Scattered Thoughts on the First Career Diversity Event of the Year



As the kick-off for our year of career diversity events, funded by grants from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we decided to put recent graduates who are working outside the academy front-and-center, and the first opportunity to shape our efforts. On the evening of Sept. 20th, we hosted a two hour panel discussion with four recent Humanities PhD’s, three from GSU, and one from Emory.

The lively discussion, held in front of a large audience of around fifty current graduate students in the humanities and faculty, began with each panelist sharing their pathway from PhD candidate to employment in the business world. These were remarkable for their variety. Two panelists decided while in graduate school that an academic future was of little interest to them. One of these made this decision early enough to tailor her PhD towards career in user experience/design. The other produced a “straight” history PhD, but with an aim towards a work as a researcher and writer. One of our panelists spent a year working a prototypical ‘alt-ac’ job before moving into the private sphere, while our final panelist, who just graduated this spring, competed successfully on the academic and non-academic market, choosing a non-academic position as a technical writer.

© Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

© Tomas Castelazo, / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Over the course of the conversation, the discussion ranged from the intensely practical to the abstract. Nuts and bolts issues such as shaping resumes from C.V.’s, self-branding, identification of skills and interests, the mechanics of headhunters and recruitment, took up a significant amount of our time. However, we also discussed more philosophical issues, such as how and to what extent working outside the academy might qualify as “humanistic” work.

There were, in short, a ton of great things to take away from the event. For me, a nearly-finished PhD candidate who will be hitting the academic, alt-ac and non-academic markets in the coming months, the pragmatic advice about converting C.V. lines to resume lines (something we hope to blog about on these pages in the near future). As a co-director on the NEH planning grant and a member of AHA planning committee, I was particularly struck by several themes that emerged from the panel.

  1. All of our panelists were very happy to have earned their PhD’s and believed that it added great value, personally and professionally, to their lives. None wished retrospectively to have spent their years in grad school doing other things.
  1. A recent white paper on PhD’s in humanities noted that they weren’t sure if humanities PhD’s were succeeding because of or in spite of their training. The resounding answer from our panel was that they were succeeding BECAUSE of their PhD’s.
  1. The “traditional” ideas of the skills taught to humanists, writing, research, communication, ability to synthesize large amounts of data into a coherent argument or thesis, to discern pattern and variation, have real value on the market place.

Obviously a panel of four is a small sample size, but the panel’s clear consensus that the kinds of transformations needed in our programs are not of the tear-it-down -and-start-over variety, nor do they indicate any inherent and significant friction between an “academic” and a “vocational” model for training humanists. This is good news for people like me who believe strongly in the humanities and appreciate the strengths of traditional academic training.

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

It’s also a hopeful sign for people (again like me) who think we could be doing more, but who appreciate the difficulties of making deep reforms in large universities, which have multiple constituencies, plenty of room for bureaucratic infighting, and are on the whole a conservative and change-resistance institutions.

This is not to say, however, that real transformations aren’t required. Many of these reforms are cultural. For instance, we know that 50% or more of humanities PhD’s end up outside the academy, yet their fate continues to be considered novel and outside the norm. All of our panelists insisted, quite rightly and with pride that they were not unicorns or oddballs. They were, in fact, decidedly normal outcomes. All of them, however, reported that while in graduate school they perceived their interest in non-academic jobs as shameful, second rate, and best-kept as a secret. This stigma is unsurprising, as it figures heavily in the literature on reforming graduate education, and is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Some of it may be more perceptual than real. My conversations with faculty suggest that in fact many of them understand and respect students who pursue non-academic careers: yet I also know from talking to graduate students that few of them are getting this message. This points towards a cultural transformation that our planning process will need to address. Events like our panel, which bring alumni back to university as part of our community, can help to do so.

More tangibly, the panelists pointed towards a number of other tweaks in their training that they believe would have helped them transition out. Several mentioned wishing they had been encouraged to take a class or two in the business school or in other departments to diversify their knowledge basis. This is of course, technically possible in the current system, though it is not widely encouraged and might have “outed” them as people interested in pursuing careers in business. We are currently working on a DH certificate program that would open the door to diversification, primarily through exposure to technology. We might consider adding a few courses from the business school into that program. A second thing panelists wished for was greater opportunities for internships and better links between their departments and industry. This is very much on our radar and is a major piece of our grant.

Finally, a number of panelists mentioned how much they would have benefited from the opportunity to engage in collaborate work. One panelist, who was a SIF, or Student Innovation Fellow, (a program that features prominently in our NEH grant) spoke of the value of her exposure as a SIF to collaborative, high-tech research projects. I am a SIF myself, and have been interested for several years in the opening that program seems to offer for humanists to become conversant enough with computing, coding, and other high-tech fields to act as an intermediary across the techie/non-techie divide. It was striking to me that several of our panelists worked at exactly this intersection, as what they called “process & people” managers who spent their time working around very complex computing projects. Their personal experiences and sense of the larger dynamics of the market suggest that creative, resourceful and driven peoples such as those who complete PhD’s in the humanities have immense value on the marketplace if they are able to speak with and for our colleagues in computer science. This kind of career, which often involves project/product management, is exactly the type of add-value that the SIF program seems to me to offer humanists.





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