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PhD Unlimited: Time To Build Early Career Exploration into the Ph.D. Timeline

A blog post by Meg Sparling, English PhD Candidate and a Graduate Advisor to Humanists@Work
I recently led a workshop at the UC Davis Humanities Institute for early-stage humanities Ph.D. students who are already thinking about pursuing different types of careers after they finish their degree, instead of solely pursuing the tenure-track job. We discussed strategies for building career exploration into the dissertation research process itself.
The workshop addressed a need that is neglected both in general grad career programming and within the design of humanities Ph.D. programs themselves: the need for doctoral students to start their career exploration early and integrate it into their research process, in order to extract greater professional and personal value from their degree.
Since I enrolled as an English Ph.D. student at UC Davis seven years ago, I have observed a sea change in the perspective that incoming humanities grad students take towards their post-degree job prospects and possibilities. In 2010, most of my incoming cohort believed that the Ph.D. was training for the tenure-track job and nothing much 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 Ph.D.s for careers other than the tenure track professoriate was primarily 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, but nonetheless it is clear to me that incoming grad students are approaching the situation differently than students have in the past.
Unfortunately, humanities Ph.D. programs have 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. This development is somewhat misguided or, at the very least, insufficient. As I recently discovered in a survey of my fellow humanities grad students, the vast majority of us would prefer career programming that comes from within our graduate program, catering to our specific interests, needs and values. Career programming that comes from outside our degree programs, the data shows, fails to reach us.
In addition, the majority of campus career programming for graduate students is tailored toward students in the final stages of their degree programs (with resume, job search, and interviewing workshops, for example). 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 than before. 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 Ph.D. 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, they wrote and talked about how they could discuss their research with communities outside of academia or higher education, and which communities or organizations would be most interested. I wanted them to see how their academic research connects them to people outside of academia who have similar interests and concerns. Then, they worked collaboratively to imagine ways they could use their research to connect with these communities or organizations—particularly in ways that would be institutionally 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, 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 research tenure-track job is the job faculty members are best qualified to mentor their students about, it is not a job that the majority of their students will end up obtaining. This reality needs to be addressed programmatically, in order for students to understand that their graduate degree has value outside of the tenure track and can lead to many types of fulfilling work.

This page was last updated: March 13, 2017



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