Investing in the Jewish Studies Ph.D. Talent Pool

How can Jewish institutions, from new, small innovative ones, to more established organizations, better articulate what they do and the opportunities they offer …?

Via Shutterstock
Via Shutterstock

By Rona Sheramy, Steven M. Cohen, and Jonathan D. Sarna

Over the last forty years, the field of Jewish Studies in American higher education has grown enormously. From a handful of courses taught mainly in East Coast institutions, more than 200 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada are now home to Jewish Studies programs, departments, majors or minors. Once marginal to the campus experience, Jewish Studies is a fixture within twenty-first century liberal arts education. Almost every rabbi, Jewish communal professional, educator, and most lay leaders took Jewish Studies courses when they were on campus, shaping the outlook and commitments of generations of professionals and volunteers.

That said, the hard-won success of academic Jewish Studies over the past half-century is at risk. A recent study of close to 2000 Jewish Studies Ph.D.’s and graduate students conducted by the Association for Jewish Studies, the largest learned society and professional organization representing Jewish Studies scholars worldwide, and supported by the American Academy for Jewish Research, points to the dramatic change in the academic job market for Jewish Studies Ph.D.’s over the past decade. The survey author, Steven M. Cohen, uncovered pervasive evidence of a slow-down in job opportunities for Jewish Studies scholars. Cohen writes:

Over the years, the market place for Ph.D.’s in Jewish Studies has steadily deteriorated, as can be seen by the increasing length of time it has taken more recent Ph.D.’s to find suitable employment. We asked, “How long following receiving your Ph.D. did it take to secure a full-time, tenure-track academic position?” For those who earned the Ph.D. before 1980, 78% did so immediately or within a year. For those who completed Ph.D. studies in 1995-2009, the figure had fallen to nearly half. While for the most recent Ph.D.’s (since 2010), only about a third quickly found full-time tenure track positions.

These figures represent not only great personal frustration and economic challenge, but a tremendous waste in highly skilled human capital.

Of course, the fate of Jewish Studies is inextricably interwoven with the fate of other humanities and social science disciplines in higher education, and tenure-track positions in the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences, have dropped off significantly since the financial crisis of 2008. A study conducted by the Modern Language Association, one of the largest learned societies representing literature and languages, found that about half of 2214 people who earned Ph.D.’s in English, other modern languages, and related fields between 1996-2011 held tenured or tenure-track positions in the academic year 2013-14.[1] A survey of history Ph.D.’s conducted by the American Historical Society yielded similar results.[2] A report on positions listings across the humanities between 2001-2014 conducted by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences found that from their peak in 2007-08, the number of jobs advertised in six disciplines across the humanities declined by 30% in all fields except one (classical studies!).[3]

The result is a back-log of highly trained Ph.D.’s, some in debt from graduate studies, taking on low-paying adjunct positions in order to stay in academe, or seeking work outside the university’s walls. At the same time, graduate programs maintain the model of training students solely for tenure-track positions, leaving many unprepared for careers outside of academia and feeling that they have somehow failed for not securing a tenure-track job.

Among those Jewish Studies Ph.D.’s seeking work, according to the AJS survey, 86% report wanting to stay in academia; 55% state they would be willing to consider think-tank/research institute work, 36% express interest in the nonprofit sector, 35% in publishing, 32% in museum work, 31% in foundations, 25% in Jewish day schools, and 23% in Jewish communal work. The questions are: how do we prepare these students to be competitive in applying for non-academic positions, and how do we boost their interest in such jobs, especially at a time when many Jewish day schools, publications, foundations, and nonprofits are in great need of highly skilled, intelligent, and motivated professionals?

So far, the major funders engaged in preparing Ph.D.’s for careers beyond the academy are the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. But there is need for much more support, and an opportunity for funders in the Jewish world to be innovators in this arena. As the Jewish community bemoans the lack of talent to lead its organizations, run its schools, teach its students, and launch its initiatives, those supporting the cultivation of next generation leaders should focus their attention on Jewish Studies graduate students and Ph.D.’s. As Felicia Herman, Executive Director of the Natan Fund and a Ph.D. in Jewish history from Brandeis University, has written,

Ph.D.s are trained to ask big questions, and then to seek all sorts of evidence – philosophical, historical, sociological, cultural – to find answers. We’re trained to believe about most things that, as a graduate school friend of mine used to say all the time: “it’s more complex than that.” … Most fields, not just philanthropy and Jewish communal organizations, can benefit from this kind of complex, nuanced, sophisticated thinking.[4]

To be clear, Jewish Studies Ph.D.’s are a diverse group representing different religious, ethnic, and political groups. While a career in the Jewish world may not be of interest to all, all graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s in Jewish Studies are potential assets to the Jewish world’s organizations, publications, nonprofits, schools, foundations, and think-tanks. What is now needed is a two-fold approach to cultivate this talent:

First, Jewish institutions need to do a better job of demonstrating their intellectualism, sophistication, and appeal as places to work. To put it bluntly, Jewish organizations suffer from a reputation for provincialism and homogeneity in many corners of the Jewish Studies academic world. A recent Ph.D., asked if he would be interested in teaching in an independent school, said he would consider a non-sectarian school, but not a Jewish day school, because he feared the latter would lack an intellectual atmosphere.

This is a case of poor marketing. Jewish schools, organizations, and publications already are home to great minds, and great creative and intellectual opportunities. And they are grappling with big issues and problems that need the best thinkers at work. But somehow this message is obscured. How can Jewish institutions, from new, small innovative ones, to more established organizations, better articulate what they do and the opportunities they offer, and match their great needs with the enormous skill-set Ph.D.’s bring to the table?

Second, Jewish funders should invest in helping Ph.D. programs re-think their training, to better prepare students for a range of careers in the public sphere, Jewish and otherwise. The premise of the NEH fellowships and Mellon grants is that humanities training is relevant to twentieth-first-century American society, and that humanities scholars have an important role to play in a variety of realms. The Jewish world has the opportunity to expand on this charge, and be a model for other fields that wish to invest in their students’ futures.

“We need to shift the national dialogue from the overproduction of Ph.D.’s to the underutilization of Ph.D.’s,” states Rosemary Joyce, an associate dean of Berkeley’s Graduate Division.[5] Nothing could be closer to the truth. A brilliant Jewish Studies Ph.D. recently said that despite her best efforts, a tenure-track position might not be in the cards for her. Is she prepared to apply for a job as a foundation program officer, a division head at a day school, or an executive director at a nonprofit? And would she even find these positions of interest if they have “Jewish” in the title? It’s now up to the supporters of innovation and the investors in leadership cultivation to help answer these questions.

Rona Sheramy, PhD, is Executive Director of the Association for Jewish Studies; Steven M. Cohen, PhD, is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University; Jonathan D. Sarna, PhD, is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and President of the Association for Jewish Studies.