March 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 3

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Sociological Careers:
Finding Your Way Outside the Academy

Paula Chambers, Versatile PhD

In the November 2010 issue of Footnotes, ASA Executive Officer Sally Hillsman noted a long-term decrease in academic hiring and urged the discipline to broaden its vision of sociological careers to include applied practice in business, government, and nonprofit settings—in accordance with the ASA mission, which explicitly includes practitioners. She described the dilemma faced by graduate students who may be interested in applied careers but are afraid to say so for fear of being viewed as "second-class citizens."

While not a sociologist, I can testify that it is much the same in the humanities. Graduate students often receive the message from their professors and departments that the only respectable employment outcome for a new PhD is an academic position. Hence students interested in applied practice are effectively discouraged from pursuing that interest. Those who do ask about non-academic careers are seldom provided with ideal support, as most professors and departments are ill-equipped to provide that type of professional development. It’s quite unfortunate because these days, most new PhDs will end up outside the academy at some point anyway whether they are prepared and supported, or not.

Look Outside the Department

However, good resources are available. More and more university Career Centers provide support for graduate students preparing for non-academic careers, so that’s one thing to try. There are a number of excellent books on the subject, many "leaving the academy" blogs, and a fantastic website called Beyond Academe that’s aimed at historians but useful to sociologists as well (www.beyondacademe.com). Finally, the ASA’s section on Sociological Practice and Public Sociology would be very helpful to practice-oriented sociology students needing career information and communion with like minds.

Additionally, there is another extra-departmental resource that can be extremely helpful to Sociologists. The Versatile PhD (www.versatilephd.com) is a web-based community focused entirely on non-academic careers for humanists and social scientists. It is a confidential, supportive space where academics and ex-academics exchange advice, encouragement, and career information, without necessarily revealing their real names. Many humanities and social science disciplines are represented, but the issues are often the same, so the discussions are relevant to everyone.

Back in 1999, I was dissertating in English at The Ohio State University and decided not to pursue the academic job market, but wondered what else I could do besides teach. The dearth of resources on that topic prompted me to create the resource that I wanted—a confidential online community where I could learn about non-academic careers in a supportive, open-minded setting. The list was initially called WRK4US ("work for us") and attracted an audience of graduate students plus PhDs, ABDs, and MAs who had already left the academy. The two groups formed a bridge to the non-academic world, with experienced practitioners providing advice and information to the less experienced. Even after my own career issues were resolved (grant writing was the answer for me), I continued managing the list as a gift to the graduate student community, with modest financial support from the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and Duke University. Over time, membership grew and WRK4US became the most valued resource on non-academic careers for humanists and social scientists (per a 2008 subscriber survey).

Around then, I realized that serving this community was my mission in life, so I decided to leave grant writing and devote myself to the community full-time. My first challenge was to generate revenue from something that had been free for all those years and would continue to be free to students, but thanks to input from dozens of stakeholders, a workable business model emerged.

Finally, after two years of preparation, in May 2010, I launched The Versatile PhD website, which permanently replaced the WRK4US list. The name and medium have changed, but the community and the mission—to help humanities and social science PhDs and graduate students identify and prepare for possible non-academic careers—is the same.

The Versatile PhD community now contains almost 6,000 likeminded souls from all disciplines across the humanities and social sciences, supporting and coaching each other. The "Career Panel" discussions highlight specific careers, featuring three to five PhDs or ABDs currently working in that field. Privacy is provided in multiple ways: Members control their profiles, only members may read or post, and a Code of Conduct prohibits the forwarding of written material or the revealing of member identities. People feel safe using this resource. Membership is free and open to anyone interested in the topic.

The free community is supported by a Premium Content subscription service for institutional subscribers. This subscription contains special materials relevant to the post-academic job seeker. The annual subscription fee gives the university access to this Premium Content for their graduate students. As of this writing, 23 research institutions subscribe.

Roles for Sociologists

The Versatile PhD community needs more sociologists. Because of my humanities background, the community was humanities-centric in the beginning. It has diversified over time and is ready for an influx of sociologists.

For graduate students, the best way to benefit from The Versatile PhD is to join the community and start following the discussions. Ask questions, or just lurk; either way, you will learn a lot.

Applied sociologists working outside the academy are also urged to join the community, first to help others, but also to network with other post-academics. It provides the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and exchange insider tips about organizations and opportunities. Finally, applied sociologists might help graduate student by offering to become a Versatile PhD Author and contributing to the Premium Content Area.

Faculty members or administrators, you may also join the community. All are especially encouraged to read the About page to learn more about the subscription service.

Resources for Students

The Versatile PhD is just one example of how extra-departmental resources can play an extremely positive role in graduate student professional development. Though it would be wonderful if departments would take the lead on responding to the PhD employment problem, and though many departments are making sincere and successful efforts, other entities can be better positioned to create resources that help students independently, without affecting students’ academic reputations and relationships.

To graduate students, professors and departments are the ultimate authority figures. Repositories of knowledge, gatekeepers to the academy, they may appear to be the primary source of everything worth knowing. However, I respectfully suggest that by breaking the unwritten rule that professors’ and departments’ career guidance be viewed as primary, there is a better chance of success. The social science and humanities disciplines should broaden their concept of success—and of where to seek career guidance. This would help students prepare, applied sociologists feel valued, and professors and departments feel less pressured to be all things to all people.

Paula Chambers is Founder and CEO of The Versatile PhD.
She can be reached at paula@versatilephd.com.

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