Career Exploration for Humanities and Social Science PhDs

As a doctoral student, you have tremendous strengths and transferable skills to offer employers. With advanced training in the humanities and social sciences, you will find a wealth of rewarding job options in many fields, including qualitative research, writing and communications, public service, consulting, advising, teaching, publishing, and more. Don’t underestimate the depth of your strengths and transferable skills, which are highly valued in many industries.

Key resources and career advice

  • ImaginePhD: Self-assessment and career planning tool targeted at humanities and social science PhDs, but widely applicable to any field
  • “So What Are You Going to Do with That?”: Finding Careers Outside Academia, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius (University of Chicago Press, 2014): Originally published in 2001, this slim volume is still one of the best resources for thinking about the practical, emotional, and existential aspects of setting out on a career path other than academia
  • InterSECT Job Simulations: Online platform with job simulation exercises for career exploration
  • Inside Higher Ed Carpe Careers: A weekly career advice column in one of the top news outlets in higher education with pieces by members of the Graduate Career Consortium
  • Beyond the Professoriate: A small business started by a history PhD, Beyond the Professoriate has a helpful blog and free monthly webinars
  • The Professor Is In: Former tenured professor Karen Kelsky has a wealth of free resources for PhDs interested in pursuing almost any career
  • MLA Connected Academics: Resources designed for doctoral students in language and literature departments, but widely applicable to any humanities or social science student interested in a range of career paths
  • How to convert your CV to a résumé: Most industries other than academia require a one- to two-page résumé rather than a curriculum vitae (CV); use this guide to help you create your résumé (and click here for more on CVs)

General job boards

The three sites below are the three largest job aggregating websites, which means they use web crawlers to pull open positions from other sites across the internet. Use key words in the industry descriptions below to help you find positions in your field of interest. Also, you can set job alerts on these platforms and get notifications of open jobs sent directly to your inbox.

Please find below a selection of some of the most common career paths for humanities and social science PhDs. While this page is a good place to start your exploration, it only scratches the surface of the resources available to you. We encourage you to schedule an appointment to speak with a GSAS Compass career advisor regardless of where you are in your career decision-making process.

Higher Education Administration

Higher education offers many rewarding employment options outside of faculty positions that use the skills you have developed in your humanities or social science PhD program. These positions offer comfortable salaries, good work/life balance, as well as strong health insurance and benefits. In addition, working in higher education administration will allow you to use your knowledge about higher education in your career, which many who work in this field find rewarding.

Begin networking and doing informational interviews during graduate school if you are interested in staying at Columbia in an administrative position. Gaining experience and making connections outside your department will help position you for these opportunities once you graduate.

Writing, Teaching, and Learning Centers

Campus teaching, writing, and learning centers are growing areas of opportunity for PhDs. You may be well-suited to this type of position if you enjoy teaching and working directly with students and faculty. You may work with undergraduates on their writing or study skills, or help advanced degree students to improve their teaching skills.

Research, Public Affairs, and Communications Offices

Use your strong research and writing skills in an institutional research department. These offices need PhDs to prepare and analyze data about the university and to apply that analysis to institutional problems and issues.

Communications and public affairs offices produce internal and external newsletters and magazines with information about the university, their projects, students and alumni. Skills in writing, editing, and working well with a team will benefit you in this field.

Development and Alumni Relations

Many colleges and universities have multiple offices dedicated to fundraising and connecting with alumni. These roles can be in individual giving, corporate and foundation relations, and alumni affairs, and often involve a significant amount of writing and research. Depending on the role, you may be asked to travel with senior leadership and represent the university in visits to foundations and potential donors. Salaries in development tend to be competitive, and there are good opportunities for advancement.

Student and Academic Affairs

Advising and support roles are available in student and academic affairs offices. If you enjoy working with undergraduates, consider

  • academic advising
  • career services
  • student activities
  • residential life
  • student wellness
  • diversity and inclusion
  • international student affairs

These positions require strong interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to help others navigate the complex systems of university resources.

WHERE TO LOOK

The best source of information about open positions will be a university’s human resources page. The websites below are also useful in searching for administrative positions in higher education:

Consulting

Consultants work with clients to provide support around strategic and/or operational issues. Corporations, governments, and nonprofit organizations all hire consultants. Consultants may conduct detailed industry analyses, benchmark comparable organizations, or devise strategic initiatives. Consulting firms can have a specific industry focus, such as education, or serve a variety of industries.

Why consider consulting as a PhD? As a consultant, you will engage in stimulating projects and work with highly motivated colleagues. Consultants also have an impact within their companies and get to see results quickly.

Consulting is a rewarding yet demanding field. Most consultants travel extensively, spending three weeks a month on the road. They often work 60 to 80 hours a week. There are many ways to learn about the industry and decide whether consulting would be a good fit for you. This might include attending information sessions, networking with industry professionals, or researching companies.

Another path is higher education consulting, which is a small but growing industry. Educational consultants might work in the nonprofit division of a large management consulting firm, at smaller educational consulting companies, or independently. Your higher education experience as well as research, writing, and advising skills are valued in this field.

WHERE TO LOOK

Nonprofits

Nonprofit organizations cover a wide range of organizations, including health, educational, religious, arts, and charitable organizations, as well as advocacy groups, professional societies, and research institutes. Nonprofits are funded by foundations, government grants, membership dues, and service fees.

Many PhDs seek out nonprofits as their first step after graduate school because the culture of these organizations can be particularly PhD-friendly and they often need staff with the skills you have gained in your PhD program for positions in:

  • grant writing
  • research
  • fundraising
  • program evaluation
  • program development
  • advising

Nonprofits also attract people who are passionate about particular social and civic issues. At a nonprofit, you can make a positive impact on behalf of the organization’s mission, and that is very rewarding. That said, salaries at nonprofits tend to be lower than in the private sector.

WHERE TO LOOK

These websites will help you learn more about opportunities in the nonprofit world:

Financial Services

Financial services companies include banks, hedge funds, and trading companies. These companies often seek candidates with the kinds of skills acquired in quantitative social science fields, like advanced quantitative research and programming skills, and mastery of statistics, stochastic calculus, and experience working with large data sets. Common roles for social science PhDs include:

  • sales and trading
  • product development
  • analytics
  • risk monitoring and assessment
  • fixed income and equity research

Roles in investment banking are often very demanding and fast-paced. Work weeks often exceed 50-60 hours and projects may be due at 9am the day after they’re assigned. As in academia, you may have little geographic flexibility. Most jobs are located in New York. That said, you will likely be well-trained and work with smart, motivated colleagues. And, of course, salaries are high.

Another option within the finance industry is commercial banking. At a commercial bank, you may have more opportunities to work with clients and use your verbal and written communication skills. As in investment banking, commercial banks tend to have strong training programs. Commercial banking is also more geographically flexible and usually has more regular hours. Pay is high, but less lucrative than in investment banking.

WHERE TO LOOK

Secondary School Teaching

If you love teaching, secondary school teaching is an excellent option. Teachers get to interact with students in a variety of arenas: classrooms, athletics, theater, student clubs, and class trips. They also get to experience a sense of making a difference in students’ lives.

There are also many positions outside the classroom in secondary education. Many private and charter schools have writing and tutoring centers. There are also various opportunities to work as an educational consultant. Some educational consultants advise students or parents on high school and college applications. Others work as high school college counselors, and help students navigate the application process. Private educational consultants help parents navigate the secondary school and higher education systems. While college counselors often have degrees in counseling, it is not mandatory.

You may want to choose private schools as a first step in a teaching career. Unlike public schools, they do not require a teaching certification. Charter schools are another good option.

There are also a number of organizations that help career-changers become certified quickly. One of these is the New York City Teaching Fellows Program. This program recruits public school teachers and helps them with certification. Another such program is Teach for America. A large proportion of TFA corps members come from graduate school or another job before joining.

Experience with adolescents is important for entering this field.  While your PhD qualifies you to teach a particular subject, teaching younger students requires a different curriculum and working style. You can develop classroom management skills and gain experience in various ways. For example, you could look for jobs teaching in a summer program run by private schools or you might contact schools for substitute or part-time openings. Other options are volunteering as a mentor, tutoring, or working in an after-school program.

WHERE TO LOOK

Academic Publishing

Academic publishing companies print and distribute scholarship in journal, book, or thesis form. As a PhD, you will likely be familiar with the journals and presses in your discipline. Publishing provides an opportunity to stay involved with scholarship. Most academic presses believe that PhDs’ long commitment to scholarship makes them better editors.

The industry is currently experiencing several changes. First, university budget cuts and increased journal costs are putting pressure on publishers. University budget cuts have reduced library budgets and subsidies to university publishers. The humanities have been particularly affected by this pressure. When libraries cannot afford to buy monographs, presses are less able to publish them. Second, open-access is changing publication models, especially in the sciences. Academic publishing will continue to adapt to this shift in the coming years.

You might also consider the field of educational publishing. These companies publish materials for secondary schools, colleges and universities, and training programs. These include textbooks, indexes, abstracts, and study guides. Unlike academic presses, educational publishers are for-profit companies.

WHERE TO LOOK

Trade Book, Magazine, and Digital Publishing

Companies that publish trade books, consumer magazines, and many online outlets typically target a more general readership and are usually—but not always—for-profit companies. As a PhD, you have skills that you could put to work in a variety of roles, including editorial, management, marketing, sales, and production.

In publishing, you will get to work with people who love books and culture. That said, salaries are generally low. The industry is centered in New York, but there are some opportunities elsewhere. On the literary agency side, there may be greater geographic flexibility once you have established your career.

Internships are the entry point to book publishing, which is an apprenticeship industry. Many internships are unpaid or low-paid, so it can be helpful to do one over the summer while you are in school or during a semester when you’re not teaching.

Newspapers, magazines, and online publications also hire PhDs to write in their areas of expertise. These will most likely be freelance or part-time positions. If you’re interested in this type of work, build a portfolio of writing for general audiences.

WHERE TO LOOK

Cultural and Historical Organizations

Cultural and historical organizations include museums, libraries, and performing arts centers. They are a great fit for PhDs in many fields, like history, musicology, literature and cultural studies, and art history and offer a range of opportunities. These organizations value the subject knowledge and experience that you bring as a PhD, such as research, writing, analysis, and presentation skills. Also, you will work with people who share your passion for culture.

You may be familiar with positions in curation and research, but cultural and historical organizations often have departments in outreach, education, and program development that run educational programs and build community relationships. Marketing and public relations promote institutions to the public, and development raises money through grants from foundations and individual donors to help fund the institution. Each of these roles uses the skills you have built during your PhD in different ways.

WHERE TO LOOK

US Federal Government

The federal government offers a range of choices for humanities and social science PhDs. With over 1.7 million jobs and over 400 occupational specialties, the federal government is one of the largest employers in the United States. More than 100 agencies and bureaus oversee their own hiring and recruitment, and each has its own mission.

There are ample opportunities in qualitative and quantitative research across many agencies, where the skills and knowledge you gained in graduate school will be valued and put to good use. For example, your specialized knowledge of a language or culture may be valuable to the Department of State. You could also use skills gained from your PhD as a Central Intelligence Agency analyst or a researcher for the Government Accountability Office.

A useful way to find these and other positions is to do a keyword search on the USA Jobs site. Below you’ll find a list of a few agencies known to hire PhDs, though there are far more.

NOTE: Most federal government jobs are limited to US citizens.

WHERE TO LOOK

Think Tanks and Research Centers

Think tanks and research centers often hire PhDs for their research, analytical, and writing skills. Job areas include program evaluation, fundraising research, market research, or public opinion research. These positions may require skills in quantitative research, qualitative research, or both. Strong written communication skills are essential.

Think Tanks often perform research and advocacy on matters of government policy. Common topics to write about include foreign policy, security, microeconomic policy and social policy. Some conduct impartial research and closely resemble academia. Common forms of employment at think tanks include analysts who assist the research process by collecting and analyzing data. For example, analysists read academic, government and white papers, as well as news stories that are contributed to reports that the think tank publishes and uses to influence policy.

Working in a think tank or research center provides an opportunity to advocate for important issues that might be neglected in government or public policy. Another pro of working in this industry is that your colleagues are likely to be intelligent and have a desire to make a positive impact.

You can approach your search in a couple of different ways. For example, you might look for positions in a particular industry or field. Alternatively, you might focus on particular think tanks or research centers.

WHERE TO LOOK

International Development

International Development focuses on improving the welfare of a single community or group of communities. Many projects involve solving problems that reflect the unique culture, politics, geography, and economy of a region. In recent years, this field has focused on projects to empower women, build local economies, protect human rights, and care for the environment.

Projects may offer short-term relief or long-term social change through sustainable practices. A single, transformative project can address a specific problem. A series of projects may target several aspects of society at a global level.

Areas of international development can include:

  • foreign aid
  • governance
  • disaster relief
  • economic empowerment and microfinance
  • humanitarian aid
  • gender equality
  • education
  • environmental impact
  • healthcare
  • infrastructure
  • peace and conflict resolution
  • alleviating poverty

A theoretical foundation in policy development and analysis provides excellent career preparation, but isn’t always necessary. Understanding different cultures and regions is a necessary qualification, however, and makes good use of the knowledge you developed in your humanities or social sciences PhD.

Most international development organizations are nonprofits and classified as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and offer opportunities both at an organization’s headquarters and in the field. Note that most mid- and upper-level positions require 5+ years of international experience.

WHERE TO LOOK

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurs work in business, social enterprise, and on solo projects. These projects may create a niche market or address a social need. You may be familiar with some examples. For instance,

  • Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, created a niche when he built a platform for people to buy and sell items online.
  • Steve Mariotti, a former business entrepreneur and a public school teacher, started a foundation to teach entrepreneurial concepts to low-income youth. 

Successful entrepreneurs are able to innovate, tolerate uncertainty, and bounce back from failure.

Many entrepreneurs start their first ventures as students. You may start a project to explore an interest or idea, and build it into a larger enterprise.

Columbia Resources

  • Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship: Columbia Engineering Entrepreneurship supports students, faculty, and alumni (from SEAS and across the university) at all stages of innovation and entrepreneurship activities.  Resources include: competitions, grants, mentorship, and training programs.
  • Columbia Entrepreneurship: University-wide office with a mission to support, invigorate, accelerate, and motivate the Columbia community’s programs and culture around innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship. The resources page includes links to initiatives, programs and groups connected to the Columbia community, including the Columbia Venture Community, Columbia Startup Lab and MakerSpace.
  • Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs (CORE): CORE runs a series of educational workshops open to all Columbia undergraduate and graduate students and alumni. Learn about important topics including business plan development, marketing, and entrepreneurial finance. CORE also sponsors an annual business plan competition to grant seed money to students with the strongest business plans.
  • The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise, Fund for Social Ventures: Part of the business school, The Tamer Center is committed to advancing the practice and understanding of social enterprise by training leaders who are committed to solving social and environmental issues. The Fund for Social Ventures provides seed grants to nonprofit, for-profit and hybrid early stage Columbia University affiliated social and environmental ventures. Learn more on their website.

General Resources

  • All Business: Information, products, and services for entrepreneurs, small businesses and professionals to start, manage, finance and build a business
  • Entrepreneur.com: Information to help start, grow or manage a small business
  • VentureWell: Nonprofit organization that supports technological innovation and entrepreneurship in higher education. They offer grants, competitions, courses, experiential learning, and networking opportunities to support the creation of socially beneficial businesses.
  • Inc.com: Advice, tools, and services, to help business owners and CEOs start, run, and grow their businesses
  • Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE): SCORE is made up of prominent and retired business executives who volunteer their time to advise people on how to start for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises
  • WSJ Pro: Venture Capital: The Wall Street Journal Center for Entrepreneurs

Government Resources

  • Internal Revenue Service: Starting a Business: Information on federal tax responsibilities of small business owners
  • Small Business Administration: Independent agency of the federal government to aid, counsel, assist and protect the interests of small business concerns

Start-up Resources

Resources for Social Entrepreneurs

  • Ashoka: A global organization that identifies and invests in leading social entrepreneurs
  • Skoll Foundation: Global online community where social entrepreneurs and other practitioners of the social benefit sector connect to network, learn, inspire and share resources

Resources for Women

Resources for Minorities

Freelance and Independent Consulting

Currently, independent workers represent 30-35% of the US economy. Independent and freelance work is increasingly common across many industries.

Independent workers include:

  • freelancers
  • consultants
  • independent contractors
  • temps
  • contingent employees

Independent work can be very appealing to recent PhDs accustomed to setting their own schedules in graduate school. You may enjoy a variety of assignments and have more control over your work, and you may have a more flexible schedule and the ability to work remotely. For these reasons, independent work is an excellent way to ease into hunting for a job outside academia. You can gain industry skills, and explore various areas of interest. You may even be able to transition into a full-time job at a company where you are working as a temp or contractor.

Before considering a form of independent work, you should also consider the downsides. For one, you will be responsible for managing your business and figuring out (and paying for) benefits and taxes on your own. Second, independent work does not provide the security of a steady source of income. Lastly, you will likely not get benefits like paid holidays or vacation, a retirement plan, or insurance.

WHERE TO LOOK