Blog Post

Putting the Humanities PhD to Work

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I'm excited to announce that Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom is in contract with Duke University Press. The book is a project that I have been working on in one way or another ever since working with the Scholarly Communication Institute and the Scholars' Lab at UVa. The book will be a solid discussion of career pathways for humanities Ph.D.'s, from nuts and bolts to why it matters. In the coming months, I hope to blog about the project, especially some of the more complex questions I'm wrestling with. Feedback is most welcome.

For now, here’s the working abstract and outline:

Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom

Abstract

Intended for graduate students in the humanities and for the faculty members who guide them, this book grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce and an emphasis on reaffirming humanities education as a public good. It explores how rhetoric and practices related to career preparation are evolving, and how those changes intersect with admissions practices, scholarly reward structures, and academic labor practices—especially the increasing reliance on contingent labor. The book also examines the ways that current practices perpetuate systems of inequality that result in the continued underrepresentation of women and minorities in the academy. Rather than indulge the narrative of crisis, this book invites readers to consider ways that graduate training can open unexpected doors that lead to meaningful careers with significant public impact. Drawing on surveys, interviews, and personal experience, the book provides graduate students with context and analysis to inform the ways they discern opportunities for their own potential career paths, while taking an activist perspective that moves not only toward individual success but also systemic change. For those in positions to make decisions in humanities departments or programs, the book offers insight into the circumstances and pressures that students are facing and examples of programmatic reform that address career matters in structural ways. Throughout, the book highlights the important possibility that different kinds of careers offer engaging, fulfilling, and even unexpected pathways for students who seek them out.

Introduction: My Pathway and Yours

The introduction begins with a personal narrative of the author’s own career path, using that story to suggest the broad questions that the book will address. Two important elements of this narrative are uncertainty and exploration, which can be challenging for doctoral students to embrace after many years on a relatively prescribed pathway. Because the book has multiple potential audiences, the introduction includes suggestions of ways that students, faculty advisors, and hiring managers might read the book in order to get the most out of it.

Chapter 1: Putting Your PhD to Work

This chapter offers practical advice for students on getting the most out of their graduate program and preparing for a successful job search and career anywhere. Starting with a premise that many career paths not only align with but actually amplify the goals of humanities scholarship, the chapter offers strategies to translate and reframe the skills and outcomes of a humanities Ph.D. into terms that resonate with a wider range of potential employers. It addresses questions related to the job search and interview process, from assessing needs and desires to navigating a set of workplace cultures that differ from that of the university. Because the dissertation offers an opportunity to explore not only new ideas but also new kinds of research and writing, part of this chapter focuses on matters related to the dissertation—including public engagement, digital and other non-standards formats, and measures of success.

Chapter 2: What Faculty and Advisors Can Do

This chapter offers evidence of ways that even small changes can make a big difference in student success, from assignments and course structure to exams, dissertations, and community partnerships. It provides grounding for faculty and advisors who are working to demonstrate that thinking more expansively about the ways that graduate programs prepare students for their futures can strengthen students’ engagement with the subject matter, methods, and teaching approaches that are core to the academic enterprise. Even though many universities face significant challenges to enacting meaningful change, a number of programs have taken positive steps toward change and are offered in this chapter as models.

Chapter 3: The Academic Workforce: Expectations and Realities

The first chapter examines typical career expectations for graduate students as well as the current landscape of academic labor structures. Although humanities scholars thrive in a wide range of positions, most doctoral students still consider a faculty position to be their primary career goal, and few graduate programs systematically equip their students for varied post-graduate opportunities. Issues such as labor practices, public disinvestment in higher education, changes in scholarly communication, and new affordances in digital pedagogy and online learning all affect the training that graduate students receive and the career paths they pursue. This chapter posits that equipping graduate students for more varied careers is only one element of many that are needed to truly reform graduate education, and pairs the work with advocacy for fair labor practices and better training for those doctoral students who do go on to become faculty members.

Chapter 4: Inclusion, Outreach, and the Public Good

This chapter addresses matters of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in relation to academic and scholarly labor. It acknowledges the ways that tacit rules and unspoken norms actively harm marginalized scholars, and offers ways to begin combating bias and inequality in higher education. It posits that normalizing a broader spectrum of career paths has the potential to improve the health and inclusion of the humanities. If one goal of the academy is to foster different kinds of scholarly output—from community engagement to digital projects to creative works—then examining the recruitment and admissions process is an essential first step. Incorporating a broader and more holistic understanding of the value of research and teaching to society, and ensuring that scholarly reward structures meaningfully recognize work of this nature, may help open the door to research that is deeply grounded in issues that matter to first-generation students and students of color.

Chapter 5: From Individual Success to Institutional Change

Because changing cultural norms and values in institutions that are inherently conservative is exceedingly difficult, this chapter proposes moving toward cultural change through genealogies of mentorship (including peer mentoring as well as formal advising). It also proposes that institutions prioritize the need to measure success differently, and to be conscientious about the implicit signals that students hear. One concrete way programs can begin changing values is by showcasing positive examples of innovative scholarly projects and interesting career paths. Another is to focus on advising relationships, which are key to student success and have the potential to powerfully transmit values and norms. If mentors and advisors transmit to students an expansive vision of what scholarship can look like, those students are likely to internalize, enact, and share those same values.

Conclusion: The University Worth Fighting For

Humanities PhDs will continue to go into a wide range of careers no matter what. What is at stake is how well programs equip them for new possibilities; how innovative work with deep public relevance is evaluated and valued; and how programs internalize a broader set of values in their recruitment and admissions practices. The best possible outcome would be a cultural change that deeply values public engagement, supports meaningful careers that allow a healthy standard of living, and that encourages diversity of all kinds in order to bring greater vibrancy to graduate study. At the same time, we must fight for public reinvestment in higher education and stop the erosion of our programs through the increasing use of adjunct labor. Only by addressing all of these aspects at once can we move toward a healthy and sustainable educational system that is both rigorous and inclusive.

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