The Case for Career Diversity Among Classicists

Announcing the 2019 Career Networking Event at the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego

John Paulas speaking at the 2018 SCS Career Networking Event in Boston.

In the aftermath of a massive snowstorm, seventeen classicists from all walks of life gathered together in a Boston conference room to have a conversation with graduate students and contingent faculty about the role of Classics outside of academia. This, in 2018, was the birth of a unique initiative known as the SCS Career Networking Event, co-organized by the Paideia Institute, the Society for Classical Studies, and PhD Matters Ltd.

At last winter’s event, the number of graduate students and contingent faculty members in attendance — despite the forbidding weather — was impressive. This testified to the rapidly growing interest in what used to be, even only a few years ago, an unheard-of idea: career diversity for Classics PhD holders. This year, the initiative will be swapping coasts and making its Californian debut at the SCS Annual Meeting in San Diego on January 5, 2019.

If you are planning to take part in this year’s SCS Annual Meeting, you should come to the Career Networking Event. Why? Because, if there is one thing classicists are good at, is the critique of mythical narratives. And we still have at least three die-hard myths to dispel:

  1. Classics Does Not Get You A Job

Not only is this false, but the very opposite is true. Thanks to ongoing research into the life stories and professional trajectories of hundreds of Classics PhDs, the Paideia Institute’s Legion Project has conclusively demonstrated that an advanced Classics education prepares for a wide variety of careers.

Long before the 2008 economic crash precipitated the catastrophic failures of the academic job market, Classics PhD holders were already applying their talents in all kinds of non-academic industries: from private law to software engineering, from educational administration to consulting and finance. Above all, PhD-holding classicists can — and frequently do — find employment in secondary education.

Indeed, promoting high school teaching as a career choice among Classics PhDs can help us fight against two major crises simultaneously: the paucity of academic positions at the university level and the shortage of Latin teachers in public high schools, which is leading to the closure of many of the secondary Latin programs that keep Classics alive as a discipline.

This has prompted the Paideia Institute to launch the Quintilian Society, an outreach initiative devoted to mentoring Classics graduate students and contingent faculty members interested in careers as public high school teachers.

2. No Professor, No Classicist

As a result of the fragmented specialization of higher education, many of us conceive of graduate school in the humanities as exclusively preparing students for the professoriate. This often comes with the contrapositive proposition: if you do not become an academic after receiving your PhD, you are not in the field of Classics. As you probably know if you are a classicist, the logical idea that a proposition stands or falls with its contrapositive is at least as old as Aristotle.

Now, the Legion experience shows that attorneys, tech developers, and fashion designers with a PhD in Classics are classicists in the fullest sense of the term. They may not publish scholarly articles in specialized journals (although some do), but they certainly never cease to apply the skills they have acquired as researchers and educators in the humanities.

Yet classicists interested in a career transition often face a culture of shame that refuses to consider their employment outcomes as “success stories.” To be sure, much has already been done to rethink such an approach, but we have to keep working on it. For instance, when it comes to effecting culture change, it is crucial to promote a shift in the language we use to talk about it.

As I have argued elsewhere, such expressions as “leaving academia” and “alt-ac careers” tend to keep the “ac[ademic]” at the center of our visual field, as though faculty employment at colleges and universities (in particular, the coveted handful of tenure-track jobs advertised each year) were the primary — if not the only — option to consider when graduating with a humanities PhD. Everything else, whether intentionally or not, ends up appearing as a mere “Plan B.”

John Paulas has made a convincing argument for treating any career pursued by a PhD as a PhD career. The time seems to be ripe for referring to Classics PhD holders as classicists, regardless of the careers on which they decided to embark.

3. Humanities PhDs = Ivory Tower Elite

This is a trickier myth to tackle, as it requires adopting the perspective of a potential employer with little or no familiarity with Classics as a field. Two (related) stereotypes fairly common among non-academic employers are (a) that humanities PhDs are unprepared and unable to succeed outside of the professoriate and (b) that they form a sort of idle intellectual elite, which does not want nor need to grapple with the tough, action-oriented realities of industry work.

Far from being part of a contemplative elite detached from the real world, graduate students are the special forces on the frontline of college education in the humanities. Many Classics departments could simply not operate were it not for the numerous cohorts of graduate students and adjuncts teaching the introductory classes and sections which the core faculty members do not have the time (or the willingness) to teach.

PhD candidates keep Classics departments functioning through teaching and academic service (incidentally, this is the main reason why the oft-rehashed “let’s just admit fewer graduate students” idea, despite having some unquestionable merits, falls immensely short of solving the grad school problem). And they acquire a great deal of on-the-ground experience in the process.

The charge of elitist idleness is even less applicable to adjunct instructors, who often accept near-poverty salaries and outrageously harsh work conditions in the name of a teleological narrative forcing them to hope that they will, one day, join the ranks of the permanent faculty. Obvious as all this may be to anyone within the academic world, it keeps surprising many outside of academic contexts.

Thus, a twofold culture change is in order. On the one hand, we need to raise awareness both within and outside of the academic world about the non-academic outcomes of humanities PhDs. On the other hand, as Leonard Cassuto recently put it, “graduate schools have to become recognizable players in multiple employment markets.”

In the field of Classics, and in the humanities at large, career diversity has become both possible and necessary. The long-standing assumption that graduate work in Classics is intended to form future professors — or, rather, future members of the adjunct-then-hopefully-tenure-track club — has proven untenable in countless ways. In fact, entire books have been published on the widespread misconceptions surrounding the theory and practice of graduate school in the humanities.

Yet plenty of work remains to be done in order for graduate schools to prepare classicists for a diverse job market. How can we make this happen? A pithy answer to that question was offered to me by one of the networkers at the Boston 2018 Career Networking Event: “What we really want,” she said, “is to move away from an exclusive focus on content, and pay more attention to skills.” In other words, graduate programs in the humanities would have a lot to gain from revisiting the typical “know-that” approach and placing greater emphasis on “know-how.”

This, of course, cannot happen overnight, but certain signs look promising. In addition to facilitating networking events, the Paideia Institute is now planning to bring Legion Project members to Classics departments as guest speakers and let them share their experiences with current graduate students and contingent faculty. The main next steps include showing universities and academic departments that they need to organize full-fledged graduate career fairs for humanities PhD candidates.

In the meantime, see you in San Diego.

Dr. Marco Romani holds a PhD in Classics from Harvard and works as Outreach Manager at the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study. He lives in Manhattan.