The Anxiety Issue seems like the appropriate venue to think about the most anxiety provoking of all the questions that I receive from students and parents: Will a degree in Jewish Studies get me (or my child) a job? Once upon a time, job training was not seen as the primary purpose of an undergraduate college major. Instead, majors like Jewish Studies trained students to think, research, and write. Of course, we also added to our students' store of knowledge and sometimes helped them to explore their personal identities. Most importantly, though, we pushed them to broaden their intellectual horizons, grapple with hard questions, and expand their sense of what it means to be a human being. That, we thought, was how best to prepare them for the world. Nowadays, with so many recent graduates still struggling to find employment and parents more involved than ever before in their children's education, the practicalities of the job market shape college majors. STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—are all the rage. At my university, health and business, two undergraduate majors that did not even exist when I was an undergraduate at Brandeis, now rank among the most popular of all majors. As for Jewish Studies, students sometimes tell me that they would love to major or minor in it, but their parents won't let them. The problem is even more acute at the graduate level. "Where will an MA in Jewish Studies equip me to work?" prospective students anxiously ask. Even those completing their doctoral dissertations wonder whether their hard-earned PhD will actually land them a secure academic job.
My department, like many others, seeks to alleviate employment- related anxieties by trumpeting success stories. One of our alumni, our website exclaims, "is a Saturday Night Live writer who was hired for her depth of knowledge about Jewish culture and affairs." Another "manages educational materials that promote the values of global citizenship for the American Jewish World Service." More broadly, the website reports, graduates of our program, in addition to successfully pursuing jobs in the Jewish world, "go on to careers in law, health care, business, politics, writing and the arts." All of this is quite true, of course, but I wonder whether it is truly persuasive. As my colleague Leonard Saxe likes to observe, "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'"
Felicia Herman, in a marvelous paper posted on the AJS website, suggests a different approach. Based on her personal experience as a Jewish Studies PhD who moved into the world of Jewish foundations (she is currently executive director of the Natan Fund), she encourages graduates in Jewish Studies seeking jobs outside the academy to focus on their skills. What you know, she argues, is less important to employers than what you know how to do. And she offers a helpful list of skills that most Jewish Studies graduates do know how to do, and should remember to boast about when they apply for jobs:
- You have public speaking skills—you've taught classes, led seminars, given conference papers, maybe given public lectures. So you are probably comfortable in front of a crowd, and hopefully you know how to adapt yourself to different kinds of audiences.
- You know how to write—and maybe, how to write quickly.
- You know how to edit, and you know how to analyze other people's work and ideas.
- You know how to read—to read critically, to read a lot, or to read very little but sound like you've read a lot.
- You have sitzfleisch—you can sit for hours, reading, and distilling large amounts of information into important points or arguments.
- Maybe you speak a few languages—this is always in high demand—at least if you speak actual living languages.
- And—if you've gotten the PhD—you have a credential that signals to the outside world that you're smart. You're a professional smart person, and don't underestimate the power of the letters PhD or MA in any job market, no matter what your field of study actually was.
Professor Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton and the American Historical Association's executive director, James Grossman, offer an analysis parallel to Herman's in a much-discussed article, published during the depth of the Great Recession, entitled "No More Plan B." Rather than considering non-tenure-track jobs to be "alternative careers" or Plan B, they make the case that historians actually learn multiple skills in graduate school that equip them for a wide range of jobs. "There are many ways to be a historian," they insist, "there are many ways to apply what you've learned to a career."
The job situation in Jewish Studies is relatively better than the situation in History, as recent AJS surveys of job market trends amply demonstrate. Nevertheless, about half of recent Jewish Studies PhDs (since 2005) did not hold tenure-track academic positions in Jewish Studies three years after receiving their PhD degrees, according to Steven M. Cohen's recent survey. In our field, as in the humanities and social sciences broadly, there are many more job seekers than there are jobs, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
All of this sounds most anxiety producing, to be sure, but it should hardly dissuade students from pursuing an undergraduate major or graduate training in our programs. If, instead, we help students to appreciate the highly marketable skills and wide-ranging opportunities that a thoroughgoing training in Jewish Studies provides ("there are many ways to apply what you've learned in Jewish Studies to a career") then we ought to be able both to fill classrooms and to satisfy parental fears. In addition, we'll expand the reach of Jewish Studies, build bridges to the larger community, and fulfill an important component of our core mission: "fostering greater understanding of Jewish Studies scholarship among the wider public."
Jonathan D. Sarna