Well before the economic downturn hit the academic job market, I occasionally received queries from Jewish Studies graduate students about careers outside of academia. Even under the best of circumstances, these students knew, not all PhDs could be guaranteed a tenure-track job. Add to that geographical limitations (not everyone could pick up and move to where a job was) or a feeling mid–doctoral program that a career in academia was not for them, and such students felt the need to consider other options.
These queries have certainly picked up over the past two years. Most graduate students and recent PhDs recognize that landing a fulltime tenure-track job has become even more challenging than it was just a few years ago, and they want to know what alternatives exist if they don't land a professorship right out of school.
There are indeed several career options outside of the academy for people with doctorates. It is not always an easy transition to make— many have planned for a career in academia since their first undergraduate course—but that shouldn't discourage newly minted PhDs (or those about to graduate) from considering other professional opportunities. While not an exhaustive list, here are some arenas where humanities and social science PhDs have found much success:
Nonprofit world: There are numerous nonprofit organizations dedicated to higher education, the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences: American Association of University Professors (AAUP), American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), Social Science Research Council (SSRC), American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), National Humanities Alliance (NHA), and Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), to name just a few. These organizations rely on staff with expert, inside understanding of the culture, issues, and concerns of faculty and students, and scholarly life, in general. Find out about job openings through the organizations' websites, as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, and other such publications. Jewish-communal organizations and Jewish-sponsored nonprofits also seek staff with expertise in Jewish history and culture, as well as the contemporary Jewish scene. These can be policy-oriented organizations, social justice organizations, as well as bodies dedicated to Jewish education (i.e. bureaus of Jewish education, adult/continuing education programs, etc.). JewishJobs.com and Idealist.org are the best resources for such positions. Idealist.org is also one of the most comprehensive websites for nonprofit jobs in general.
Learned societies: One specific arm of the nonprofit world, learned societies (such as AJS), draw staff heavily from academia. Larger learned societies such as the Modern Language Association (MLA), American Historical Association (AHA), American Academy of Religion (AAR), American Anthropological Association (AAA), etc., have quite sizable staffs, including numerous PhDs from an array of disciplinary backgrounds. Take a look at the staff pages of these organizations to see some positions they employ: directors of research, directors of teaching and digital media initiatives, directors of publications. Small to mid-sized learned societies often employ PhDs in leadership positions, although they tend to have smaller senior staffs. The best way to find out about positions within these organizations is to follow their websites and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Administrative positions within colleges and universities: One of the most natural places for a PhD to find a job is within the college or university itself, in an administrative role. Depending upon the size of the institution, recent PhDs can get jobs directing programs, in deans' offices, admissions offices, and academic centers. Most institutions will require that academic deans have gone through the tenure process, and have a distinguished academic record. But deanships on the student service side, or certain assistant/associate deanships or positions in the provost's office may not require such experience and may also enable you to continue teaching one or two courses a year. Smaller, liberal arts colleges, especially those with a focus on teaching, may also be more flexible in terms of such criteria. Keep track of job announcements on college/university websites, as well as in Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Independent schools/day schools: PhDs with a love for teaching are ideally suited to transition into the private school world, be it Jewish day schools or nonsectarian, independent schools. Indeed, many private school faculty members have MAs or PhDs in specific subject areas, serving in both teaching and administrative roles. Most private schools do not require a graduate degree in education or other formal teaching certification for employment, although they will want to see demonstrated excellence in the classroom, and ideally some teaching experience below the college level. Depending upon your teaching duties as a graduate student, the classroom schedule as a secondary school teacher can be more intensive—usually two to three preps a day—but many PhDs have found independent school teaching to be a perfect match for their love of the subject matter, their dedication to and flair for teaching, and their desire to be in an academic community. Look for teaching and administrative jobs on the websites of specific schools, on the position board of the National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS); and on JewishJobs.com, for day school positions. You can also sign up with an independent school headhunting firm, although such firms may want to see prior high school teaching experience.
Museums/archives/historical societies: The research and teaching arms of Jewish, Holocaust, and general museums, archives and historical societies seek staff with expertise in the specific subject area of their institutions. PhDs in Jewish Studies are at a distinct advantage for many of these positions, given their excellent language and writing skills and deep familiarity with archival research and material culture. Positions in such institutions can range from research and curatorial jobs to directors of public and educational programming. Positions listings can be found through the Coalition of Jewish Museums (CAJM), College Art Association (CAA), Jewish Library Association (JLA), American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), as well as the Chronicle of Higher Education and Idealist.org.
Foundations/endowments: Foundations that focus on higher education and the humanities, such as the Mellon Foundation, Teagle Foundation, and National Endowment for the Humanities, seek program officers with expertise in a range of humanistic disciplines. Foundations with a focus on Jewish culture, education, academic programs, and communal activities also look for staff with in-depth understanding of Jewish history, culture, and contemporary life. Position listings for such organizations can be found on their websites, as well as in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Idealist.org, and JewishJobs.com, for the Jewish communal world.
Publishing: While the publishing industry is certainly undergoing its own dramatic changes, academic and trade presses still rely on keen thinkers, readers, and writers to serve on their editorial staffs. New online and print publications with a Jewish focus look especially for contributors with the deep understanding of Jewish culture, politics, and society. The best place to find positions in this industry is through websites of the American Association of University Presses (AAUP), Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, Media Bistro, JournalismJobs, and publishing houses and publications themselves.
In order to make yourself a strong candidate for positions outside of academia, try to work or volunteer in any of the areas you are interested in pursuing. If you are considering publishing, get an editorial job—as a managing editor of a journal, as a style- or copyeditor—or start writing for a blog or online publication. If you are thinking about academic administration, take on a job as a program administrator—even for just a few hours a week—in a dean's or college program office. Make sure to TA, or better yet, tutor or teach in an afterschool or Hebrew school program if you are contemplating independent or day school positions. Volunteer for a nonprofit in the area you are interested in working.
Aside from following positions listings, let people know about your interest in nonacademic jobs. Ideally, your dissertation advisor will be open to this discussion, and can suggest ideas and connect you with others. If your advisor is not helpful in this area, then turn to other faculty members, administrators, and professionals. The more people who know about your openness to other careers, the more people will think of you when they hear of a job. You should also contact people whose positions you find interesting and ask if you can meet. These "informational interviews" are very common and regarded as a professional courtesy. It's an excellent way to find out about different careers, get a sense of work environments, and share your cv. Social/professional networking sites like LinkedIn are also good for this purpose.
If you are applying for a nonacademic job, make sure to tailor your cv and cover letter to the position. Unless central to the job opportunity, do not lead with a discussion of your research interests and doctoral topic. A cover letter that opens with a long paragraph about your dissertation suggests that your heart still lies in academe (or that you didn't feel like taking the time to change the letter). Rather, foreground the work, volunteer, and academic experience most closely related to the opening. Likewise, open your cv with your relevant professional experience, not your publications and conference presentations unless specifically pertinent to the job.
If you want to keep a foot in the door of academia, even when taking a position outside it, keep publishing, present at conferences, give guest lectures, teach a course, and stay active in learned societies. And let it be known to colleagues and advisors that you welcome the chance to apply for a tenure-track job when an appropriate position opens up. The AJS Conference will offer a lunchtime workshop on December 19, dedicated to career options for Jewish Studies PhDs. Please join us for this event, and let us know how else we can support the professional development of Jewish Studies scholars.
Association for Jewish Studies