Help Wanted

By Chad Galts / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007

"It's like I'm sticking a knife in them," Beverly Ehrich says of the reaction graduate students have when she first suggests they may have brighter job prospects outside academia.
Photograph by John Forasté

Ten years ago, promising undergraduates who had a flair for their field were often counseled to go on to graduate school and even consider college teaching as a career. Times have changed. In 1997, 42,705 Ph.D.s were awarded in the United States - more than double the number awarded in 1966. Over the same period, the number of tenure-track academic appointments has decreased, especially in the humanities. Thanks to a new program at Brown's career planning office, many would-be scholars are being shown a better way.

The program, headed by Beverly Ehrich, a career counselor who has been through two graduate programs herself, helps graduate students adapt their skills for jobs outside the classroom. For many, says Ehrich, the transition isn't easy. "Grad students who come in here are often afraid of how they'll be seen by professors or other students," she says. "They're supposed to know what they're doing: they have a career - they're going into teaching. They've been working toward an academic career for their entire lives. It's like I'm sticking a knife in them."

Though painful, the process is aimed at getting graduate students to realize the useful skills they already have. "They can conceptualize, speak, advocate, acknowledge different realities, and synthesize information," Ehrich says. "Now they just have to package themselves in a different way." And companies are paying attention. Corporations, especially in the field of management consulting, have begun to understand that there is intellectual runoff at the country's research universities. Some have even begun to actively target grad students. "For a long time these companies didn't know what to do with them," Ehrich says. "They were older than the other kids who were applying for jobs, but they didn't seem to have any more work experience."

Alternative career counseling, says Peder Estrup, dean of the graduate school, is an unfortunate, but necessary, part of the modern academic equation. Incoming graduate students in a competitive field are warned about the paucity of jobs, he says, and students are urged to think as broadly as possible about their future. "It's not a secret to anyone," he says. "In the humanities in particular, the job market just isn't as promising as it used to be. If you have your heart set on a tenure-track academic position and nothing else," he adds, "you can be really disappointed."

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September / October 1999