As demand in academia lags, Humanities grads search for new options

When Jeremy Prichard entered the doctoral program in history at Kansas University, he did so assuming he would join the ranks of university professors afterward. But in the years since he started his doctorate, he has seen his peers, even the highly talented ones, struggle to find teaching jobs in academia.

“Because the job market is so tight, they (universities) really have the pick of the litter,” Prichard said. “Universities are producing more PhDs than there are teaching jobs.”

With his dissertation defense just months away, Prichard is considering what Plan B might look like if he can’t find a job as a college instructor. And he’s not alone.

As tenure-track jobs at universities decline, many highly educated and highly specialized graduates who studied the humanities and arts in master’s and doctoral programs are trying to figure out what else they can do with all their expertise.

Henry Fortunato wants to help them.

Fortunato, director of public affairs for the Kansas City Public Library and currently the Simons Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, has organized a panel series at the Hall Center aimed at helping graduate students in the arts and humanities search for jobs in the nonacademic world — or, as he calls it, the “applied humanities.”

The panels have brought in professionals who work in museums, historical archives, nonprofits, government and other areas that deal with history, the arts and other realms that a humanities graduate might be well-suited for.

Fortunato doesn’t see these other routes as alternates. “Let’s not call it Plan B. It’s a very viable Plan A,” he said. “If you can share your passion and your knowledge with the broader public, that’s a good thing.”

At a panel on Thursday, the advice from professionals was very much like what you would hear from any career counselor: network, join professional associations, go to conferences, get your name out there, volunteer and intern to get experience.

The difference is many graduate students don’t get advising on that sort of gumshoe job search. Their advisers are largely their professors, whose connections and career knowledge are largely limited to the academic world, Fortunato said.

‘We’ve given everything we could’

James Baker, a master’s student in African-American studies at KU, said that he, like Prichard, started the program thinking he would become a professor, but he’s “always looking for something that’s a little more hands on,” he said.

Outside of academia, Baker said he would be interested in jobs in city government, educational policy or in a housing authority, any of which would apply his knowledge and have a direct, immediate impact. “I want to be able to understand situations and change them,” he said.

That seems to be a common theme among those attracted to the humanities. They might be research-oriented, but they’re interested in learning about other people and cultures.

Tashia Dare, who recently earned her master’s in religious studies from KU, said humanities students learn empathy and cultural understanding, which can be widely applied beyond academia.

“There’s another world out there,” she said.

But some, like Prichard, would still prefer a job at a university — because it’s why they pursued higher degrees in the first place.

“We’ve committed ourselves to these programs,” Prichard said. “But universities aren’t committing to us, after we’ve given everything we could.”