Career Planning for Arts and Humanities Graduate Students

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Traditional career paths in the arts and humanities are often overcrowded, as school produce more graduates with advanced degrees than there are jobs available. With imagination and work, graduate students can identify satisfying alternatives.

In another article, I counseled college students not to start career planning by considering what they can do with their major. Many college students change majors, some more than once. Many college students end up with a job unrelated to their major, years later if not immediately after college. I suggested beginning career planning with a personal inventory of skills, personality traits, desired lifestyle, and what they enjoy most.

Graduate students should do the same, but graduate school represents gaining additional knowledge and skills in a particular discipline. Career planning for graduate students must therefore entail very careful exploration of possible career paths for that discipline.

Some disciplines have more career paths than others. Chemists, for example, can find work in many different businesses, from routine testing of products and ingredients to cutting-edge research. In other disciplines, and especially the arts and humanities, the most obvious one, teaching at a college or university, provides far fewer openings than the number of qualified people seeking them.

My own discipline of musicology is one of them. Shortly after I completed my doctorate, the American Musicological Society had a session of career alternatives at its national meeting. I left the session regretting that I had not heard any of those ideas when I first started to graduate school.

It appeared that attendees who already had their academic positions intended to use the session as a springboard for better career counseling within their departments. Thirty years later, it appears that nothing has come of it.

Unless every other discipline offers better career counseling than musicology (unlikely), graduate students should never rely entirely on either their faculty or the university placement office for career planning. I have long forgotten the couple of dozen alternatives to university faculty discussed at the session, but I have tried to compile my own list for this article. I will generalize what follows as much as possible. Most if not all of the following ideas apply equally to any discipline in the arts and humanities.


Business provides quite a few opportunities for people with specialized knowledge of various subjects. Most of the published material on job seeking is business-oriented, which makes the kind of research necessary to plan a career relatively easy for whomever finds business an attractive option. Readily available advice on resumes, cover letters, and interviewing needs little or no adaptation as it, too, takes the business world as its norm.

Musicians need musical instruments, printed music, recordings, and various supplies and accessories. Music education at all levels needs textbooks. Artists need a similar array of merchandise. While other disciplines may not need such a variety of things, they probably require some materials no one else does.

Whatever companies manufacture and sell such materials need knowledgeable people to design, market, and sell them. Sales jobs exist at both the wholesale and retail levels, and of course, increasingly online.

Graduate students contemplating a career in the business aspects of their field do not necessarily need to take business courses. Employers can teach business skills as part of their training program, but they cannot teach the specialized knowledge of a subject that comes with graduate study.

Careers in libraries, museums, or archives

Libraries, museums, and archives hire both professionals (with an appropriate terminal degree) and paraprofessionals (who do not have professional credentials.) A surprisingly low percentage of librarians, etc. chose the career as college students. These fields provide excellent opportunities for career changers.

A librarian with only the Masters in Library Science is prepared only to be a generalist. Academic libraries and large public libraries need people with greater specialization both to answer the more technical reference questions and to catalog specialized materials. Many corporations and businesses also have libraries, which may need people with advanced subject knowledged in addition to the library degree. Similarly, museums and archives often need subject experts.

If you don't already have an advanced degree when you start library school, explore whether you can pursue a dual masters program. Dual library plus music programs exist, and others might as well.

Freelancing and Self-Employment

Musicians can offer private lessons on singing or playing an instrument. They can also perform on a freelance basis. Some other fields (theater, certainly) offer similar opportunities. Whatever anyone studies, there are commercial trade publications that pay for submissions from freelance writers.

It is possible to make a very good living freelancing, but it requires special business skills and excellent networking and money management skills. Freelancers do not enjoy a regular cash flow and must regularly spend time looking for new leads on jobs. It is difficult to break into freelancing. The best time to start is when you already have some other source of income, such as a graduate assistantship or a part-time job you can live on.

Because freelancing is so difficult to start and sustain, be sure to read a lot about it and talk with several people who are doing it to get a feel for what it will demand of you before you attempt it. Freelancing is one kind of self-employment. Others include opening a store, a consulting company, etc. Similar caveats apply.

Broadcasting and Recording

The American Musicological Society session I mentioned above pointed out possibilities for musicologists working at a classical radio station (both as announcers and program directors) or for recording companies. Radio stations and recording companies can train new hires in all aspects of their businesses, but not the subject expertise that they can bring from graduate school.

The number of classical music radio stations has dropped sharply in the last thirty years. Except for journalism, it is hard for me to conceive of a broadcasting career alternative for most areas of graduate study.

My point in including it in this article at all is that it may trigger other ideas I never thought of. Career planning requires enumerating as many options as possible and finding out what qualifications you need to get a job in each and what kind of lifestyle it might impose. Keep your eyes open to see if your background could possibly be useful in jobs that are not immediately obvious.

Choosing to Work Outside Your Field

Anyone with an interest in musical instruments or musical iconography should recognized the name Edmund A. Bowles. He has written prolifically on those subjects. Until his retirement, he worked as a systems analyst for IBM. When he addressed the AMS session, he said that 1) he chose not to seek an academic appointment in musicology--that he did not settle for working outside the field of his graduate studies but chose it; 2) he had to give up chances for advancement within the corporation in order to spend time and energy on research and publication that he might have otherwise spent on climbing the corporate ladder; and 3) he doubted that IBM would have been willing to accommodate him if he had tried to join that corporation very many years earlier.

In another article, I pointed out the example of one of my undergraduate classmates who never intended to look for employment in music. He became an electrician and upon graduation and deliberately joined the ranks of amateur musicians.

With planning and acquisition of the necessary skills, you can probably do as Bowles did. You can probably find an up and coming company that will put up with your quirky desire to earn money from them and spend all of your spare time pursuing other interests. You can pursue research and build up a distinguished record of publication in your chosen field without being employed in it. Bowles is not alone in his success, although there may be few other people who deliberately chose to continue researching in their field and not be employed in it.

How to Find Out about What Preparation These Alternatives Require

If you wait until after you have earned your degree to consider career alternatives, you may stumble into any of the options I have outlined. You will find the process very frustrating and stressful.

If you choose at the outset of your graduate study (or from this moment on) to investigate the less obvious career paths, do not expect much help--or much more than blank incomprehension--from your faculty.

That does not mean that you will have no help or resources in your explorations. Here are some suggestions:

1) Find and join a job hunting support group. You may need to visit several to find one that can support your particular goals. Most people in them (and most counselors in them) will be most interested in finding an immediate job as opposed to exploring career options some time down the road.

2) If you don't know how to network, learn. Any worthwhile support group should be able to help with that process. In particular, you want to identify people who are doing the kinds of work you are considering. Once you do, set up as many informational interviews as possible.

3) You will need to read a lot about job hunting and career planning. Become good friends with at least one reference librarian on your campus. If your academic department is served by a branch library, be aware that most of the print literature you need to read will be at the central library. There is, of course, a great deal of information on the web. You will find it much more efficiently with a librarian's help than you can on your own.

Traditional and obvious career paths for people with graduate degrees in arts and humanities may seem overcrowded. Unless you have a burning desire for a specific career within your field, your chances of success and satisfaction expand the more imagination and effort you expend on exploring alternatives.


Mark Cruz
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Posted on Mar 4, 2012
David Guion
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Posted on Jun 10, 2010
Rae Morvay
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Posted on Jun 10, 2010

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David Guion

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