thrilled she was to be able to research literary works that only became available for study after her team recovered them through their digital archival. It's a job they do inside a university while actually working for a nonprofit, not a library.

"It's not where I saw myself before," said Dr. Gauthereau, "but now I can't see myself outside of there."

Jessica Linker of Bryn Mawr College originally studied computer programming before earning a PhD in history. Laughing, she admitted that might seem like a weird flex. It turned out, however, to be a complimentary one when she got involved with CLIR and gave library work a try. She got back into coding, learning new programming languages and working on a library virtual reality project. That's very different from the vision Dr. Linker had for herself before getting involved with CLIR when she thought she'd be working in the Hillary Clinton administration that never came to be.

Though each fellow sees a lot of benefits to working in higher ed, such as flexible schedules and excellent research opportunities, they now know PhD holders don't have to limit themselves to only academic positions. Dr. Shore hopes today's CLA doctoral students will discover the same, but he cautioned them to show some patience with their careers.

"One of the other things is your dream job is not normally your first job," he said with a laugh. "So give yourself a little time."