When it comes to the topic of jobs, the field of Classics mirrors that of the humanities writ large: increased adjunct positions and fewer tenure-track jobs. That narrative has dominated the conversation in departments, in graduate student offices, and at the SCS annual meeting.
The reality of the Classics job market, however, is much more nuanced. The coveted tenure-track position brings with it a companion story of a family uprooting their life one last time; and the visibility of classicists entering positions outside of the academy increases daily as Ph.D.s see the immense benefits that come with these positions.
This month we wanted to bring you three stories of recently-graduated Classics Ph.D.s. We asked them to talk not about their work or their research, but their decision-making process, their experience on the job market, and their complicated and unique reasons for heading down the path that they're on. We hope that these stories illustrate for members what we already know: that for every Classics graduate there is an expansive, branching pathway of careers available, and that each path taken by these graduates fits their experiences in complex, personal ways. These three academics, still connected to our field in their own ways, show us that there is no one way to graduate with a Ph.D.
Jane Sancinito (Ph.D. - U. Penn; Post Doc - Oberlin)
I entered graduate school intentionally, perhaps even willfully, ignorant of the job market. I know the received wisdom is that we should all be constantly taking the temperature of the field and its hiring practices, but I wasn’t sure, going in, that a career in college teaching was for me. I received my fair share of doomsday predictions and horror stories as I applied and began my studies, but I had already lived too long by the “apply and see what happens, the worst they can say is no,” philosophy to back down. “I just want the PhD for myself,” I remember saying, as I tuned out those well-meant warnings and focused. I focused on my research, and on my teaching, and on building new skills and learning new methodologies. Looking back, I don’t regret that, because along the way I also prioritized building personal and professional relationships that had meaning beyond the field I shared with my peers. From the early days of my degree, I had watched friends leave graduate school without their terminal degree (in the end, most of my cohort followed other career tracks) and I knew that I never wanted to look back with regret on the journey I was taking. For me, this meant making friends in this field who would still be there even if I ended up doing something completely different with my life.
I didn’t, in the end. I finished the slog of my degree this spring and have watched myself transform into a social historian of the Roman Empire over the last six years. I love my research subject as much today as when I sat down to write the first words of my dissertation. When the time came, I wrote my application documents, consulted the best guesses of my faculty and peers (ever my cheering section), and threw my hat into the academic ring. I went through this process twice, in fact, getting better, asking for feedback, and getting more comfortable in myself as a teacher and a scholar on each try. I got lucky, in the end, finding a wonderful fit in my current position as a postdoc at Oberlin College and Conservatory. It was a late season opening, the product of someone else’s good fortune on the market, and I know that I beat the odds to have a chance to demonstrate my teaching and build my research portfolio over this year.
Oberlin was a great place to land, but it came late enough in my process that I had thoroughly covered my bases with alternatives. I had met with staff in fields of higher education that had interested me (mostly different kinds of advising and admissions, lines of work that would keep me in touch with students) to see what my PhD might mean to their hiring committees, and had even received a job offer for a high school teaching post that my college-self would have loved to take. I realize now that those jobs are still waiting, that I may need to turn to them in some close- or distant future, but that, for now at least, I can let them wait a while longer. I’m back on the academic market this year, PhD in hand, a year of teaching ahead of me with a great group of students, and in the process of seizing every opportunity to make myself a more interesting scholar for the next group of committees.
The future is still uncertain, I hesitate to say precarious, knowing how difficult this academic life can be and is for so many others, but I continue to live in hope. After all, the worst they can say is “no,” right?
Chelsea Gardner (Ph.D. - University of British Columbia; Instructor, renewable - University of Hawai'i)
(On Twitter @archaeoctopus)
I graduated in May 2018 from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, with a PhD in Classics and a concentration in Classical Archaeology. My dissertation was entitled: "The Mani Peninsula in Antiquity: An archaeological, epigraphic, and historical investigation into regional identity." As is probably evident from my degree and the title of my dissertation, I perpetually straddle both the 'archaeology' and more text-focused 'classical studies' worlds. This is at the same time wonderful, exciting, and fun...and terrifying, imposter-syndrome-inducing, and somewhat debilitating, since it has been decidedly difficult to master the skills required of one discipline, let alone two. When I decided to embark upon this particular path, I thought that this combination degree might put me in a good position as a person who one day hoped to be on the academic job market. From my own perspective, I identify as an archaeologist: I have participated in digs in North America, Bulgaria, Kurdistan, and Greece and most of my training and publications are related to the material culture of the ancient world. However, I knew that I needed significant language training – not just for my own research, but to be as marketable as possible (as we all know, teaching Greek/Latin at the undergraduate level is a desirable quality in a job candidate). I thought that my ability to convey my skills as a language instructor would be more effective with a degree in Classics (rather than strictly Classical Archaeology). However, a diversified job candidate is nowadays the norm rather than the exception, and I knew I needed to further diversify my skills to stand out. I was very lucky to be introduced to the Digital Humanities (DH) in an early stage of my graduate career; I was equally lucky to truly enjoy DH as a field. While my dissertation was not DH-related, I established several side projects in DH (including directing the project “From Stone to Screen”) that put me in a better position given the current upward trend of DH in the discipline and the academy in general.
In (what was supposed to be) the last year of my dissertation-writing, I did what everyone tells you to avoid because it would be detrimental to any chances on the job market: I had a baby and moved away from my university and committee to be closer to family. I was incredibly fortunate because I also received two life-changing fellowships that year (2016-2017): the Evelyn Pruitt Dissertation Fellowship and the Crake Doctoral Fellowship. Both were intended for dissertation completion. The latter is a beloved and prestigious Canadian fellowship awarded through the Classics Department at Mount Allison in New Brunswick; it involves teaching and a concomitant move across the country in the fall of 2016 (with a 16-day old baby in tow). I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to my colleagues there, who pushed all my teaching duties to the spring semester, allowing me to devote time to writing and to the new human who had suddenly taken over my life. This first year at Mount Allison was fundamentally life changing, but...I didn't finish my dissertation that year. I tried. I wrote hundreds of pages, and I pushed to submit my dissertation in September 2017 for a December defense, but for a plethora of reasons I ultimately did not submit the final version of my dissertation until December 2017. This meant meant that I had launched myself full-force into the fall 2017 academic job market with the dreaded ABD title still attached to my name. I was extremely selective in my applications because I was choosing potential places to live for my entire family: we all wanted to stay in Canada, but the job market was particularly abysmal in the Great White North last year, and so I was forced to look elsewhere. I landed one T-T interview at the AIA/SCS in Boston, but I was not short-listed. Later in the spring of 2018, I had two interviews for temporary jobs: one, a 1-2 year postdoc and one for a 1-year (renewable) instructor position at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa (for which I had to teach a class via Skype – a difference of thousands of miles and six time zones! The wonders of technology!). Fortunately, I was offered both, and I ultimately chose my current position at the University of Hawai'i.
The primary reason I chose my current position serves as a constant reminder that nothing is ever as it seems on the job market: my position was advertised as a 1-year job with a 4-4 teaching load. In reality, I found out during the interview process that this position is renewable indefinitely. Further, my fantastic colleagues here recognize the plight of contingent and junior faculty: my teaching load is only two sections of two separate classes (aka only 2 preps), and each section is capped at 20 people. Anyone who has had to juggle multiple classes in a semester knows how wonderful this is: I have the time to both teach my students and be with my family during my daughter’s young formative years. I am also incredibly proud to be the first female faculty member within our Classics division, and am thankful to have the opportunity to develop Mediterranean material culture courses within our department (to be offered for the first time next year). My initial gamble to pursue a diversified degree, however, was correct: I am currently teaching Latin and will continue to do so even as I bring Mediterranean material culture to Hawai’i. In short, I have opportunities here that I may not have had elsewhere, but I would never have known the true nature of this position from the advertisement alone. I feel incredibly grateful that this job has the opportunity for permanence, meaning that I have the time to research and publish rather than apply for temporary positions and haul my family around the world year after year (and in truth, this was one of the deciding factors in accepting this job). Canada may always be calling, but for now my daughter will have to put down the hockey sticks and pick up a surfboard.
Marco Romani (Ph.D. - Harvard University; Postdoctoral Fellow - Paideia Institute)
I entered the field of Classics at the peak of the century’s worst economic crisis and, by the time I embarked on a PhD program in Classical Philology, the crash had started to take its toll on the academic job market. In 2016, the study of Latin at the college level was down 8.6% from 2013, and Ancient Greek was off to an even steeper downfall at 21.8% (Data from the Modern Language Association). You may wonder, at this point, why I stubbornly kept going. Long story short, it’s because I never equated academic career prospects (above all, the mythological tenure-track job) with Classics itself as a profession.
During my grad-school years, while writing a dissertation on ancient science and technology, I often found myself looking at my friends in scientific fields — and their seemingly mysterious ability to switch back and forth between academic teaching, corporate research, and other types of position in the business world. I then wondered, why can’t we in the humanities have a similarly fluid variety of opportunities? The reason, I ended up thinking, doesn’t simply reside in socio-economic dynamics — i.e., in the eternal (false?) dichotomy of practically ‘useful’ vs. ‘useless’ knowledge. It also, and perhaps more importantly, lies in a cultural dimension: the field of Classics, as many of us have recently argued, appears to be long overdue for a culture change, one that could ultimately make academic institutions and PhD-granting departments more amenable to the idea of non-academic careers for classicists.
As it turns out, that isn’t just an idea. The world of non-academic Classics is already a concrete reality. To have conclusively proved this point is the greatest achievement of the Legion Project, one of the main outreach initiatives that I currently manage at The Paideia Institute. Through painstaking research into the employment trajectories of hundreds of Classics PhDs who ‘left academia’, my colleagues and I have been able to show the astonishing breadth of careers and lifestyles to which a classical education can lead: lawyers, high-school teachers, software engineers, fashion designers, fitness trainers, social entrepreneurs, educational administrators — all with advanced degrees in Classics. What’s more, despite the variety of outcomes, they still are ‘classicists’ in the fullest sense of the term. Working on the Legion Project gave me the chance to hear, for instance, the story of a tech developer who enjoys etymologizing about the Latinate name he gave to his company and that of an accomplished data scientist who keeps using the analytical techniques she learned while taking part in archaeological digs.
I sometimes think of myself as a Legionnaire, too. Since joining the Paideia Institute as Outreach Manager, most of my time has been devoted to running a nationwide school outreach program based on Latin — something close enough to Cicero and Horace not to be far remote from my previous, academic life. Yet I’ve also done market research on literacy textbooks, supervised summer interns, updated CRM databases, and created accounting spreadsheets — things that aren’t traditionally associated with the classical world. And I’m immensely grateful to my advanced Classics education for allowing me to acquire the mental flexibility and quick learning skills that immediately proved crucial to my new role.
But please don’t call me an ‘alt-ac’. Besides echoing other ‘alt’-categories that make the headlines way more often than Classics startups do, the ‘alt-ac’ label merely reflects the assumption that the ‘ac’ path is an automatic first choice — if not the only viable option — when it comes to careers in the humanities (while everything else orbits around it as ‘alt’). This perhaps explains why, when I read op-eds and articles written by scholars who ‘left academia’, I frequently remain baffled at the amount of bitterness and resentment that the authors display towards the academic palace that kept its doors closed and forced them to ‘leave’. Do we really need such a polarized opposition between ‘academia’ and the so-called ‘real world’?
Couldn’t we, rather, rethink our approach to career prospects for humanities PhDs and enable our fellow scholars, teachers, and researchers to dive consciously and willingly into a more diverse job market? Couldn’t we all agree that leaving academia doesn’t mean leaving Classics?
More September 2018 Newsletter Content
Catch up on potential changes to the SCS ethics statement.
Congratulate and read the citations for this year's Goodwin award winners.
Photo Credits for September, 2018 Newsletter