What Can You Do With a PhD?

Current and Former Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows (Caroline Harper, Nicole Ivy, Karen Shanton, Cecily Garber, and Joan Fragaszy-Troyano) at ACLS’s Annual Meeting, 2016. Photo courtesy of the American Council of Learned Societies.

Through an innovative fellowship program, the American Council of Learned Societies helps humanities PhDs find opportunities in public service.

Editor's note: The ACLS Public Fellows program was relaunched in 2020 as the Leading Edge Fellowship program. Click here for details and to apply

Karen Shanton assumed she would become a professor once she completed her doctorate in philosophy. For many years, that’s the course doctoral students have taken, and it was considered odd, even heretical, to stray from that path.

But as she finished her dissertation, Karen learned of the Public Fellows program established by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Through it she found her way to a fellowship position at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), a bipartisan professional organization for state legislators and their staff.

"I had always been interested in political science, and especially state political issues," she recalled.

Her supervisor at NCSL, Brian Weberg, director of legislative studies, admitted to at first being “a little intimidated” at the prospect of having a PhD in philosophy under his purview.  “But Karen adapted very quickly and was soon part of the team, working on voter identification issues.”

Weberg noted how Shanton’s academic training really stood out, especially when it came to conducting research on voter laws and registration. She focused specifically on chronicling efforts to curtail voting rights in a number of states; and the results of her research appeared in a number of publications, including Slate and Politico. 

Shanton readily agrees that her academic training in philosophy was useful. "Philosophy is a formal discipline; a way of approaching a question, using logical thinking. There's an intellectual creativity to it—figuring out what you need to know, and figuring out ways to find that out.”

On the other hand, she adds, “Working outside of academe was an opportunity to address general audiences, and to speak more immediately.  I think there are a lot of people in academe who are interested in addressing general audiences.”

These are hardly the kind of jobs traditionally envisioned for a PhD in the humanities—which is precisely the point of an innovative program that encourages recent PhDs in the humanities to think "outside the box," and gain hands-on experience in jobs outside of academia. 

woman standing in front of neoclassical buildingKaren Shanton in Denver during her fellowship at the National Council of State Legislatures, 2013. Photo credit: Matthew Staver/The New York Times/Redux Pictures.

Established in 2011, the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program offers recent PhDs from a wide array of humanistic disciplines two-year paid placements at selected government agencies and other non-profit institutions. ACLS works closely with organizations to develop fellowship positions that carry substantive portfolios of responsibilities. Fellowship applications undergo a rigorous peer-review process overseen by ACLS, and finalists selected through this process go on to a round of interviews by senior staff at the program’s partnering host organizations. Each two-year appointment comes with an annual stipend of $65,000, health insurance coverage, and up to $3,000 in professional development funds. Fellows are mentored by professionals in their new field and participate in a seminar at the mid-point of their fellowships that fosters networking among fellows and provides career guidance.  

John Paul Christy, director of public programs at ACLS (and himself a PhD in classical studies), explained that the program has really taken off. “In the first year we placed eight fellows, then 13 in the second, then 20 in the third, which is its present level.” As of June 2016, more than 100 Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows participated in the program.

The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program represents a significant and timely step toward addressing a number of critical issues confronting today's doctoral students—not the least of which are economic.

"This generation of graduate students in the humanities is facing career challenges that are arguably greater than at any other time in the history of American higher education," said Eugene Tobin, a senior program officer for the Mellon Foundation's program for Higher Education and Scholarship in the Humanities. "Since the early 1970s, the average percentage of tenured professors or professors on tenure track in this country has dropped from approximately 70 percent to 30 percent, which makes this ACLS program so critically important."   

Doctorate Recipients with Definite Employment or Study Commitments at Graduation, by Field of Study
Humanitites Indicators 2013.jpg

While humanities PhDs have greater success in securing academic employment at graduation than PhDs in other disciplines, the field lags behind others in exploiting non-academic pathways.

Source: National Opinion Research Center, "Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities: Summary Report 2006" (2007). Via the Humanities Indicators Project, 2013. Chart courtesy of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

"The economic crunch for PhD jobs was something we certainly recognized and tried to address with a number of our fellowship programs at ACLS," said Christy. "But it should be stressed that these non-academic career paths are a matter of choice, not necessity." And the fellows are not the only intended beneficiaries, he adds. Another goal is "maintaining and enhancing the health and vitality of these academic disciplines." 

Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows are keenly aware that their decision to pursue non-academic careers is unusual, and breaks a long-standing tradition.  As one former fellow concedes, "For a while it was taboo to even think of going outside academia in your job search."

But such attitudes are becoming less prevalent, and, as Christy notes, the success of the program "is an indication, an affirmation, that PhDs in the humanities have skills that are very valuable and widely applicable to other spheres."

Laurel Seely Voloder, a 2011 Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow, credits a volunteer job assisting immigrants to America, including refugees from the Bosnian war, for her early interest in the Balkans, which led her to a PhD in Literature, with a focus on Cultural Studies of the Balkans. She was keenly aware, however, that a doctorate in such a specialized area afforded her only the narrowest opportunities for finding a professorship in her chosen field. "Fortunately, I had an advisor who was very understanding, and very frank about how I needed to really market myself to get a job." 

While completing her dissertation in Sarajevo, Laurel became aware of several openings for Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows in the State Department. After a year with the Department's Bureau of Democracy, Rights and Labor, advocating for religious freedom in Europe, she transferred to the Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).        

She seconds Karen's emphasis on the value of PhD-honed skills, such as critical thinking and the ability to do independent and rigorous research, in non-academic positions, adding that the facility for absorbing and digesting large amounts of information in a timely fashion was also a huge advantage.          

Perhaps most gratifying of all, in most instances jobs held by Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows have led—both through experience and professional contacts made—to full time permanent positions in related fields.

Karen went on to take a position at Ballotpedia, a non-partisan political resource and watchdog organization, where she is involved in a fact-checking group. This election year has of course been keeping Karen and her colleagues especially busy.

Shortly after the end of her fellowship, Laurel obtained a permanent civil service position at the State Department's ECA, where she works on a team that oversees exchange programs for foreign high school students and teachers as well as doctors wishing to do temporary residencies in this country.

While it can be difficult, and, often downright scary for these PhDs to launch themselves into a totally new environment, the Public Fellows seminars and a new Public Fellows Alumni Committee, also coordinated by ACLS, help ease that transition.

Historian Christopher Barthel was a 2013 Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at New York's Center for Jewish History, where he is now Senior Manager for Academic and Public Programs. Barthel wrote a frank and helpful article about his experiences, Career Paths Beyond the Academy.

"Doctoral programs prepare students for careers as scholars,” Barthel wrote. “One develops lots of widely applicable skills along the way but there is no getting around the fact that most non-academic positions will require additional experience.”

The Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program is in charge of making sure that additional experience is within reach. By placing PhDs in these fellowships, the program is proving the ability of experts in the humanities to contribute to more than the academic ecosystem with research. PhDs are learning real, applicable skills in their fellowships, and are contributing in ways that can change and significantly improve the abilities of an organization to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

“Mellon is dedicated to demonstrating the ways that teaching and scholarship can ultimately make contributions to public life," says Eugene Tobin. "We could not be more proud of these entrepreneurial, innovative, and creative PhDs who are prepared for a variety of challenging, diverse, and productive careers."