Once upon a time, we believed that big brainy degrees would help us land big brainy jobs. In recent years, though, PhD candidates have been experiencing a drop in positive employment outcomes. That’s a doublespeak way of saying that people are getting PhDs and then finding no jobs waiting for them at the end of their education.
The reality is that the fairy tale of the past is over; there is no pot of gold to be found at the end of the rainbow. To find the gold, you have prospect a little harder, dig a little deeper, and explore in unfamiliar territory. In a National Science Foundation study examining different fields of science entitled Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2012, the Foundation found a steady rate of increase in the number of PhD candidates that entered Postdoctoral Fellowship positions.
These “post-doc” positions are short-term, contract positions at universities that rarely offer benefits or career advancement. Post-docs take these positions to help continue to build their Curricula Vitae, mostly in the hopes of securing tenure-track positions in the future. You could classify these jobs as holding pens for many PhD graduates. Many PhD graduates are opting out of the post-doc holding pens and building their own careers outside of academia. For many, this was out of necessity as funding for post-doc position continues to decline. What’s interesting about PhD candidates that entered industry is that many of their employment outcomes turned out better than the default options available as post-docs.
Below is a chart of doctorate recipients with definite jobs lined up after graduation. As you can see the basic median, annual salary across every field of study was highest in industry employment. This was even true for people graduating with the dreaded humanities degree! Many PhD candidates have found that while they were being trained to be professors at colleges and universities, they could often find better employment outcomes by leaving the closed community of academia. A movement has arisen among these graduates that have chosen the road less travelled by.
They call themselves the Alt-Academia or #alt-ac movement. And for many, it has made all the difference. Having a better outcome when leaving the traditional path is not unique to PhDs in academia. JDs can also find rewarding and fulfilling work outside of the law firm environment. In the ABA’s data on the 2012 graduating class of JDs, they found that close to 30% took positions in business and industry, government, and public interest (PDF). For many, this is actually a better financial outcome than going into the practice of law.
Robert Half Legal does an annual survey of salaries in the legal profession. In their 2014 Salary Guide (PDF), you can compare the salary of a starting attorney at a firm versus one that picks an in-house position. A first year associate’s salary can range from a low of $53,750 in a small firm to the high of $136,500. Compare that with an in-house counsel with 0-3 years of experience.
These in-house positions range in salary from $79,000 to $151,750. There is roughly a $20,000 bonus for JDs that skip law firm life and get lucky enough to land an in-house position. While not a direct correlation, it is a close comparison. But the lesson of the #alt-ac movement is not just to look for promising, non-traditional opportunities.
Scholars in the #alt-ac movement applied their research skills with all the academic rigor you would expect from PhDs on the subject of what makes them successful in roles outside of academia. They surveyed both #alt-ac graduates and their employers. The results were surprising.
When asked to list the skills they received in their doctoral programs, they highlighted the following: Employers were also asked about their #alt-ac employees’ skills. Their surveys came back suggesting that while those in the #alt-ac community were competent in collaboration and research, #alt-ac employees were lacking training and skills in the following areas:
There exists a mismatch between what employers offering these rewarding positions are seeking and the training that doctoral candidates receive. In order to address this mismatch, Katina Rogers, in her report Humanities Unbound: Supporting Careers and Scholarship Beyond the Tenure Track, helped generate nine recommendations on how academia could better train their PhD candidates, not just for academic positions, but also for opportunities in industry. These recommendations are:
- Consider evaluating and modifying required aspects of master’s- and doctoral-level curricula in favor of including courses that help students to prepare for the wide-ranging career paths that they may pursue upon completion.
- Rethink standard methods courses to structure them around a collaborative project in which students must apply a range of skills toward an end goal centered on methodological understanding.
- Create one-credit courses that center on ecosystems crucial to the academic landscape, such as scholarly publishing.
- Form more deliberate partnerships with the inter- and para-departmental structures—either within or outside their home institution—that are already engaging in this kind of work.
- Cultivate partnerships with the public sphere, both to provide graduate students with valuable experience and exposure, and to make a clearer case for the public value of humanities education.
- Encourage (and provide funding for) students to become members in relevant professional associations, even if the students do not intend to pursue careers as faculty.
- Work to expand the understanding of what constitutes scholarship.
- Graduate departments should critically examine the kinds of careers that they implicitly and explicitly promote, and consider ways to increase the visibility of the varied paths that scholars pursue.
- Make a much stronger effort to track former students (including those who may not have completed a degree), and to encourage current and prospective students to connect with former students.
These recommendations are meant to drive discussion and change in a profession that’s not used to moving quickly. I believe that legal educators and law students can learn a lot from the studies undertaken by the #alt-ac movement. In the recent report issued by the ABA’s Task Force of the Future of Legal Education (PDF), the task force found that employment outcomes for JD graduates left a lot to be desired.
In Section VII, the task force addresses a host of stakeholders in legal education. It was their hope that legal education could be reformed to provide both private and public value. Two themes—a need for greater heterogeneity in law schools, and delivery of value to students— should be an emphasis of law schools, which seems to parallel and provide space for the conclusions of Katina Rogers’ recommendations above.
Law schools should be preparing law students for the wide-ranging career paths that they may pursue upon completion. With only 40% of 2012’s graduating class practicing law, it is a disservice to the other 60% to provide no instruction on any other legal career like contract management, compliance officer, or policy specialists. Law schools should also move beyond the final exam, grading curve destroying approach to course evaluation. Collaborative projects that help demonstrate legal thinking in a team format are more realistic to future workflows than a one against 100 classmates exam.
Law schools also need to exam the type of careers they are promoting. Many schools only invite law firms to conduct on-campus interviews. This gives the impression that law firm jobs are the only options for JDs. Instead, law schools should offer classes and training for many different types of employment, not just a few practice areas of law. They should also be invited in alternative legal career providers, like e-discovery companies, and seek out internship opportunities at legal technology startups for students.
Finally, law schools need to do a better job of tracking employment outcomes for their students. The After the JD Study is a start, but it only tracks 10% of the graduating class of 2000. No provisions have been made for longitudinal studies of any subsequent graduating class. In this era of easy data collection and processing, the lack of long-term career outcomes for law schools is baffling.
The #alt-ac movement has done a lot of the heavy lifting for legal educators. Their studies and surveys have helped identify key skills—like project management and technical skills— that might include greater emphasis on practical legal skills for law schools to implement. Learning from these scholars, law schools have guidance on how they could be altering legal education.