Building a World of Possibilities for Humanities PhDs

Humanities PhD students across the United States are thinking about the changing nature of graduate education as they write dissertations, prepare for the academic job market, and face those attendant difficulties. Many others are considering the possibilities of careers beyond the tenure-track professoriate or academia altogether.

The PhD Unlimited project from the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the newly-launched University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Humanists@Work, and the UC San Diego Center for the Humanities are helping PhDs explore those careers and face the challenges in translating the skills of a graduate education into non-teaching work.

PhD Unlimited

The UC Davis Humanities Institute continues to expand programming for PhD Unlimited, its “alt-ac” initiative designed to help graduate students explore all of their options for work outside the academy through a series of invited speakers, instructional workshops, and other events.

Programming focuses on alternative-academic careers, from academic administrator positions, to writing and researching, to management positions at non-profits and NGOs, and provides graduate students with resources for how to negotiate this potentially unfamiliar terrain once they finish their degrees.

On December 2nd, the Davis Humanities Institute will host a graduate student lunch with Russell Berman, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and chair of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Literature.  Berman has thought deeply about the work of a humanities graduate education, summarized most completely in his article, “New Era for Ph.D. Education” for Inside Higher Ed. That evening, Berman will address the UC Davis campus and community as part of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Speaker Series.

Molly McCarthy, assistant director of the Davis Humanities Institute said she is excited about winter quarter alt-ac panels, which include “one that will feature graduate students who have found jobs on and off campus that complement their doctoral training in interesting ways, and two panels, one co-sponsored by the Internship and Career Center at their March career symposium, of PhDs and mostly UCD alumni who have carved out great careers outside the academy.”

McCarthy hopes that as PhD Unlimited grows “we will work more closely with departments such as history or comparative literature that have begun to offer their own workshops and events around alt-ac. It makes sense for us to join forces and design programming that can address the needs of our students with more precision.”


Launched in November of 2014, Humanists@Work is a UC-wide initiative geared towards UC Humanities MAs and PhDs interested in careers outside and alongside the academy. This initiative is administered by the University of California Humanities Research Institute, and funded by a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation as part of the Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work Initiative.

The first major event sponsored by Humanists@Work is a graduate career workshop on February 20, 2015 in San Diego, California. The day-long conference will feature “stories from the field,” resume development and interviewing workshops, and a session titled “The Possibilities and Challenges of Working Outside of Academia,” which addresses the issues and questions raised in applying intellectual ideals in a non-academic setting.

“Stories from the Field” is a conversation featuring stories from humanities PhDs who have found fulfilling and intellectually challenging careers beyond the tenure track. The conversation is moderated by Sarah McCullough, who received her PhD from the Cultural Studies program at UC Davis before becoming associate director of the UC San Diego Center for the Humanities.

“I think it is crucially important for graduate students to reflect upon the passions, interests, and questions that drive them. It should be these motivations that influence post-graduation professional plans. I hope this panel can help to open up a space in which graduate students can think critically and creatively about their own potential career options,” McCullough explained.

McCullough noted that humanists have “so much to bring to conversations in education, policy, medicine, technology, science, advocacy, government, sustainability, publishing, community organizing, culture, international affairs, environmentalism … we need to put our knowledge and skills into practice by working in these fields.” Stories from people who have successfully done this will help point out new directions for humanities PhDs.

Register for the conference here, or apply for a grant if you are a University of California graduate student.

“Humanities for Hire”

At UC San Diego, the Center for the Humanities started graduate professionalization series called Humanities for Hire. McCullough explained that this series emerged from monthly summer workshops preparing humanities graduate students for employment experiences outside of academia, but also for key translatable skills focused on the academic job market or grant writing.

The theoretical impetus of Humanities for Hire is to recognize and reinforce how certain skills are shared within and outside of academia. “This structure fosters productive and reflective dialogue around the many potential career tracks (including tenure track) open to humanities PhDs,” McCullough said. “To separate them risks reinforcing the traditional university/“real world” divide too often decried in conservative screeds against higher education.”

Other aspects of graduate professionalization include attention to writing practices, building your experiences outside of the university, being an intellectual online, and refining your elevator pitch.

Across the University of California, humanities graduate students can seek out advice and training on how to apply their valuable skills in academic and non-academic settings. Beyond the UC, programs like Versatile PhD offer an extensive network of people interested in work beyond academia in humanities, social sciences, and STEM fields.


– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies