“So…what will you do with that?” New thoughts on PhDs and careers

“So…what will you do with that?”

It’s a question we’ve all heard.

It could be coming from your mother, your grandfather, your cousin’s fiancée, or the person sitting next to you on an airplane– if you’re a PhD student, you’ve no doubt you’ve faced this question on multiple occasions. Most of us, particularly those of us in the humanities or social sciences, have really just one answer for them: college professor.

The truth is, most of us know that there are other options besides the professoriate (or the traditional tenure-track), but we don’t know what they are. What’s more, we don’t know how to talk about our skill set outside of the university setting.

Thanks to the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) Pre-Doctoral Workshop, we now have a new set of answers (should we choose to use them). Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the workshop gives humanities PhDs the opportunity to meet people in a wide variety of careers (many of them with PhDs in humanities themselves) and even sometimes to visit them “in their natural environment” (at the workplace). At the same time, the workshop helps us to recognize the skills we bring to the broader non-academic workplace, as well as equip us with the know-how to use media and public forums to make that apparent.

2016Aug05_HWW Last Day_0001b.jpg

We went to foundations and design thinking firms, everywhere from museums to LinkedIn, to community organizations and marketing agencies. We heard from freelancers and storytellers, talked with career advisors and musicians, with consultants, writers, municipal and federal employees, curators and executive directors. It was phenomenal experience. I learned about places and jobs I didn’t know existed. We got real talk from freelancers and people who followed their passions to start their own organization or company. I highly recommend it. To give you just a little taste, here are the 6 biggest takeaways for me:

[Read full article at Ilana Miller’s blog.]

(S)killing me Softly

What are your skills?

Seriously. Think about it. You’ve spent 4, 5, 6…7? years in a graduate program in the Humanities. What are your skills?

We’ve taken the classes, passed the exams, written the dissertation proposal, and performed fieldwork or archival research. We’ve given talks at national or international conferences and published in well-respected academic journals. We’ve won awards, grants, and fellowships out the wazoo. We did all of this while teaching hundreds of undergraduate students.

In short: we are very impressive and accomplished people.
(Seriously, we are. Just accept it.)

So what are our skills? If you asked me this question two weeks ago, I would have said: I have no skills.

This is bonkers, but I’m not alone.

On Monday, July 25th, Karen Kelsky of The Professor is In joined the HWW 2.0 cohort to talk about translating the experience on our CV into a legible résumé for non-academic positions. I was so grateful to have this practical element of the HWW workshop because, as much as I love talking about my career values and personal story (and believe me, I do!) one of the reasons I applied for HWW was because I have no idea what my skills are or how put them into non-academic jargon. To paraphrase my colleague, Justin Zullo how do I really talk to real people, for real?

It boils down to one simple and anxiety-inducing word: skills. What are the skills you gain as a PhD Candidate? Why do we think the answer is “uhhh…I dunno”? Dr. Kelsky suggests we feel this way because academics surround academics. We usually find ourselves amongst those who possess the exact same skill sets as we do. Are you bilingual? Your colleague is a polyglot. Did you spend your summer at the Newberry in Chicago? Your classmate won a Fulbright and spent the last three months in a German archive. Did your student evaluations land you on the university’s list of excellent instructors? All of your colleagues are there too. Therefore, we have no skills.

Like I said: bonkers.

So, I would like to take some time to begin developing a list of some of the most basic skills that we gain while being graduate students. Kelsky suggests we should have a list of 100 and if we can’t get there, find help! (Spoiler alert: I need some help.)

Here is a short list of some of the things I’ve done while in graduate school and the skills I’ve gained as a result. You probably have them too.

We are skilled and accomplished people. Keep telling yourself, and then go tell someone else!

Instructor and Research Assistant

  • Course design
  • Record keeping
  • Mentorship
  • Project evaluation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Problem solving
  • Facilitation of discussion
  • Verbal communication
  • Written communication
  • Data collection
  • Data analysis

Dissertation and Publications

  • Research
  • Analysis
  • Writing for specialized audiences
  • Writing for general audiences
  • Time Management
  • Editing

Project-based work

  • Project management
  • Recruitment
  • Collaboration
  • Event Planning

Conference Presentations and Public Talks

  • Public Speaking

Feel free to mine this list, comment with more of your own, or share on Twitter using #HWWPHD16


Sara B.T. Thiel is a PhD Candidate in Theatre at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Sara’s research focuses on Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and early seventeenth-century performances of pregnancy. 

Hello, Possibility! Reimagining the Human(ities)

On Monday July 18, the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) 2.0 cohort began our 3-week Chicago exploration of the value of PhDs in the humanities. As we reimagined the possibilities of work in the humanities, we experienced the power of storytelling, the significance of uncomfortable learning, and the value of clarity and simplicity.

Following a brief introduction of key players of the journey, our initial exploration began with a phenomenal career advising session with Mearah Quinn-Brauner, graduate student career advisor at Northwestern University. We learned important first steps including gathering data about career fields, critically evaluating our skills and aspirations, and building relationships. The session prompted our own introspective reflections as we ranked our personal career values.

After a delicious lunch, we concluded the day with a series of activities and discussions facilitated by Megan Stielstra, an essayist and contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. A profound storyteller herself, Megan helped weave a tapestry of our lives. Along its vibrant contours were stories about who we are, where we are from, and how we define our homes and our peoples. These oral vibrations laid out our connections, as they laminated our differences, forming the spaces for meaningful living within the creases of the continuum of human life.

Several light bulbs went off following these activities, yet two glowed intensely: we have the choice to decide how and where we want to work. Considerations of what we want and don’t want in a professional setting based on our values, skills, and interests are not only possible, but also critical to living wholesome lives and having fulfilling careers. I tend to forget this reality as I am trained to believe that the relentless sacrifices, mental degradation, and physical deterioration that accompany this ‘privileged’ displacement and ‘effortless’ professional success in academia will be ultimately rewarded with the luxury of tenure.

The other light bulb continues to radiate: our stories matter. As noted by a member of my cohort, the power of storytelling lies in its ability to “function as meeting places, as sites of solidarity and connections.” Amidst the moments fraught with national anxiety, I enthusiastically embrace the liberatory opportunities offered by active listening and deliberate dialogues directed towards a concrete reimagination of how we live.

The first session was beyond transformational. I found myself emerging from the quicksand of isolation that has largely defined my summer. As a rising 3rd year PhD student preparing for comprehensive exams, I spend the majority of my time burying my head in a book or article, my eyes glued to intellectual roundtables, and my ears wedded to the unfolding politics and latest research findings. Craving the crisp Jamaican breeze and Ann Arbor sunsets, I plunged deeper into the isolationist enterprise of grad school within the four walls that surround my nomadic existence. My friends and families often consider me a robotic hermit. I consider myself jumping another hoop that eventually ends with the ultimate slamdunk: a PhinisheD dissertation! #Freedom?

Why the torment? PhDs, why define ourselves solely by our interests? Why not focus on our skills, our passions, and our career values? Why not be soundboards for each others’ wildest dreams, visions, and ‘secret’ projects? Why not share these visions as we radically embrace a reimagination of our possibilities of living and learning? There is no reason why not.

I revel in the positive vibrations of my HWW community. I feel one step closer to bridging our differences, identifying our connections, and forming coalitions. Closer to living more meaningfully as individuals and collectives inextricably linked in the fabric of life. A step toward humanities without walls.

 

Jallicia

 

Welcome!

Welcome to the blog for the Humanities Without Walls Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshops for Pre-doctoral Students in the Humanities (we’ll also refer to these as the HWW Predoctoral Workshops)!

The Humanities Without Walls is a consortium of humanities centers and institutes at 15 major research universities throughout the Midwest and beyond. Based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the consortium is funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The purpose of these three-week workshops (the second of which is scheduled for July 18th through August 5th, 2016) is to introduce current doctoral students to the various ways in which they may leverage their pre-existing and developing skillsets to pursue careers in the public humanities and the private sector (also sometimes referred to as “alt-ac” careers). Each workshop will bring together a cohort of approximately thirty Fellows, two from each of the universities in the consortium. HWW Fellows will have the opportunity to engage with leaders working in a range of occupations both in and outside university life that draw on humanities training and extend its horizons beyond academe.

This blog is intended to engage participants through reflection and commentary about the workshop’s activities, particularly its focus on potential career paths inside and outside of academia. Our intention is that workshop Fellows will emerge with a network of contacts in a range of professional realms; a significantly broadened sense of the career possibilities that await humanities PhDs; a cohort of “alt-ac” fellows from whom they may draw support and advice; and a set of resources aimed at helping them advance into the various realms considered under the broad rubric of “the public humanities.” It is our hope that having current Fellows write and reflect about their experiences will benefit all the participants as well as all of those graduate students who have not had the opportunity to attend the workshops.

We send a heartfelt welcome to second class of pre-doctoral Fellows, and we look forward to spending a few weeks together this summer!

How to balance being a graduate student while preparing for the non-academic job market

Somewhere around the third/fourth year on my PhD journey I admitted to myself an uncomfortable truth: I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career. I just didn’t like the daily grind of a university professor. There, I said it. But making the mental transition from aspiring historian who only understands (and perhaps values) her work according to potential publication in academic journals to that of a publicly engaged scholar whose intellectual work could be respected beyond the walls of academe took some major attitude adjusting. Finally, I’ve arrived – dignity and confidence intact. Although I’ve decided to follow my instinct to pursue a career in the non-academic marketplace, I do want to finish the PhD. I love history, intellectual conversation, and researching the incredibly complex lives of the African American feminist transnationalists upon whose shoulders I stand.

So I jumped into the deep end of becoming familiar with the non-academic world by taking advantage of two professionally-enriching opportunities.

In 2013, I participated in the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement in the Academy at the University of Iowa as an Obermann Graduate Fellow. The one-week interdisciplinary institute taught me how to think more creatively about my academic interest by means of publicly engaged collaborative projects.

In summer 2015, I participated in the Humanities Without Walls Pre-Doctoral Workshop in Chicago. Through a series of workshops, I met organizers, leaders, and representatives from career sectors within and outside of the academy who shared their respective expertise in how to “get my foot in the door” as a humanities PhD. Together, these programs not only challenged me to open up to multiple career paths, but then provided the tools and support to move forward with my new found motivation.

With all this new and exciting knowledge, it hit me:

How do I balance being a graduate student while preparing for the non-academic job market?

Though initially overwhelmed by this question, I’ve created a set of practices that allow me to network and stay informed about certain career fields and prospective employers while making progress on my dissertation. I tend to do this at night when I’ve finished my writing / research goals for the day and I’m “relaxing” watching TV*. The best part is that it doesn’t take as much mental energy and attention as my dissertation needs, but it’s a routine that will ultimately benefit me in the end.

 

  1. Create bookmark folders in your internet browser for “go to” sites
  • In my folder, “The Professional,” I add sites that are informative about the job market and resume writing and interviewing, and include a regularly updated database for recent job openings (i.e. Versatile PhD, Inside Higher Ed, Research Lilli Group, Chronicle of Higher Ed, NAFSA, etc.).
  • In another folder, “Prospective Employers,” I add sites of organizations and institutions in which I actually want to be employed if given the opportunity (i.e. The Clinton Foundation, International Institute for Education, United Nations, ACLS Public Fellows, etc.). I re-visit them from time-to-time just to see what kinds of positions become available. If the “perfect” position for me opens up, who knows, perhaps I’ll throw my hat in the ring J and apply.

 

  1. Save job postings!

This one may sound weird, but I make an effort to save pdf copies of job openings in which I would like to apply. Why? While it’s unlikely that the same job opening will be available two years from now, similar jobs will come up in the future. Having actual job descriptions serve as reminders of what my prospective employers want in a candidate. And when certain opportunities come up for me to acquire such skills, I know it’ll make me a stronger candidate because I’ve seen the skill listed as required / desirable. Sometimes companies include profiles of employees, so I check those out too.

I simply create a folder on my desktop, “Noaquia’s J-O-Bs,”and save them there.

 

  1. Volunteer Work

I know, we academics can be reluctant to view volunteer work as an opportunity for ourselves. Well, you should. There’s nothing wrong with thinking strategically in how you serve (from time to time). Here’s my example. I’m currently in D.C. on a research fellowship at the German Historical Institute (http://www.ghi-dc.org) and I cannot take on paid work during my tenure. I’m interested in pursuing a career in International Education Administration, so I’m volunteering for the American Council for International Education as a scholarship application reader for study abroad programs sponsored through the U.S. State Department. This opportunity will allow me to do something good for others, network, and, hopefully, set up some informational interviews – an exercise that was heavily stressed during the HWW Workshop for landing non-academic jobs. By volunteering, I can keep my commitment hours manageable for my schedule, and I’ll get to see if this indeed is the kind of work I should pursue in the near future. Volunteering in your desired field will show employers that you’re interested in and capable of working outside of the ivory tower.

 

  1. Learning to Say ‘No’

Being more confident in my post-graduate career plans and goals have made it easier for me to say no and/or decrease my involvement in academic activities that, ultimately, will not help me land a job in the field of international education. While I’ve committed to presenting at a couple major conferences and workshops this academic year (to help me progress in my dissertation and stay competitive for grants), I’ve also given myself permission to not attend or present next year. For me, there’s no sense in filling my year on the job market with commitments that are counterproductive to my success in landing a non-academic job.

So we don’t have to feel stuck or even clueless. As you can see, this has been a process for me. But taking ownership of my post-graduate life has and continues to be empowering. Let’s use what we do know and approach those at our university and elsewhere that can help us prepare for the next chapter in our professional lives.

 

* You probably are doing some, all, or more than what I described above. The point here is to be more intentional about creating an organized accessible network of resources tailored just for you to put into full use when you are ready to apply for jobs. And for those with family obligations and/or full-time jobs outside of the university, perhaps carving out some time over holiday breaks is a more reasonable alternative.


Noaquia Callahan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Iowa. She studied sociology and German at California State University of Long Beach and the University of Munich. Her research interests include African American and modern European history, women’s history, transnational feminist organizing, and race and empire. When Noaquia is not working on her dissertation, she can be found in one of Iowa City’s second-hand stores looking for rare jazz vinyl records, at a coffee shop, watching NBA games, and boxing at Title Boxing Club.

I Know What I Learned This Summer, or, the Value of Curiosity and Kindness in Creating a Career in the Humanities

As the project manager for the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) consortium (“jack of all trades, Master of Buddhist studies”), I have a good deal of experience juggling a variety of objects and coordinating myriad personalities. In that capacity, I had a good sense of the logistics involved in putting together a workshop of this scope and duration. What I did not know was what to expect from our inaugural Humanities Without Walls Alt-Ac workshop, other than that I would be working closely with onescore and nine doctoral students for three weeks in Carl Sandburg’s City of the Big Shoulders. I knew I would learn from my inevitable mistakes and oversights about how to improve the workshop for next year (because, as I noted to a colleague as I attempted to make espresso and instead enjoyed a demitasse of hot water, “learn” is spelled F-A-I-L), but I was frankly unprepared to learn so much about my own non-tenure-track career trajectory, to appreciate the meaningful coincidences and connections that brought me to this career, and to grow increasingly excited about future potentials and prospects. While I engaged in the usual administrative and problem-solving challenges that characterize my work as the project manager for a consortium spanning fifteen universities across the Midwest, I was also furiously scribbling notes during most of the presentations, adding to my already sprawling “to-do list” a variety of resources, connections, suggestions, insights, and other things to follow-up on. My head spun as I jotted down skill after skill I plan to cultivate to further my career in academic administration – 21st century etiquette, networking, grant-writing, fund-raising, and seeking links to foundation relations, to list a few.

What really surprised me, though, was the realization that the circuitous route to my present professional position – what I fondly call “taking the scenic route” – is not that out of the ordinary, and is in fact in keeping with many of the career trajectories of the speakers who shared their stories with our doctoral students. (I suspect it also aligns with the pasts, presents, and futures of many of our fellows.) Time and again I was reminded that we often create our own “luck” by practicing certain humanist habits of mind, by cultivating curiosity and a lifelong love of learning and of solving problems, and by embracing challenges with an open mind, and perhaps more importantly, with an open heart. Maintaining our non-research-oriented interests – whether gardening, cooking, parenting, playing poker, volunteering at a homeless shelter, attending the opera, or whatever – out of passion and curiosity may afford us the “peripheral vision” necessary to see interesting and fulfilling career opportunities that aren’t immediately obvious. (Following our bliss, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, is the essence of the hero’s journey – and who doesn’t want to be a hero? Being a gainfully employed hero is even better, no?) And “networking,” it turns out, need not be a cynical endeavor about meeting others and staying in touch for one’s own benefit, but can instead be about connecting with different people of various backgrounds around the matters that matter to them, about listening to and caring about them, and working continuously to strengthen and cultivate those connections, those relationships, those friendships. In other words being a concerned, caring, and kind person can – in addition to being the right way to live – have career benefits.

I’m truly blessed to have been a part of this workshop from its beginnings and look forward to discovering where this road leads. Be seeing you on the scenic route!


Jason Mierek (“jack of all trades, master of Buddhist studies”) is the project manager for the Humanities Without Walls consortium. He received his B.A. with a dual degree in religion and bio-social studies (a major he designed, combining biology, sociology, and anthropology) from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL, and earned his M.A. in Buddhist studies from The Naropa Institute in Boulder, CO. He subsequently completed coursework toward a PhD in Humanities, with an emphasis on Asian and comparative religion and philosophy, at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, CA. When he is not coordinating the myriad activities of the HWW consortium, he may be found reading omnivorously, puttering about in his vegetable garden, fermenting various elixers and comestibles, composing surreal collages, singing with the band Foreign Accent, and relaxing at home with his wife, teenage daughter, and dog Pugglesworth. He loves learning new things and skills.

Reflections from Around the Web

Below is a list of articles by the 2015 alt ac pre-doctoral summer workshop fellows and participants about the workshops that have been published elsewhere on the web.

Brian Sarnacki’s Website
Fellow Brian Sarnacki wrote multiple posts about the workshop on his own blog.

“Majeed Cares: On Giving a Damn” by Meghan Forbes for the Michigan Quarterly Review
Fellow Meghan Forbes writes a monthly piece about museums for the Michigan Quarterly Review. In August she wrote about Faheem Majeed’s solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which she visited with the rest of the Alt Ac workshop fellows.

“Chicago’s Alternative Academic Career Summer Workshop for Pre-Doctoral Students in the Humanities” by Jonathan Elmer for Connected Academics. 
Jonathan Elmer, Marilynn Thoma Artistic Director of the Chicago Humanities Festival, wrote a piece about the workshops for the MLA Commons blog.