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What Comes Next? A Conversation with Kelly Brown of Humanists@Work

Humanists@Work began in 2014 as a response to the shrinking academic job market for humanities PhDs. Students were still earning PhDs, but most weren’t entering the academy. Humanists were working elsewhere, but academics largely weren’t having conversations about their work or preparing their students for diverse careers. HumWork quickly became the graduate career initiative for the entire University of California system. Organized by the UCHRI and funded by the MLA’s Mellon-funded “Connected Academics” grant, HumWork provides resources, advice, and internship opportunities for hundreds of PhD students looking for careers beyond the university.

Humanists@Work organizes career workshops for graduates that circulate around UC campuses. In fall of 2017, HumWork went to Sacramento; for their terminal workshop, they returned to Berkeley, the site of their first workshop.

After the final HumWork workshop wrapped up, Kelly Brown, associate director of the UC Humanities Research Institute and the principal architect of the series, sat down for a conversation about the future of the professional development initiative and its impacts.

Now that the workshops are over, what is the next phase of Humanities@Work?

Kelly: On the immediate horizon, we’re developing a system-wide collaboration among UC humanities centers to lead workshops for faculty. Our hope is that faculty who recognize the need to support and prepare graduate students for a variety of careers will be able to come together, create a network among themselves, and gain valuable tools for this work.

This initiative is part of UC-wide funding that UCHRI administers in collaboration with the local campus humanities centers and institutes. Some successful models for this type of training already exist, such as the American History Association’s summer and winter institutes for faculty, and ours will build on these examples. We’re planning to hold the pilot workshops next year, to see if faculty and universities find value in it.

Another project on the immediate horizon is an effort to collect information about graduate students after they earn their PhDs. The UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) is part of a system-wide grant from the Council of Graduate Schools to track post-PhD humanities graduates. But the quantitative data can only tell us so much–we also need to hear stories and voices. So UCHRI will be conducting focus groups with PhDs at work. Over the next year, we will conduct 8 focus groups throughout California, comprised of 5-7 working PhDs each, aiming for as much diversity as possible. We’re curious about what work looks like for these grads now, what their income looks like, and how they frame the uses of their education after the fact.

And finally, we’re in the beginning stages of a longer-term goal: moving the conversation beyond the walls of the university. Building upon conversations we had at HumWork Berkeley, we want to engage in dialogue with employers, so we can talk about what a humanities PhD brings to businesses. We’re also hoping to have conversations with industry employers about what the future of work might look like and gain their insights on how they see the future of their field. Right now, humanities PhD programs have a vision of the future of work that isn’t always built on conversations with employers. Our conversations aim to fill those knowledge gaps and provide accurate information to graduate students to inform their choices.

Looking across the series, what do you think is Humanists@Work’s legacy?

Kelly: In addition to impacts on the lives of individual graduate students, I think Humanists@Work has also had an impact across the system of UC campuses and has inspired some of these conversations at the national level.

On an individual level, I’ve heard graduate students relate over and over how these workshops have made a difference in their lives and career paths. People have been able to find a community where they have emotional support for their decisions and material support for their job searches–connections in industry, resume help, actionable strategies, and more. The network of graduate students and professionals that’s developed at these workshops has made a difference in the jobs our workshop attendees get.

Importantly, I’ve seen graduate students find the confidence to be honest about their goals and values in a way that doesn’t privilege any particular career. Humanists@Work tells graduate students that it’s ok to check in with their values and make the decisions that make the most sense to them.

Across the system, the HumWork model has begun inspiring similar programs at other campuses like Berkeley and UCLA. Students who attend a HumWork workshop bring these ideas back to their campuses, and campuses have been developing programming and sharing resources.

And nationally, we’ve been instrumental in insisting that graduate students have a seat at the table in the decisions of national organizations. The Modern Language Association (MLA) is a great example of this movement: they’ve begun including graduate student voices in their decisions and governance.

What advice would you give to humanities faculty to help them better prepare grad students for a wide and varied job market?

Kelly: Attend our pilot workshops! And before that, faculty can begin asking themselves a series of questions. Do they create a space where graduate students can be fairly upfront about their intellectual and post-PhD interests? Is it easy to have a conversation about non-tenure track career goals? Do faculty reflect upon the language that they use to talk about the job market? Using terms like “Plan B” and “alt-ac” still reify the idea that the tenure track ought to be plan A; talking about the academic “job market” gives a false impression that it is a market and not a rapidly shrinking lottery.

Are faculty aware of what resources exist on campus for graduate students? I’m particularly interested in the answer to this, because I know our faculty are significantly overworked and under-supported. I wonder if faculty may shy away from mentoring graduate students into diverse careers because they feel that this is one more thing added to their plate. But there are lots of resources out there–the MLA’s faculty toolkit is quite good. And faculty can help shape the resources that exist. I’d love to see faculty across the system more engaged in analyzing career preparation resources and being critical about the resources that exist (or don’t).

And even if you don’t have a lot of time, or your institution doesn’t have robust resources, a valuable way to start is by thinking about how you communicate the work of academia as work. Faculty don’t often talk about what they do in the classroom or in their offices as work. As a result, their students are often unsure how to frame this work as transferable skills. Articulating your work as work, breaking it down into component parts, and speaking openly about it to students is an easy yet impactful way to begin having these conversations.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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