Stop Calling it Plan-B

By Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk

Plan-B: The career-trajectory of the unlucky few who do not secure a position in academia after obtaining their Ph.D.

By referring to any other job besides one in academia as “Plan-B,” implies that there is a “Plan-A” that will work for the majority. Unfortunately, the “unlucky few” from my self-created definition above is today the vast majority of people exiting their Ph.D. programs. Each year, the academic job market remains stagnant and competition seems to just get more fierce. You are not only competing with other newly-minted Ph.Ds. but the hundreds of others who were previously rejected from positions. I wish that what I was stating here was new information, but we have been seeing articles and data about “Plan-B” since the 1970s with the introduction of the field of Public History. We’ve known for almost half a century that academia will not be the end for many, if not most, PhDs and we need to start preparing scholars for the world outside of academia.

By referring any job outside of academia as “Plan-B” places unnecessary and unwarranted shame on these jobs. There is nothing wrong with not working in academia, and some historians may not even want to work in academia in the first place. *gasp* Academia offers the opportunity to continue research and writing, but places all of its value in publication. If writing your dissertation was not the most fun you had during your time as a Ph.D. student, tenure-track professing may not be for you. Most scholars believe that if they don’t land that coveted “Plan-A” position that they will end up teaching secondary school. However, there are plenty of jobs out there for historians that don’t involve educating teenagers, and even if that is where you end up: there is no shame in that, and we need to stop stigmatizing these and any other non-academia jobs. (Did you know the federal government pays its historians upwards of 6-figures a year? No shame there). Academic programs need to start placing time, value, and resources in jobs outside of academia because that is where most of us will land, and I would like to get there without feeling like a complete failure and that the last four years of my life were not a total waste of time. 

My own experience in this has been both inside and outside of the college experience. In May 2017, I was a newly minted History M.A. on the job market in one of the most historic cities in the USA: Savannah, GA. There were tons of colleges, historic sites, and museums in the area; yet, I couldn’t even land a $10.00 an hour job at an archive or an adjunct position, both jobs that I had been conditioned to see as “lesser-than” anyways. Didn’t these places know I had a graduate degree in the humanities? I ended up teaching 7th-grade social studies and language arts, a position that paid equal or more than what many of my similar-aged peers made AND gave me summers off, yet I felt like a failure because it wasn’t a position at a college.

My second experience was in my Spring 2019 Ph.D. Interdisciplinary Seminar course where we learned about how to write syllabi, cover letters, CVs, and discussed the job market. I asked my professor why if we, the students, already know that there are no jobs in academia and they, the professors, also are armed with this information, are we being solely trained as academics? His answer was basically because that is all they, as tenure-track professors, know. They are the unicorns, the lucky few who make it to those coveted positions. We need to re-frame our Ph.D. programs so that students can gain knowledge and experience in something other than teaching undergraduates and writing conference/journal articles perhaps through internships and guest speakers. There are universities out there that are beginning to do the leg-work by reshaping how a dissertation is done and how students achieve Ph.D. candidacy, but we need work like this to become more wide-spread to see any real impact.

I don’t claim to have all, or, any of the answers, but I can provide some information for articles that got me thinking about abolishing the term “Plan-B.”

https://www.chronicle.com/article/for-would-be-academics-now-is-the-time-to-get-serious-about-plan-b/

https://versatilehumanists.duke.edu/2019/09/30/career-diversity-is-not-plan-b-thoughts-from-a-phd-candidate-on-the-nonfaculty-job-market/

https://www.chronicle.com/article/restructure-the-humanities-ph-d/

https://www.usajobs.gov/Search/Results?k=historian

https://www.historians.org/wherehistorianswork

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2019/the-2019-aha-jobs-report-a-closer-look-at-faculty-hiring

https://www.historians.org/ahajobsreport2020

Guest Contributor: Tamala Malerk is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of South Florida. Her focuses include British Imperialism, Modern Europe, Public History, and Women and Gender. Her dissertation is about a British Gandhian disciple and still does not have a catchy title. In her spare time, she does freelance content writing for websites and, now, humanities blogs. Find her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/tamala-malerk-m-a-5749b999/

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