I recently led a workshop at UC Davis for early-stage humanities and social science PhD students who plan to pursue different types of careers after they finish their degree, instead of solely pursuing the tenure-track job. The workshop was part of the UC Davis Humanities Institute’s (DHI) PhD Unlimited event series, which aims to meet the needs of humanities and social science graduate students who are interested in meaningful careers both inside and outside the academy.
Over the past three years, PhD Unlimited has become an invaluable resource for identifying and addressing the various needs of PhD students who receive little to no career guidance from their own graduate programs. Most importantly, PhD Unlimited caters specifically to humanities and social science PhD students—something that the rest of the university’s career programming is unable to do—and offers career workshops that respond to the particular and nuanced needs of the graduate students it serves.
The workshop that I developed for PhD Unlimited, “Developing Your Research Project Toward Diverse Career Paths,” was designed to address a specific need neglected both in general grad career programming and within the design of humanities PhD programs themselves: the need for doctoral students to explore careers early and to integrate this exploration into their research process in order to extract greater professional and personal value from their degree.
Since I enrolled as an English PhD student at UC Davis seven years ago, I have observed a sea change in the perspectives of humanities grad students toward their post-degree job prospects and possibilities. In 2010, most of my incoming cohort believed that the PhD was training for a tenure-track job and little else and that we could land such jobs if we worked hard enough. We had a hazy and begrudging awareness of the job market’s realities but assumed we could “game” the system. The prospect of using our PhDs for careers other than the tenure track was understood as a kind of failure.
In the years since 2010, however, things appear to have changed for incoming PhD students. It is my impression that humanities grads now enter their PhD programs not only with a better sense of the realities of the tenure-track job market, but also—crucially—with a greater comfort level at the prospect of using their doctoral degree to pivot into other types of work. Admittedly, this “comfort” may arise more out of necessity than agency; nonetheless it is clear to me that incoming grad students are approaching the situation differently than students in the past.
Unfortunately, the design and implementation of humanities PhD programs has not kept pace with this transformation—in terms of addressing diverse career interests and professionalization needs. Instead, universities are creating grad student career programming in units outside of the grad programs themselves, like the university-wide career center or the Office of Graduate Studies. I believe this development is somewhat misguided, or at the very least insufficient—due to survey data I recently collected from my fellow graduate students.
In October 2016, three other UC-system graduate students and I surveyed the humanities and social science graduate students on our home campuses as part of a project for the UCHRI’s Humanists@Work initiative. At UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Merced, and UC San Diego, we asked about grad student experiences with career preparation during their PhD programs. You can read more about the survey project and see the data on the HumWork webpage.
As I discovered from the survey of my fellow UC Davis humanities grad students, the vast majority of us would prefer career programming that comes from within our graduate program, catered to our specific interests, needs, and values. Career programming that comes from outside our degree programs, the data shows, fails to really reach us. Even PhD Unlimited, the DHI career series I commended earlier in this essay, struggles at times to achieve good attendance and to cater to the needs of students from different disciplines. Based on the survey data, I believe students would be more likely to make use of career programming if it is built into graduate programs themselves.
Another significant issue with current grad career programming is that nearly all events are tailored toward students in the final stages of their degree programs (e.g., with resume, job search, and interviewing workshops). This programming overlooks the fact that incoming grad students are now willing and able to plan for their career far earlier in the degree program. This opens up a new and exciting landscape in which grads can take more ownership over how their doctoral study can lead to a job they want—whatever type of job that is.
I wanted to lead a workshop that would empower its attendees to build career exploration into their doctoral program as early and as synergistically as possible. We recruited attendees from the first four years of their PhD programs. First, my fellow presenter Lindsay Baltus and I talked about our own experiences building career exploration into our research processes. Then we led the attendees through a few activities designed to help them brainstorm how they could infuse their research plan with opportunities for career exploration.
First, participants wrote and talked about how they could discuss their research with non-academic communities and identified communities or organizations that would be interested. I wanted them to see how their academic research connects them to people outside of academia who have similar interests and concerns. Attendees then worked collaboratively to imagine ways they could use their research to connect with these communities or organizations—particularly in ways that would be supported by their degree programs and their advisors.
Finally, we came back together as a group and discussed additional resources and advice for incorporating career exploration into the long process of researching and writing a dissertation. While the workshop was by no means comprehensive, I believe that it was successful in addressing a programming gap, and I would urge campus units that offer grad student career programming to consider offering workshops like it.
In closing I would like to return, however, to my earlier assertion: that better and earlier career exploration must be built into doctoral programs themselves, rather than the burden largely falling on other campus units to create sporadic, overly-general programming to address the need. It is time (indeed, well past time) for doctoral programs to build career exploration support into the entirety of the program timeline and structure, in order to support existing and incoming students in their career goals and realities.
The practical resources and advice that we provided to our attendees should be common knowledge coming from within the programs themselves. As faculty members guide their graduate students through the research process, they should also help them explore how their research is valuable to multiple communities and how it can lead to different types of work. While I recognize that the tenure-track research job is the profession faculty members are best qualified to mentor their students in, it is not a job that the majority of their students will obtain. This reality needs to be addressed programmatically, in order for students to understand that their graduate degree has value outside the tenure track and can lead to many types of fulfilling work.