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Embracing the “alt” of academia: how departments can prepare job seekers for an inclusive humanities job market

Scholar at Large | Topics in Higher Education | Interfolio's Dossier

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic on how departments can prepare job-seekers for an inclusive humanities job market.

During my postdoc year, I ventured into the fog of mythology around the “alt-ac” world as I forged ahead on the traditional academic job market. As Interfolio’s “Scholar at Large,” I’ve written about how these pursuits are far more related than we realize. I’m happy to say that this process has helped me find a career opportunity that matches my values and will allow me to holistically grow my PhD skill sets and expertise. In August, I will be starting as an Assistant Professor of English at an equity-focused, public liberal arts college in southern Nevada serving primarily first generation and non-traditional students. 

I am positive that the career exploration processes I undertook helped me secure a tenure-track academic position that is an excellent fit for who I am as a humanities practitioner. Throughout my interview process, I found myself using the  knowledge and conversational approaches that I honed during my career explorations as I spoke with search committees, deans, and students. Most importantly, my understanding of how the work of the humanities takes many shapes will enable me to become a better professor for my students and for my colleagues. 

With that news, I end this iteration of the Scholar at Large series by highlighting four small shifts that humanities departments can make—based on things that they are already doing—to embrace the “alt” and prepare their job seekers for an inclusive job market that enriches the humanities as a whole. 

1. Bring the “alt ac” conversation out of the shadows.

My conversations with PhDs working outside of the academy consistently highlight how their career trajectories are hidden from those within the academy. This norm means that not only are PhD students losing out on a valuable network of diverse colleagues, but also that they aren’t as equipped to help their new departments promote the career opportunities that a humanities degree can yield.

What might bringing the conversation out of the shadows look like? 

  • Keep track of and celebrate all career outcomes of graduates. Make this information available on your department website. 
  • Bring all alumni (tenure-track or otherwise) back to campus for career discussions with current graduate students.
  • Connect graduate students with robust resources for careers both inside and outside of academia – and include those career possibilities in the same conversation. 
  • A more advanced step: begin to make changes to the graduate program itself. This could involve anything from how graduate course syllabi are designed to approving non-traditional dissertations. 
2. Affirm that job opportunities (academic or otherwise) are a single point along an extended career trajectory.

Help graduate students approach the job market with a sense of confidence and control by encouraging them to think strategically about what a position might offer them. A particular position might be a good fit for the job-seeker at this juncture; it is not a contract for what a job seeker may do for the rest of her life. What form might this support take? 

  • Teach graduate students to do informational interviews (this will help them with networking at academic conferences as well). 
  • Shift the language of your department’s “placement committee” to that of a “career planning committee.”
  • Develop workshops that will help students understand career resources. This could be as simple as including them in your Fall Orientation.
3) Emphasize skills in addition to content knowledge; that’s how transferability becomes clear.

Embrace the idea that the training you provide to graduate students already produces skills along with expertise that are applicable in a diverse array of humanities careers. Embracing this does not mean that professors need to teach graduate students differently, or that rigorous intellectual projects and academic research will be compromised. All it means is talking more openly and inclusively with graduate students about these issues and shifting the language we use to talk about putting our PhDs to work. And on that important point:

4) Discourage language or messaging that suggests that careers beyond the academy represent a “Plan B,” that students are “giving up” or “can’t cut it,” or that such job-seekers are not committed to the advancement of humanistic knowledge.

I cannot overemphasize how crucial this small shift in rhetoric is for job-seeking success, and more importantly, for the mental and emotional health of job-seekers. If you do nothing else, work toward developing an affirming, rather than damage control-oriented, departmental culture of career exploration.

Do you have experience with a job-seeking practice that worked well? Continue the conversation with me on Twitter and through the hashtags #withaphd and #PhDchat!

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Author bio: Dr. Molly Appel is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Penn State University. Her research explores how literature works a space of teaching and learning for human rights and social justice in the Americas. You can find her on Twitter @mollyappel.

Interfolio’s Dossier enables scholars to collect, curate, polish and send out their materials at all stages throughout their academic professional path. Learn more about Dossier here.