Humanists@Work Workshop Tackles the Frustrations and Futures of Humanities PhDs Beyond the Academy

Precarity. Anxiety. Many small steps and realizations. A never-ending to-do list of fundamentally-disparate tasks and expectations. These words, written or drawn by graduate students from the University of California, stuck to the windows of the San Diego Public Library in response to the prompt, “What phrase or image best describes your journey as a humanist@work?”

The University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Humanists@Work Graduate Career Workshop drew together over eighty humanities graduate students from the University of California system to explore careers outside and alongside the academy. The February 20 event kicked off with a welcome by UCHRI director David Theo Goldberg and UCHRI assistant director Kelly Anne Brown.

Humanists at work want to “contribute to social change, better social conditions, use one’s academic training, and put it to work in contexts outside the university,” Goldberg said.

“We cannot separate our work as career searchers and our work as scholars,” Brown explained, “So we need to create a space around being a graduate student now that is creative and provocative.”

The Humanists@Work Graduate Career Workshop offered a day-long schedule of events framed by the sentiments of Goldberg and Brown. The first panel featured “Stories from the Field” with two recent humanities PhDs working in careers outside of the university. Moderated by the event co-coordinator Sarah McCullough, associate director at UCSD’s Center for Humanities (PhD Cultural Studies, UCD), the panel included Adam Lowenstein, Vice President of Counseling and Enrollment at Summa Education (PhD English, UCLA) and Natalie Purcell, Program Director, Office of Patient Centered Care, San Francisco Medical Center (PhD Sociology, UCSC).

Adam described work experiences at a mainstream test preparation company while pursuing his PhD, which left him uneasy about a future career in educational counseling. “It was not the philosophical environment I wanted to be in,” he explained. So when a former coworker started a new education company, Adam couldn’t resist the offer to join him. At Summa Education, he is able focus on his love of teaching and in demonstrating the core values and theoretical questions of the humanities for high school students. Adam’s main takeaway was to maintain social networks, think deeply about the kind of work you value, and to use the first job outside of academia as a precursor to the job you really want.

Natalie Purcell never imagined she would be working for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs when she completed her PhD in Sociology, but after being awarded a Presidential Management Fellowship, Natalie began her employment with the VA focusing on “patient-centered care.” While her dissertation research explored the social effects of violence, Natalie learned to bring her humanities skills to every assignment – from leading an employee diversity workshop to handling complicated research and program tasks.

The next event in the day’s schedule included a work values inventory and informational interview presentation from Debra Behrens, a PhD Career Counselor at UC Berkeley. Behrens led the group in a values-centered exploration of career options for humanities PhDs drawn from an inventory worksheet that participants completed prior to the event. Accounting for the personal core values, work environments, interactions, and activities that are most important to them, participants wrote and discussed a narrative of what their daily work life would entail if guided by their values.

Are high earnings, influence over others, and a fast-paced work environment at the top of your list? Or do you prioritize work-life balance in a supportive, creative, and collaborative setting? Knowing this about yourself is key to finding the best career suited to your skills and values outside of academia. Additionally, Behrens reviewed best practices in setting up “informational interviews” with people who have careers in fields, institutions, or job titles of interest to you.

Over the course of three hours, the group participated in a resume workshop led by Jared Redick, career transition coach and executive resume writer. Participants assessed their individual skills and experiences in the context of different “alt-ac” job descriptions they culled from online databases like Redick then guided the group as they translated and modified their resumes to more closely match the qualifications and expectations of each job.

The main thrust of Redick’s presentation was to focus on 5-6 “core themes” on which to develop your work story in the resume. These themes – also referred to as categories and buckets in the presentation – represent your key competencies and capabilities which are supported by specific work experiences. The graduate student group wrestled with how best to translate the work of researching and writing a dissertation into such themes, and at the end of the day, it was determined to be a task requiring a great deal more theorization.

The day inevitably included its share of stories of frustration, disappointment, and unsatisfying experiences of graduate students in trying to pursue “alt-ac” work in the university while still completing a PhD in the humanities. But the workshop came to a hopeful and forward-looking close with a collaborative discussion of how to shape the conversation around humanists at work moderated by Carolyn Penny, Director of Campus Dialogue and Deliberation at UC Davis.

The “Theorizing Our Moment” session divided participants into small groups to discuss two questions: 1) What does it look like when humanities graduate students are well-supported for their career development? Who are the key players, and what are the gaps?, and 2)What is on your mind that you most want to share with or ask of the group?

The group shared a variety of solutions, visions, utopian scenarios, and critical questions about the “big picture” of career development in the humanities, including the need to start this conversation earlier on in the graduate experience, for departments to keep placement records for non-tenure-track graduates, for expanding paid work opportunities for graduate students, and the need for “mediators” to manage expectations and advising between faculty and students.

The workshop was the first event from Humanists@Work, a UCHRI initiative that recently received a $347,000 grant from the Modern Language Association’s “Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers.” Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, the initiative creates and supports programming for  humanities and humanistic social science MAs and PhDs across the University of California who are interested in careers outside and alongside the academy.

Keep an eye out for Humanists@Work, as they plan to conduct six workshops over the next three years with humanities departments across the University of California system.

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