Scattered Thoughts on the First Career Diversity Event of the Year

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For the kick-off event of our career diversity events, funded by grants from the American Historical Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities, we hosted a panel discussion of recent PhD’s in the humanities who have found work in the corporate world. Theirs are voices that are often lost; universities have more often shunned than embraced alums whose careers led out from the academy. To begin what I hope will turn into robust and sustained efforts to re-shape the goals of the PhD programs at GSU, we decided to bring these voices to the forefront, giving them the first opportunity to shape our efforts, frame our agenda, and, hopefully, catch the imagination of at least a few of the dozens of graduate students, faculty, and administrators who attended the event.

The result was a lively discussion with a large and enthusiastic audience. It began in an open-ended fashion, and with an emphasis – appropriate in a room of historians – on narrative, as each panelist shared the story of their pathway from PhD candidate to employment in the business world. Their stories were remarkable for their variety.

Two of our four panelists decided while in graduate school that an academic future was of little interest to them. Even so, both took different approaches to their time in graduate school. One of them, a PhD in Rhetoric, knew she preferred the business world early enough to build those aspirations into her academic work, writing a PhD that gave her expertise in user experience/design and connections with the company that quickly hired her upon graduation. The other, a historian, produced a “straight” history PhD, which he used to market himself as a serious researcher and writer. Our other panelists left the academy less from foresight than happenstance. One, who received his PhD from Emory’s now-defunct ILA program, spent a year in a prototypical ‘alt-ac’ job before moving into the private sphere, while our final panelist, who graduated just a few months ago, competed successfully on both the academic and non-academic market, but chose a non-academic position as a technical writer, partially because of huge discrepancies in the starting salary she was offered in the business world.

© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Beginning with these stories served, to this listener at least, a powerful purpose, reminding me to consider that the existing programs already allow determined alums to move, without major friction, into the corporate world. We need not, in other words, scrap the entirety of our programs as a prelude to refashioning them. As someone who greatly values the humanities and hopes that career diversity initiatives might enrich and sustain them, these stories gave me hope. They also emphasized that at the end of the day, it is the PhD’s themselves who will be the agents of their own transformation. We can build a more supportive platform for their training, but it is up to the individuals who pursue the PhD to find a viable path through it and out into the world.

The remainder of the evening focused heavily on questions and answers, resulting in a conversation that ranged widely from the intensely practical to the abstract. Panelists fielded numerous questions about the arcana of shaping a resume from a C.V., self-branding, the mechanics of headhunters and recruitment, and the dizzying experience of identifying a niche for oneself in the corporate world. However, we also talked at length about more philosophical issues, such as how and to what extent their careers 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 had immediate value. As a co-director on the NEH and AHA grants, I was particularly struck by several themes that emerged from the panel that should shape our efforts over the coming years:

  1. Each of our panelists was 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.
  2. A recent white paper on PhD’s in the 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.
  3. The “traditional” 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. The choking point is less that the skills we teach have no value than that we don’t do a good job of teaching students to articulate and value the skills that they have learned.

Obviously, a panel of four is a small sample size, but the clear consensus was that the kinds of transformations needed in our programs are not of the tear-it-down-and-start-over variety. Nor did their experiences suggest 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. It should also give comfort to those who worry that career diversity initiatives pose a threat to the humanities, either by cheapening and watering them down or by allying them with capital and industry. On a tactical level, it is also a good omen for folks like me who believe that the erosion of the academic job market has long passed the point where ethics demand action, 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, conservative and change-resistant institutions.

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0), public domain

This is not to say, however, that real transformations aren’t required. Many of these reforms are cultural. For instance, we know that over 50% of humanities PhD’s end up outside the academy, yet their fate continues to be considered deviant rather than normative. 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 to those familiar with the literature on reforming graduate education, and is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Even so, to some extent it may be more perceptual than real. My conversations with faculty suggest that 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 the university as part of our community, can help to do so.

More tangibly, the panelists pointed towards other tweaks in their training that they believe would have helped them transition out. Several mentioned that they wished they had taken a class or two in the business school or in other departments to diversify their knowledge base, an idea that gestures towards the kinds of actions Jim Grossman has called “taking advantage of the whole university.” 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. Our planning committees have already begun considering how a Digital Scholarship certificate program could open the door to diversification, primarily through exposure to technology. Our panelist’s suggestions indicate that we ought to consider adding a few courses from the business school into that program.

Our panelists also wished for they had been given greater opportunities for internships and better institutional links to Atlanta’s business communities. This is very much on our radar and is a major piece of our planning process. We’ll be holding a series of internal meetings in the coming months to develop internship models and create formal links between GSU, the English and History departments and businesses, especially those in the creative media industries that we believe are most likely to be interested in humanistic skills and where we believe humanists could readily find rewarding and intellectually stimulating careers.

Finally, several panelists mentioned a topic dear to my heart, suggesting that they would have benefited greatly from more chances to engage in collaborative work while in graduate school. The transition from the cloistered, highly individualized research models current in the humanities to the team-based work of the business world was something they all indicated was challenging. One panelist who had spent several years as a Student Innovation Fellow, or SIF, (a program that features prominently in our NEH grant) spoke highly of the value of her exposure in the SIF program to collaborative, high-tech research projects. I am a SIF myself, and have been interested for several years in the opportunity the SIF program offers 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 struck 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 can speak with and for our colleagues in computer science. This kind of career, which often involves project/product management, is exactly the type of added value that the SIF program seems to me to offer humanists.

Dylan Ruediger

To see Dylan Ruediger’s original blog post, please click here.  Dylan Ruediger is a PhD candidate in Georgia State University’s History Department, a Student Innovation Fellow, and a project co-director for GSU’s Next Generation Humanities PhD grant.