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Looking Back, Looking Forward at the Last Humanists@Work

[Editor’s note: The DHI invited Lee Emrich, a Ph.D. candidate in English, to offer her personal reflections after attending the last Humanists@Work workshop held last week in Berkeley.]

By now, it’s unlikely that you haven’t heard about the crisis of the academic job market for humanities PhDs. Every year thousands of students begin their trek toward a humanities PhD, often with the dream of landing a tenure-track job in academia. But many of them won’t get that job, and they’ll watch as humanities departments lose full-time positions or are eliminated completely. The “Crisis of the Humanities” feels like a morass, deeply complex with roots that spread wide.

It lives in the perspectives of policymakers and governments that fund or don’t fund humanities research and education; prospective employers, inside or outside academia; in the institutions that house and perpetuate academic endeavours; and, notably, the crisis lives in ourselves–the humans inside those structures.

Academics at any stage in their career need to ask themselves: What is the reality of the job market for humanists? What are the narratives we ingest and disseminate about what we want our lives and careers to look like if we have a Humanities PhD? Are there more narratives out there if only we knew where to look or listen? Where do humanists actually end up working? What should or can a graduate degree in the humanities be for?

For the last four years, the University of California Humanities Research Institute has run a program, Humanists@Work, with support from the MLA Connected Academics initiative, to address the theoretical and practical implications of a changing work world for Humanities PhDs. The last HumWork workshop was held on Monday, April 30th, at the David Brower Center in Berkeley.

While it was HumWorks’s last workshop, it was my first of the series and my first alt-ac workshop. The juxtaposition of endings and beginnings was palpable to me, as the event attended to both the past, present, and future of humanities work, and I was asked to think about my past, present, and future career desires as someone striving towards a humanities PhD.

The core question of HumWork was: What is a humanist at work? The initiative strove to interrogate both key terms of that question: the changing nature of the humanities and the changing nature of work.

The “Stories from the Field” panel discusses “What is a humanist at work?”

The workshop was structured into four sections: “Stories from the Field” was a roundtable panel of speakers from a variety of career tracks, including a museum director, community college instructor, curriculum developer, and operations strategist for a venture capital firm, who discussed their decisions and experiences in their careers. “Developing Our Questions and Narratives About the Humanities PhD” provided a space for participants to brainstorm and workshop questions they had for prospective employers and discuss them with peers. Breakout sessions in Managing Up or Turning Your CV into a Résumé imparted professionalization advice and knowledge necessary for managing corporate culture and expectations. “So What Do You Do: Communicating Across Industry, Government, and Academia” was the final section where we all had the opportunity to sit down with different industry leaders and hear first hand their thoughts on hiring a Humanities PhD and their picture of work in their field. Each of the sections was an opportunity to ask questions, set expectations, learn about opportunities and next steps, examine perspectives, and hear stories.

We kept returning to these themes throughout the day:

  • Where work is going: to the gig economy, requiring tech savviness, and the rise of robotic labor
  • The academic pipeline and looking beyond the replication model, in which professors create more professors
  • Faculty investment and preparedness to mentor for non-academic career pursuits
  • Transitioning out of academia
  • How academic institutions and industries strive for (or don’t) diversity
  • How to deal with the loss your chosen content area: The role of research content in PhD pursuit vs skills-based employment in non-academic careers
  • To intern or not to intern?
  • How to narrativize your PhD for a non-academic career
  • Collegiality: navigating perceptions of those with PhDs as aloof, superior, or difficult to work with
  • Language barriers: communication patterns and audience awareness
  • Appreciating empathy
  • The value of writing skills

Jared Redick of the Résumé Studio leads attendees in a CV-to-Résumé workshop

A key conversation about approaching prospective employers and the importance of faculty buy-in occurred when someone asked if it was possible to prepare for both markets–the academic and the non-academic. The discussion suggested that such a course would be difficult. If one ends up pursuing a non-academic career, it’s important to convince your prospective employers that they are not your second choice. This means that PhD candidates, while in grad school, need to have honest conversations with themselves about what career path they’d like. It also means prepping your advisor to have honest conversations about what you need from them in terms of letters or dissertation feedback.

Either way, we need to believe strongly in whatever choices we make. One way to encourage strength is to change the culture that considers not pursuing an academic job as failure; and instead, create a culture that genuinely believes that humanists can work everywhere and whose workforce believes that they should work everywhere.

I was struck by how energizing, supportive, and honest the whole event felt. Until now, I’ve thought minimally about life after graduation, in part because looking past the graduation ceremony means staring instability and potential disappointment in the face, and watching those around me sometimes view my interest in non-academic careers as “failure.”

But I’m a fifth year PhD Candidate, and I can’t look away anymore. In the HumWork workshop, I was once again looking directly at that instability, but for the first time, I wasn’t alone while doing so. Feeling supported, rather than judged, transformed the instability into opportunities, a pathway of choices that I could think about and plan for.

Kelly Brown, assistant director of the UCHRI, closed the workshop by asking: “What comes next?” For me, it’s about continuing the dialogues that Humanists@Work fostered. And it comes with thinking critically about how to keep humanists connected, whether they stay in academia or not. What role can humanists in industry play at academic conferences, professional organizations, or college campuses?

We should be wary of treating humanists not in the professoriate only as beacons for how to successfully leave academia. The troubling undercurrent of such treatment is that we may stop caring about the graduates we train once we no longer view them as part of our sphere. What might it look like to view humanists outside academia as vital and vibrant participators in academic conversations? And what kind of work will it take to do so?

–Lee Emrich, PhD candidate in English

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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