Sunday, November 22, 2015

Andrew Henry: Careers Beyond the Academy: Another Plan A

Andrew Henry is back, reporting from the floor of the American Academy of Religion meeting in Atlanta.  See his previous post here.--JF

Careers Beyond the Academy: Another Plan A

Lest I rehearse a tired refrain, I’ll simply say: Tenure-track positions in the humanities are increasingly scarce. As the reality of this situation sinks in for the academy, large academic organizations such as the MLA and AHA have turned the discussion to supporting “alternate academic careers,” or alt-ac careers, for their recent graduates. The AAR and SBL have somewhat lagged behind in these efforts, but a new working group, The Applied Religious Studies Working Group, seeks to change this.

Dr. Cristine Hutchison-Jones, a successful alt-ac guru in her own right, spearheaded the working group. Dr. Hutchison-Jones graduated with a PhD in Religious Studies from Boston University and immediately entered into an administrative position at Harvard University. She now serves as an administrative director at Harvard Law School’s Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics.

Her first order of business was to change the rhetoric from “Plan B Careers” to “Another Plan A Career.” “Plan B,” she argues, implies that a non-academic career is a place of last resort and subtly shames recent PhD grads into thinking they haven’t managed to secure the actual goal.

Rather than thinking of PhD training as a one-track rail to academia, the panelists urged the audience to embrace the multi-linear nature of careers, the way that careers grow organically based on how you respond to the opportunities put in front of you.

Indeed, the panelists reflected the multiple directions a PhD in Religion can take you. In addition to academic administrators, the panel included a marketing analyst, a non-profit director, and a media and communications specialist. Each one of the panelists clearly leveraged the skills they obtained in graduate school in imaginative ways to find challenging and fulfilling work outside of the academy.

Imagination, it seems, is the critical skill. In the words of Dr. Hutchison-Jones, an alternative Plan A Career is not an issue of preparation, “but an issue of imagination.” And although traditional PhD programs may be slow to offer better preparation for the realities of the job market, the Applied Religious Studies Working Group hopes to lay the groundwork for fostering future imaginative thinking about careers beyond the academy.