Are certificate programs useful for humanities PhD students?

If you are reading this post, you likely: are a PhD in the humanities or arts (like me), participated in one of the Humanists@Work workshops, and are interested in a career different from the traditional academic path. At the very least, you are curious about other career opportunities outside of academia while the only thing your PhD program trains you for is…becoming an academic! Welcome to the club. A solution to this problem might be certificate programs, which are a good way for PhD students to diminish the skills gap between academic and non-academic sectors. But the more I enroll in certificate programs and the more I talk to people, the more I wonder if certificate programs are useful for PhD students in the humanities, and the more I find that there is no crystal-clear answer. Some people think that they are fantastic; others, that they are useless. Bottom line: certificate programs are what you make of them. Let’s explore the pros and cons.

It is important to note that there are certificate programs, and then there are certificate programs. Some certificates require full participation, which often demands that students take classes, do homework, and complete some kind of project. Others, often online and industry-based, look more like tests.

Let me tell you about my history with certificate programs. Before enrolling in the Critical Dance Studies department at UCR, I was lost, unsure of what to focus on or what my areas of expertise were. I did a masters in cultural studies and a masters in political science, and indeed I realized there were SO many things I was interested in and I wanted to learn about them all (I was very young and had lots of energy back then… Now, I would rather do one thing at a time LOL). This is when I started looking into online courses and certificate programs. I started the Sciences of Happiness course offered by the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley on the EDx platform, I received my first aid technique certificate, and I passed the first step to become a personal development coach.

These courses allowed me to experiment in other fields to see what stuck. Clearly, I enjoyed those programs because I have since completed two other certificate programs: English Business Writing from UCLA extension, and Graduate Students Diversity and Inclusion at UCR. The first absolutely improved my writing skills, even though I did not have a strong interest in learning business writing. The second I decided to take for two reasons. As an international student working for the UCR graduate student association, I needed to understand what diversity and inclusion mean in the US context. Also, to be perfectly honest, I thought that, due to its socio-cultural nature, this certificate would open doors to grants as well as academic and non-academic jobs. In other words, I wanted a good line on my resume.  So, in my case, certificate programs helped me solidify my educational likes and dislikes, improve my writing skills, and learn about a social phenomenon that is a hot-button topic in the United States right now.

But how useful were those certificates? To date, I don’t really know. In my job interviews, no one has pointed out the list of certificates I got, which in some ways is quite frustrating, knowing the time and effort I put into them. Are certificate programs worth the time, especially as a PhD student in the humanities who already has a lot on your plate? According to Zach, yes; according to Maggie Gover, probably not…

Zach is a 7th year PhD student in the philosophy department at UCR. He aspired to find a teaching job after graduation. Last year, he enrolled in the University Teaching Certificate offered at UCR. His primary motivations were to get a foot in the door of GradSuccess (the graduate division office at UCR that oversees graduate student career development and success), to show on his resume that he had extensive pedagogical training, and to learn to write a good teaching statement before going on the job market. However, during the course of the program and after its completion, he realized that the program helped him become a better teacher as he was learning new pedagogical strategies. What he learned was extremely valuable to him and had a direct impact in his current role as a teaching assistant.

Zach also enrolled in the Diversity and Inclusion certificate because he thought that it would help him better connect to students from different backgrounds and navigate the administrative lingo around diversity. The motives were thus both pragmatic and suited his interests. What I gathered from my conversation with Zach is that it is important to enroll in a certificate if you are passionate and invested in the topic—not because it will look good for hypothetical job prospects. But, if you are interested in learning more about an area you are not familiar with, why not use campus resources to enrich your knowledge (after course work, Zach suggested …)

I also briefly talked to Maggie Gover, the director of GradSuccess at UCR. To her, having zero, one, or one hundred certificates on your resume does not change a thing. “I don’t want a certificate, I want to know that you have the practical experience,” Gover says. “Teambuilding or leadership certificates are useless to me–I need to know that you can work in a team and that you are a good leader.”

The gap between Zach’s and Maggie’s perspectives does not make answering the question any easier. I think the main lesson here is that certificate programs are good but only if you have a clear purpose in taking it and enthusiasm for the field you will be studying. If you enroll in a program to learn about a different field, research the type of certificate first—it is important to know if it requires lengthy in-person training or just a few hours of online workshops to receive your certificate.

From personal experience, I would agree with Zach not to overwork yourself while you are still completing coursework: Unless you are certain that you need a certificate to meet the requirements of your dream job, I would not enroll in a certificate program during this busy time. On the other hand, certificate programs grounded me and broadened my network to include people from various departments and allowed me to start a concrete project and finish it in one quarter (unlike dissertations, which never end). Certificate programs can give you a sense of accomplishment, the opportunity to build relationships on a non-competitive basis with people with similar interests but from different backgrounds, and practical knowledge that you can directly apply in your life or in the workplace.

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About the Author

Maïko Le Lay

Maïko Le LayMaïko Le Lay is a French and Japanese third-year PhD student in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Le Lay holds an MA in Cultural Studies from University Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle (France) and an MA in Political Sciences from University Catholic of Louvain (Belgium). She is the recipient of the Gluck and the UCOP Carbon Neutral Initiative Fellowships. She currently acts as the UCR Graduate Student Association Executive Vice President and is the founder of Collab’ Home Street Home. In Europe, she was Maurice Bejart’s Conservatory and Museum’s General Coordinator and was involved in the Hip-Hop Dance community.

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