Back on Track: Connecting with Former Graduate Students

Originally published in the Spring 2015 MLA Newsletter

This column was written in collaboration with David Laurence, Director of Research and ADE. Discussion continues on MLA Commons in The Trend: The Blog of the MLA Office of Research.

Academic departments understand the need to track PhDs who pursue careers in tenure-track positions—indeed, jobs on the tenure track are often considered the gold standard of a department’s success. Yet today this task isn’t as easy as it once was: PhDs typically go through several years of searches before securing a tenure-track position or choosing other kinds of employment. Departments often start to lose track of former students who take contingent positions in the academy, whereas those who venture beyond the classroom may find themselves disconnected completely from the programs that launched them.

What motivation does a department have to track its students over decades of shifting career paths, some of which seem distant from the scholarly training the university offers? Doing this work allows departments to tell their own story rather than be limited by the narrative that says the only good placement is a tenure-track job. When graduates go on to a variety of careers, they demonstrate the value that their specialized degrees have for careers both inside and outside academe. Departments can take pride in diverse outcomes and attract prospective students who may feel inspired by the success of the institution. Tracking career paths also can help departments shape their mission. If, for example, a substantial number of those graduating from a program take positions in government and not-for-profit organizations, the department might ask how what it is doing produces this result. Faculty and staff members could then orient the curriculum and overall learning environment accordingly.

With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA made an effort to determine the positions held in 2013–14 by a random sample of 2,590 graduates who received their PhDs from institutions in the United States or Canada between 1996 and 2011 and who have Dissertation Abstracts International records in the MLA International Bibliography. Of the 2,590 PhD recipients, we succeeded in locating 2,286. In the end, we excluded from the analysis records of 72 individuals whose degrees are in engineering or computer science (these dissertations are covered in the bibliography because they reflect work on speech recognition or similar kinds of language-related computer science and engineering projects), giving us a sample of 2,214 PhD recipients.

Overall, about half of the sample currently hold tenured or tenure-track positions or are deans, provosts, or presidents. Those who hold positions in upper administration generally hold tenure even if they are not currently active as teaching faculty members.

Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada
Employment in 2014–15 of 2,214 Modern Language PhDs Who Received Degrees between 1996 and 2011 from Institutions in the United States or Canada

The findings are divided into three temporal groups of roughly equal size: those who received degrees between 1996 and 1999, those who received degrees between 2000 and 2004, and those who received degrees between 2005 and 2011. Looking at the three groups, we see how the percentage in non-tenure-track positions drops as people move forward in their careers. (The non-tenure-track group includes people whose tenure status we were not able to ascertain.)

The percentage of the sample we could positively identify as holding a tenured or tenure-track faculty position in 2013–14 is 46.2% for the most recent graduates. It increases to 51.1% for those who received their PhDs between 2000 and 2004 and decreases back to 46.1% for those who received their PhDs between 1996 and 1999. Much of the drop in the 1996–99 group apparently reflects movement from tenured faculty positions into senior administration or retirement.

Slightly over 20% of the people in our sample are working outside higher education altogether. If one in five PhDs in the language and literature fields has found a job outside academe, surely we must want to keep careful records of the kinds of work they are doing. What is more, in failing to track them we lose a great opportunity to connect in meaningful ways with those who work in positions seemingly unrelated to academe. Shouldn’t we wish to tap their expertise as we help new generations see the possibilities that await them? And shouldn’t we offer intellectual engagement with this group of alumni and (potential) scholarly association members?

With generous support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the MLA, in collaboration with partners such as the University of California Humanities Research Institute, has launched the multiyear project Connected Academics ( As part of the project, we will continue to compile data and reports on the career paths of people with doctorates in language and literature, including individual narratives of those who have found employment in diverse settings. We will also expand mentoring and networking activities at the MLA Annual Convention and at regional MLA meetings, where job seekers can meet with mentors in a variety of occupations. Doctoral students, directors of graduate studies, placement officers, and curricular reform committees need resources to understand expanded career opportunities, something the MLA, with our partners, now has the capacity to develop.

Some departments already keep good track of their PhD alumni (and not just for the purpose of fund-raising) and offer models to emulate. To those who do not, the MLA will soon be able to offer assistance in developing, maintaining, and analyzing placement data over time. So many PhD recipients have already found their way into satisfying careers outside academe. We feel a sense of excitement as we put ourselves back on track to connect with them and embark on our new project.