Graduate Studies

Beyond the Numbers: Plotting the Field of Humanities PhDs at Work

Kelly Anne Brown

Speaking at the 2015 meeting of the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes, Jill Lepore argued that humanists are “needed at the scene of every crime. Not to look at the many, but at the one. Not numbers, but words. Not distance, but closeness” (“Humanities”).1 Lepore’s provocation seems to address a potential fetishization of numbers for numbers’ sake—and delivered at a conference whose theme was “Humanities by the Numbers,” it questioned both why we collect data and how we use them. The need to broaden a comprehensive project of tracking the placement of humanities PhDs in a variety of careers is, similar to Lepore’s comments about the role of humanities scholars, about the one among the many. If anyone will investigate what kinds of stories lie behind big data, numbers that seemingly need no explanation or justification, surely it is scholars of the humanities. And yet collectively we are at a loss for both the numbers and the individual stories and experiences that give context to those numbers. Our understanding of professionalization is limited by our knowledge of how our PhDs are already working outside and alongside the academy. Though tracking those who left the academy to pursue a range of careers postdegree looks from the outset to be an exercise in data collection, it is really about the stories—absent, untold, ignored—for which we use numbers as a placeholder. For decades, humanities PhDs have pursued a range of career opportunities, and until fairly recently the universe of academia, be it departments, graduate divisions, or professional organizations, has not been overly interested in their experiences. Usually not included on department tracking pages, these graduates represent our unknown collective history of how graduate education is at work in the world. Were they to be made public, these numbers, and the stories behind them, would be of great benefit to current students who must imagine a variety of professional trajectories, administrators who program professionalization activities, and mentors who are out of touch (in all the ways we can imagine) with former students. Furthermore, the endeavor to track PhDs at work would be as revealing about us as institutions as it could be about the individual degree holders. Critical and institutionally supported engagement with tracking, as a tool and as a process, offers an opportunity to reflect on the individual trajectories of students, the work of graduate programs, and the institutional responsibility to know where, if not how, our students put to use their doctoral education.

The History of Tracking PhDs and Why We Need to Do More of It

Tracking projects seem to be everywhere and nowhere. In the University of California system, the Office of the President surveys PhDs one year out from their degree through the UC Doctoral Placement Survey.2 Add to this the efforts of the federally sponsored Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) and the many campus-based graduate divisions that administer an exit survey to PhDs upon graduation, the purpose of which is to identify employment plans as volunteered by recent graduates.3 Across the UC system, several graduate divisions and humanities centers have begun to track PhDs who pursue varied careers after receiving their degree. Among them is the UC Davis Humanities Institute. Molly McCarthy, associate director of the institute, has led a cross-college team to collect data about humanities graduates. She notes that “much of [the team’s] success collecting this data is due to graduate students taking the lead” and negotiating with their departments to pursue the information, although “no one has yet figured out what to do with the data.” To date, no comprehensive analysis of the UC Davis data has been performed, and this outcome is not unusual; collected employment data often languish in databases, not readily available even to those centers and departments who collected the data. This scenario is surprising, considering the extraordinary labor required by tracking projects and the value of these data for current graduate students and their university-based support systems. In some cases, tracking projects have either stopped entirely or exist in a bureaucratic limbo, collected but invisible to current graduate students, faculty members, and administrators. Of course, when legal departments get involved, the individual data collected by departments cannot be shared on Web sites and in other public forums without the consent of each student mentioned by name, for reasons of privacy.

Notable among recent large-scale tracking initiatives are projects of the Humanities Indicators, the Scholarly Communication Institute, the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association; the Ph.D. Placement Project; and the TRaCE Project.4 The AHA and the Humanities Indicators, for example, compile national data and offer a broad perspective on the state of the profession. This data collection is an important first step toward a culture change in the academy, since it begins to make visible the range of work environments of PhDs in non-tenure-track teaching positions. But is this identification enough? Those of us who have already engaged in this data-collection process think not. A standardized approach to data collection must begin with the intent to analyze the data and continue with the goal of discovering the nuanced stories behind the numbers. We need to begin by asking ourselves what we want to know about these graduates and their careers. Questions would include the following: What kind of longitudinal information might be helpful to track as programs advise graduate students on future career paths? What challenges do graduates face as they transition to life after graduation, and how can programs better support them? What level of career satisfaction do our graduates report one year, five years, and ten years after having received the doctorate? How do graduates pursue a variety of scholarly activities after leaving the university? What kind of resistance do they face, if any, upon entering the work world outside the academy? The analytic foci will vary from university to university and from discipline to discipline, but they should always involve input from current graduate students.

At Humanists@Work, we have begun a process to track humanities PhDs across the UC system through our Humwork initiative, a project organized by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI).5 Humwork includes current and recent graduate students in developing programming that makes a variety of career paths and training opportunities accessible to humanities MAs and PhDs. Humanists@Work hosts an online publishing and resources platform (, runs biannual statewide workshops, and offers paid summer internships and advisory committee positions to support the professionalization of humanities PhDs and include them as primary collaborators in the process of developing professionalization activities and conversations. We also are beginning a collaboration with language and literature departments across the UC system to track the employment placement of graduated PhDs. Yet, throughout our Humwork programming, we have had little luck discovering where our graduates are working and how they are using their advanced degrees outside the academy. How can we program professionalization seminars and all-day workshops, much less create entirely new graduate programs, without information about how and where our PhD alumni are at work in the world?

To gain the understanding required for good professionalization training of our humanities PhDs, we developed the project Humanists@Work: Where Are the Humanities PhDs? Over the past two summers, three humanities PhDs have worked as interns to develop and update a database of humanities PhDs at work. These initial forays into tracking served as the basis for the MLA’s Connected Academics tracking project we are pursuing for the next two years. By partnering with two language and literature departments at eight of the ten UC campuses to track PhDs, we will collect data that reach back to at least 2011 and continue to track students after they graduate.6 We hope that in partnership with these departments we can begin to change the culture as it pertains to the acceptance of, and support for, careers outside and alongside the academy. To support our students as they transition to careers after graduate school, we must at the very least acknowledge the history of PhDs at work.

Why Track? Why Now?

Our efforts are just the beginning of a process that tracks PhDs, even those who leave the program with ABD status (“all but dissertation”), to enable universities to tell an accurate story about the diverse impact and importance of graduate programs. Placement information of former students allows organizers of professionalization initiatives and departmental programs to analyze for what careers graduate education has prepared students.7 Program directors can use the information gained from tracking graduates to actively engage with the career journeys of current students, even before students take their first graduate seminar and throughout the rest of their studies, and also collaborate with students to articulate the relevance of graduate education for a variety of work spheres. Program organizers might also use placement information to reflect on how graduate pedagogies can better support students as they transition to different professional positions—and in so doing adopt a proactive response to the current reality of life after graduate school. Ultimately, an institutional drive to track PhDs will empower students to make choices that align with their financial, social, and geographic needs and desires by providing them with access to a network of PhDs at work in the world and communicating to them that diverse outcomes are an acceptable, and sometimes celebrated, result.

By tracking students, directors will be in a better position to answer questions about the impact of their graduate programs: What are the trends or notable details regarding where students go to work postdegree? What role, if any, do we (as a department? as faculty members? as graduate students with diverse interests and work histories?) have to play in tracking placement information? How has the program, either purposely or inadvertently, trained PhDs to work in a variety of careers? How might we rethink our graduate curriculum to address the emerging needs for specific skills, expertise, and experiences for potential careers as identified by graduate students and as reported by graduates? To be useful to students and program organizers, answers to these questions must take into account the long and diverse history of humanities PhD career pathways and acknowledge an academic job market that has not and cannot supply all PhDs with tenure-track teaching positions.8 As departments are asked to create learning outcomes and objectives for undergraduate and graduate students, tracking PhDs speaks to an institutional accountability for the graduate student population in particular. This accountability, however, must extend beyond our supporting students to land tenure-track teaching positions at the highest-level research (R1) universities to encompass the vast spectrum of professional trajectories. Doing so requires us to confront the issue of how departmental and university prestige has been measured historically and to propose new models for evaluating institutional and individual success.

Tracking all graduate students is an institutional responsibility for which programs and universities must hold themselves accountable. Departments tend to reliably collect data from graduates who have gone on to obtain tenure-track teaching positions, and this information is celebrated on the placement page on departmental Web sites. But what of those graduates who never intended to pursue teaching positions or who decided to forego the precarious journey toward an increasingly improbable tenure-track position?9 Where are these PhDs now, and in what kind of work are they engaged? What kind of salary, and retirement, are they earning? Information about these graduates is rarely included on departmental Web sites, and departments and universities provide professionalization activities without significant knowledge of their former students’ professional trajectories. In part, this situation has something to do with an antiquated notion of placing students in jobs.10 All too often, the PhDs who find employment beyond the academy did so by way of their personal networks, with little help from faculty advisers and mentors.11 But the missing stories of many PhDs also speaks to very real, if outdated, notions of professional success and failure in the academy and of what we are training graduate students to do. Even if fifty percent of PhDs find tenure-track employment upon graduation (and many argue that this number does not reflect current conditions), the other half will go on to secure other kinds of positions. In truth, we don’t know what we are training the other fifty percent of students to do. And although there are both real and perceived repercussions for certain kinds of placements, there are also a variety of intellectual, social, and institutional benefits for engaging in the difficult work of tracking and reflecting on the information we receive about our PhDs at work.

Tracking will yield data that can counterproductively influence rating a department’s record of success, should that notion of success follow a paradigm that privileges R1 tenure-track teaching over other forms of teaching and teaching in any form over other kinds of work. But for those programs and departments that value the influence of advanced humanistic education in arenas beyond the academy, these data will reveal the range of career outcomes that have resulted from the programs’ or departments’ graduate education and perhaps will reflect on their role in preparing students for nonacademic careers.12 David Laurence suggests that a program’s view of placement information

comes down to a question of the attitude or affect that accompanies the recognition of the fact that doctoral program graduates make careers beyond the postsecondary classroom and teaching. Does the fact inspire a celebratory sense of success, both for the individual graduate and on the part of the doctoral program and its faculty? Or is it met with mournful resignation and a reflexive sense that, rightly judged, placements and careers other than the career in scholarship and teaching as a tenured faculty member can only be evaluated as failure—a failure on the part of the individual graduate, of the program and the members of its faculty, and also of the wider profession? And what are the underlying suppositions and convictions that produce one or another affective connection to the placement facts?13

Laurence identifies the range of potential responses to the “fact[s]” made real through tracking data. One wonders, however, how often such a reflexive conversation about reactions to placement data is taking place anywhere in the university. Would data collection prompt such reflection, and, if so, how might quantitative and qualitative data affect the range of affective responses? Ultimately, we must move the conversation about career diversity beyond the theoretical and put faces, names, and careers to those missing PhDs who do not grace departmental Web sites, and collecting comprehensive data is an important first step.

What Tracking Contributes to the University

Knowing how PhDs are at work in the world allows us to begin to understand the relevance of our existing graduate education programs. We can start by acknowledging the places of employment and job titles of our former students; although this information isn’t enough to help us understand how graduate training prepared them for these careers, it does open the door to new voices. This acknowledgment is a symbolic opening of the doors of the university, for sure, but it could expand to take into account the graduate school and post-graduate-school experiences of these former students, as a way to identify how graduate programs may develop to better support their current students. What will we find when we collect, compile, and analyze employment trends for a particular department? And at this point it is critical to acknowledge that tracking our students and inviting their narratives back into the university asks us to examine our institutions and our roles in them as much as it asks us to acknowledge our former students. Our histories are intertwined.

We are beginning this process of analysis at Humwork. Figure 1 shows the distribution of career fields and highlights a few professional titles from a representative sample of the more than two hundred UC humanities and humanistic social science PhDs at work in nonteaching positions. The size of each circle corresponds to the number of individuals working in a career field; not surprisingly, most humanities PhDs who do not obtain tenure-track teaching positions pursue other education-related career fields or work in the nonprofit sector. Though interesting, especially in terms of the smaller circles, the graphic and the data behind it suffer from incompleteness and incomparability. The graphic is incomplete in that it only includes data for those who we’ve been able to identify as former UC humanities graduate students and are findable through online searches (primarily through Google and LinkedIn). It also suffers from combining outcomes in a way that doesn’t attend to difference, placing students from more than thirty departments across ten large universities side by side, without attention to differences between, say, an art history PhD from UC Santa Barbara and a literature PhD from UC Santa Cruz, or between those who graduated over a decade ago and those who graduated last June. The graphic also does not include the very large group of PhDs serving in adjunct positions in the academy.14 This graphic is one example of how a national or statewide tracking project may be instructive but in partnership with campus-based tracking could articulate a more nuanced, and less abstract, reality.

Figure 1

Figure 1


Through tracking our PhDs we might also discover different models for how the humanities matter—beyond the university. Of course the humanities do matter, though we increasingly find ourselves in the position of defending their relevance to a variety of publics. Ironically, this defense occurs alongside a very public celebration by tech firms of the value of advanced study in the humanities (see, e.g., Wadhwa; Reisz; Horowitz). And yet I’m not sure that many departments can identify how their most highly educated humanistic thinkers—besides the ones engaged in university teaching positions—do contribute to working worlds beyond the university. Again, discovering where our former students employ their advanced humanistic training, and the publics they serve, is a good start. If we take our tracking initiatives even further and spend time evaluating how these individuals have or are currently shaping their organizations, the stories of current PhDs at work will provide compelling cases for why and how the humanities matter. Furthermore, this kind of engagement with PhDs outside the academy will make space for these stories to return to the university, simultaneously paving a variety of career paths for current graduate students and allowing for the existence of more capacious institutional messages regarding the importance of the humanities. It’s critical that as we engage in tracking we balance numbers with narratives.

This kind of work is under way across the UC system. We are pursuing both broad-based initiatives that track humanities PhDs globally and localized, campus-specific projects that focus on individual graduate students and programs. Our LinkedIn group, PhDs in the Humanities, for example, is an opportunity for humanities PhDs anywhere in the world to connect with one another, learn about different professional trajectories, share experiences, and network. From a data-collection standpoint, we see great potential in LinkedIn as a venue to evaluate how PhDs are at work and to learn more about how they pursue particular professional development as they move throughout their careers. We also see the benefit of LinkedIn for current graduate students, who have asked for help imagining potential career fields. We are currently offering programming that demonstrates how LinkedIn can be used to search for jobs and how students can build profiles that effectively represent doctoral-level education in the humanities.

At Humwork, we’ve also engaged in a series of narrative-based projects to highlight individual PhDs. Though we recognize the importance of thinking about the many, including broad surveys of PhDs, we emphasize individual stories when discussing and representing career diversity. Our Stories from the Field interview series was created, in part, to break the silence around pursuing nonacademic or alternative (“alt-ac”) careers. In many ways, this series is the inverse of the big national data projects. Through this series we ask recent UC humanities PhDs employed in careers outside or alongside the academy to talk about their current positions and reflect on their paths from the doctorate to employment. Although we believe that tracking these individuals is critical, we want to know more than just where they went and what they’re doing postgraduation. We want to hear about how they made the transition from the academy to government or a nonprofit organization, including the culture change that comes with entering a new profession. What served them well in graduate school? What would they do differently? How, for example, have they meaningfully contributed to struggles for social justice or educational reform?15 Stories from the Field also seeks to introduce current and future students of humanities doctoral programs to the range of careers pursued by peers who have similar education and training. Through this series we’re beginning to plot, drawing lines around experiences and through various career paths in the hopes of discovering what the field of humanists at work looks like.

Plotting this field is partly a numbers game and as such is prone to easy display in charts and graphs, which capture the number of PhDs, the number employed in various sectors, and the year in which they graduated. But a comprehensive tracking project can be so much more than a list of such entries. As part of our history, the PhDs who have pursued careers beyond the academy represent an enlargement of our plot, and in a way that enlargement invites diversity into the humanities more generally. To understand the trajectory of higher education as it influences organizations outside and alongside the academy, we must begin by tracking the data and attending to the numbers by asking questions that further our interests. As individuals who are already generating complex questions that open up the data in promising ways and prompting action on behalf of their programs to collect and work with the data, graduate students may be ideal partners for this project. We can’t, however, ask our graduate students to do this work on their own. Tracking must be a partnership that transcends hierarchical divisions of labor in the academy, reaches across campus departments and units, and ultimately connects with professional organizations. There are so many reasons we should track humanities graduates: to diversify the stories we tell about the impact of our graduate education, to add to our public case for why and how the humanities matter, to honor our PhDs as individuals with interests and capacities that extend beyond the university, and to make space for faculty and staff members to reflect on our responsibilities to doctoral students. Tracking can bridge the gulf that awaits PhDs when they leave the academy and pursue other kinds of careers, but it must be done with these purposes in mind and with the commitment to work with and share the data and stories as widely as possible.


With gratitude to Whitney DeVos, Anna Finn, Beth Greene, Diana Hicks, Rebecca Lippman, and Amanda Wortman for their insights into these issues and feedback on this essay.

  1. Tracking humanities PhDs is, similarly, about the one among the many.
  2. Similar surveys are distributed at individual campuses within the UC system, often by graduate divisions.
  3. The SED consistently finds that the humanities have the lowest percentage of graduates reporting a definite postgraduation commitment for employment or postdoctoral study (Laurence, “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part I”).
  4. The Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), a federal government survey and companion to the SED, tracks a sample of PhDs from the time they receive their degrees to age seventy-five. Because of government funding cuts, the SDR no longer tracks humanities PhDs; the last SDR data for humanities PhDs date from 1995.
  5. Humanists@Work is a partner of the MLA’s Connected Academics.
  6. A representative sample of participating departments includes comparative literature, East Asian languages and literatures, Spanish and Portuguese, and English.
  7. In “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 2,” David Laurence notes, “Employment outside higher education, whether in K–12 education, government, not-for-profit organizations, or for-profit enterprises, has actually seen significant decline since the 1980s.” The claims in his study are based on data for placements of graduates just one year out from degree, when many students, and especially humanities students, have not yet landed a full-time position. What may not be explicit in these figures is the pipeline that ushers humanities PhDs right from their degree programs into the pool of contingent laborers. What results is an almost inexhaustible source of cheap labor for the university.
  8. As Laurence notes in “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part I,” “At the best, across the record of fourteen MLA surveys over three decades, just above half of a given year’s graduates have found placement to tenure-track faculty appointments in the year they received their degrees. In trough years, the figure has dropped below 40%.”
  9. For those PhDs graduating from nonelite universities, the odds of landing a tenure-track position are likened to the odds of winning the lottery. Joel Warner and Aaron Clauset cite a new study of faculty members in three different disciplines from over two hundred schools that found that a quarter of universities account for “71 to 86 percent of tenure-track faculty.” And the academic hierarchy “slip” impacts even those graduating from elite institutions, and disproportionately affects women. So what of the “dirty secret” that everyone knows? The majority of PhDs who graduate from nonelite universities move into contingent labor or fields outside or alongside the academy.
  10. Leonard Cassuto identifies a rethinking of our use of the term placement as an important first step toward rethinking the professional goals for our graduate students and instituting comprehensive reform, as it pertains to a more inclusive definition of professional success for our graduates.
  11. For students who do not come from families of privilege, the challenge of networking is having a network at all. And because a successful transition to professional positions outside the academy so often depends on introductions provided by one’s network, these students find themselves doubly disadvantaged: their graduate school network does not often help them with careers outside the academy, and they do not have personal networks to fall back on.
  12. Engaging in this work, however, opens departments and programs up to the potentially harsh reality that they may have had little to do with a graduate’s postdoctorate employment. An openness to this feedback might also indicate a willingness to rethink the purpose of the graduate education. Perhaps for the humanities we need to think about the doctorate’s use as one that includes obtaining a variety of careers postdegree but also as one that extends beyond this career-objective function. And at the same time, it is important that we make space for stories and experiences that don’t read as entirely positive or upbeat, so as to acknowledge a range of postdoctorate experiences.
  13. These comments appeared in an exchange on a working draft.
  14. Our original purpose in creating this graphic was to highlight job positions outside the academy, since many graduate students are unable to envision career trajectories other than those whose primary mission is to teach in the classroom. We realize that this omission obscures the very real labor issues faced by PhDs, and we will revise our graphic so that it includes contingent labor.
  15. At our Sacramento Humanists@Work workshop we convened a Stories from the Field panel that featured a UC Santa Cruz literature PhD who works in Santa Cruz city government as the lead on a municipally owned fiber-optic network, a UC Berkeley rhetoric PhD who left her lecturer position to direct academic programs at the San Quentin–based Prison University Project, and a UCLA cultural studies PhD who directs programs at YouthSpeaks. In the moderated panel, all three participants noted their commitment to issues of social justice and serving particular audiences as a crucial factor for pursuing these career paths.

Works Cited

Cassuto, Leonard. “Keyword: Placement.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 9 Apr. 2012,

Horowitz, Damon. “From Technologist to Philosopher.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 July 2011,

“Humanities by the Numbers: CHCI Annual Meeting June 2015.” Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes,

Laurence, David. “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part I.” The Trend, MLA Office of Research, 26 Feb. 2014,

———. “Our PhD Employment Problem, Part 2.” The Trend, MLA Office of Research, 11 Mar. 2014,

Reisz, Matthew. “Google Leads Search for Humanities PhD Graduates.” The Times Higher Education, 19 May 2011,

Wadhwa, Vivek. “Why Silicon Valley Needs Humanities PhDs.” The Washington Post, 17 May 2012,

Warner, Joel, and Aaron Clauset. “The Academy’s Dirty Secret.” Slate, 23 Feb. 2015,

Kelly Anne Brown is assistant director at the University of California Humanities Research Institute.


Published 26 May 2017

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