This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, containing advice on how to support grad students, now more than ever.

How are faculty doing, emotionally speaking, right now?

For many, the answer is “profoundly burned out.” “Anyone else feel like they’ve been working non-stop since March and are about to crash?” asked Arcelia Gutiérrez, a professor of Latinx studies at the University of Kentucky, on Twitter recently. ”And we have no breaks this semester, and we’re already on week 8 of the semester.” In a piece in EdSurge about faculty burnout, Kevin R. McClure, a professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, noted that many faculty’s lack of time off in the summer of 2020 added to the feeling of stress that people were feeling in August, facing the fall semester. “Summer is normally a time of restoration for faculty and staff, and many believed if they could just finish the spring semester, they would have a chance to recover”—but a summer devoid of travel plans and childcare, and full of work to set up online or hybrid learning for the following semester, simply didn’t do the trick. 

Faculty and staff reported to McClure that it wasn’t just the fact that the summer was full of work that has left them feeling tapped out, but also the nature of the work. Endless meetings about an ever-changing and hopeless situation; hard work put into plans that may never be implemented; lack of communication from leaders, who were, themselves, overwhelmed—the summer, and the beginning of the fall semester, have seemed never-ending. Commenting to Inside Higher Ed about the piece, McClure said that he had received a pile of feedback after it published: “What I heard over and over again was people saying, ‘That’s me. This is how I feel.’” 

Much self-reported faculty stress comes from a perceived disconnect between people’s personal situations and the amount of work the university continues to expect. This pandemic academic life—no childcare and school, for parents; huge teaching burdens for those who are adjusting to new platforms; no travel for research; restricted access to materials—is not normal, five scientists wrote in a group plea published in Science in late August. “With the start of the semester upon us, we continue to receive a massive influx of emails from colleagues detailing service expectations, research disruptions, and complex new policies,” they wrote. “All of this can feel incredibly overwhelming.” The group argued for transparency, respect for personal needs, and aggressive triaging of what’s necessary: “Don’t hold yourselves, or your students, to the same standards as 2019.” 

What can be done?

Some senior professors have urged their fellows to step up, this semester and this year. Nicholas H. Snow, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Seton Hall University, argued on Inside Higher Ed that research scholars should “make teaching and serving undergraduate students your highest priority” this year. “Our institutions and our undergraduates need us. They need all of us. They need us to be accessible and inclusive,” Snow insisted, urging his senior colleagues to “go to your funding agency; get a no-cost extension…ask them to allow your postdocs to join with us in the classroom.” This was the time, Snow thought, for the “haves” of academia to put research goals aside and put their shoulders to the wheel. 


A sentiment many faculty share—one that, for some, is a saving grace—is the sense of common cause with their students. “Doing my best, kids—and I know you are, too,” tweeted classicist Christopher Polt, of Boston College, with a modified Spiderman meme attached. (For those unfamiliar, the meme usually features two Spidermen pointing at each other, and is used to signify a recognition of sameness. In Polt’s version, a single Spiderman, the “professor,” points at a group of students—the whole group recognizing one other as going through the same turmoil.) In replies to the viral tweet, professors described feeling a cathartic sense of identification with their students, who are having many of the same problems as faculty: lack of childcare, exposure to COVID, spotty internet, family stress.

A little bit of grace and recognition goes a long way, in the fall of 2020.

How are you navigating these times as a faculty member? How could institutions better support you in your work? Share with us on Twitter.

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, containing advice on how to support grad students, now more than ever.

American grad students, who are already living on small stipends and facing soft job markets, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Access to research materials is difficult, with labs and libraries closed and travel curtailed for the foreseeable future. Students with caregiving responsibilities may find themselves with very little time to work with the materials they do have with them. And in many fields, thanks to hiring freezes, the job market has gone from “pretty bad, but you might swing something, if you’re lucky” to apocalyptic—adding a new layer of fear to their pandemic experience. Yet many report that they don’t feel supported by their departments at this time. What can you, a faculty member who works with grad students, do to help?

Don’t assume that “grad student” = young and unencumbered 

If you think of grad students as cloistered and research-driven—garret-dwelling or lab-bound,  without much of a life beyond their work—it might seem that, for them, the pandemic is simply a fine time to get a lot done, without those pesky happy hours interfering. But that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve all heard the famous “Isaac Newton invented calculus while hiding out from the plague” story, but that story isn’t entirely true—and besides, Isaac Newton had no toddlers. Grad students may be caring for children, parents, or sick family members; some may have more time to work, but some may have way less. 

Try to provide as much clarity as you can 

Some of the worst impacts on grad students seem to be related to confusion around expectations. 

  • Some STEM grad students don’t know if they’re supposed to be physically present in their labs
  • Humanities grad students don’t know whether they’ll be given extensions on their funding packages
  • Nobody knows what will happen with the job market in 2021

Several of these unknowns are true unknowns, and some could be clarified by institutions. 

Reporting for Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty wrote that many departments want to be clearer with their students, but don’t, themselves, have clarity from administrations on what’s going to be expected of grad students during this time. If that’s the case, faculty should try to let grad students know that they are aware of these questions, and that the department is pushing to get them answered ASAP.

Try to make extensions and allowances standard

As with so many things related to the impact of the coronavirus, the impacts on individual grad students are going to be very hard to quantify. It might be better to simply adopt a universal policy relating to coronavirus disruptions, than to make people account in a granular way for what’s happened to them during this strange period. 

Jan Tattenberg, a doctoral student in history at the University of Oxford, argued that systems like his department’s—they require students to log how they spent their time during the pandemic in order to petition for extensions based on harm done to research and productivity—fail to take into account the mental health impacts of isolation during a global pandemic.

“I will lose work time because I will wonder if any of it is worth it, given the state of the world right now,” he tweeted. “I will lose work time because I miss my friends. And I don’t know how I quantify any of this. Or if any of it would be accepted.” 

Consider their immediate financial need

Finally, programs should appreciate the wrench the pandemic has thrown into plans that students may have put in place to support themselves during the summer break—a notably bad time for grad school funding, in the best of years. If there is a way to use institutional funds to provide short-term teleworking jobs, or simple grants in aid, to students who need summer coverage, it should be considered. “Individual faculty,” Duke professor Gabriel Rosenberg suggested in a tweet, “who have fungible research funds previously earmarked for (now impossible) travel and archival work should consider creating and self-funding flexible RAships”—especially if those funds have expiration dates. 

What are some ways you are supporting graduate students right now? Share with us on Twitter.

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic who is now on the tenure track at Nevada State College.

Graduate programs are increasingly modernizing their professionalization toward a more inclusive humanities job market. This is definitely promising for upcoming and recent PhDs, even while many of these programs are still being taught by faculty who have little to no experience beyond their academic silos. At the same time, is this shift exacerbating a gap between generations of academics? What can current faculty do to incorporate more inclusive humanities work into their own practices, and enhance their abilities to speak to humanities work more broadly?

Recently, I was reminded of how conferences can provide scholars at any level, and with any title, the opportunity to “learn new tricks.” I presented at both the American Studies Association and the National Humanities Conference (a collaboration between the National Humanities Alliance and the Federation of State Humanities Councils), occurring concurrently in Honolulu.  Both spaces were largely composed of professionals with the same credentials—scholars, academics, educators with advanced degrees. Yet I was struck by how distinct the conversations felt between these two communities. 

This difference was very generative for me and reminded me of the work I did while exploring non-traditional academic careers: 

  • I was able to make the way I relay my research more inclusive (and thus generate better ideas from the conversations)
  • I was forced to push the agility of my thinking and communication
  • I broadened the way I approached building my networks in my field  

I walked away from that week wanting to encourage current faculty and graduate students to approach conferencing more creatively than we tend to be trained to do. Creative conferencing is a great way to boost your knowledge of broader humanities work—and in turn to connect with humanities practitioners that will make your scholarship more robust (and have more sustaining impact). At the same time, you’ll be actively practicing the same skills that you want to instill in your students.

Creative conferencing helps us understand what being an “agile thinker” means in practice

At traditional academic conferences, there is often an assumed “starting position” of knowledge, of politics, of priorities. While that shared starting position is an important part of how knowledge is developed in a field, it can also perpetuate a field’s insularity. Bringing my work to two different kinds of conferences gave me access to more inclusive and challenging conversations, which in turn sharpened my ideas and the contributions I make to my field.  

Though I presented the same core material at each conference, I had to think differently about how I framed my work. I was placing my work in conversation with different kinds of humanities practitioners (not just professors, but folks who work with communities and K-12 teachers, folks supporting initiatives like The Lemon Project), which encouraged me to draw new connections between others’ work and my own. I had to practice recognizing and making my work relevant for the different starting points, pressures, and stakes related to doing humanities work for each audience.

Creative conferencing helps us identify new modes of academic collaboration

Despite the fundamental overlap in the commitments and the backgrounds of the attendees of each conference, the conversations at each conference tended to remain siloed in either the theoretical or the pragmatic. I found this gap astounding; it seems that there should be no reason for it other than the ways that professors determine “academic work” to look and sound like something very particular. Purposefully going to conferences that enable us to meet with and collaborative with other humanities practitioners is a great way to close that gap. My own work will only improve the more I am able to think of its theoretical components and pragmatic applications as inextricably co-formative (as praxis).

Creative conferencing reveals networks we didn’t know we had (or even needed)

Conferencing across these venues also helped me think differently about how and who I was networking, and toward what ends. In one conference I’m connecting with folks who may expand my knowledge of my scholarly fields or pedagogical praxis, or who might potentially publish my book. In another I’m meeting and connecting with folks who, for instance, have expertise in public engagement work, who are starting institutes at their universities, or who are running initiatives related to equity in search committees. Working and dialoguing across these networks made me consider how I think about the different sectors of my own work—how they overlap and how I may be more creative in integrating them. 

Now that I’ve started my job as a professor, I find that my academic and intellectual investments are shaped by pragmatic and institutional issues in a way that I simply was not cognizant of while attending a well-endowed and large university for graduate school. The more that I am able to understand my academic work in these terms, the more potential I have to both be good at my job and enrich the work of the humanities as a whole. The “alt ac” moves folks are talking about right now are not just for those coming up in the academy; they’re for all of us already in the tower, too. 

Author bio: Dr. Molly Appel is an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State College, where she teaches courses on composition and literature. Her work focuses largely on how literature works as a space of teaching and learning for human rights and social justice in the Americas. You 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.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusion or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of Interfolio.

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic who is now on the tenure track at Nevada State College.

It’s happened: I’m on the tenure track. As my grandfather used to say, it’s time for me to “put my money where my mouth is” and step into the work that I’ve been building toward for years. I’m ready and motivated to take on this challenge, but I’m wary of the ways that the tenure track might shape me and my career into a true singular “track.”

How can I continue to build a career in the humanities of my own envisioning, a career that represents one instrument in an orchestra of humanities work? How can I stay focused on this goal and build the humanities from within academia without getting exhausted, overwhelmed, and disheartened by jumping through others’ hoops?

While acknowledging that I write this from a position of extreme privilege within the academy (turns out that job market survivor’s guilt is real), my hope is to continue this blog as a space of advocacy for making the profession healthier and more inclusive. This means highlighting and bringing voice to connections, practices, and viewpoints about academia and the humanities that seem a bit “farther afield” than the normalized grind of that tenured academic life. In this sense I continue as a “scholar at large.”

So, as I sit through many hours of well-meaning but rather overwhelming orientation sessions, I consider how the advice being given to me as a new faculty member can relate to some of the best practices in pursuing other kinds of careers in the humanities.

When you’re new to a community, seek out and cultivate connections to folks with shared values across areas, disciplines, and departments.

One piece of advice I heard was to proactively start getting to know people broadly.

“Don’t wait for them to come to you – go and meet them. This is especially important if you’re coming from a large institution with a siloed culture.”

Introduce yourself to everyone. You may find that you have interests that align across areas and disciplines. This advice reminded me of the connections and networks one gains through doing informational interviews. Drawing from that experience will help me look beyond my own department for collaborations and opportunities I would never have known (or felt confident enough) to seek out.

(Nevertheless…the follow-up recommendation to “jump into service opportunities to learn about the culture of the place” struck me as rather dangerous for my first semester calendar.)

Spend time developing an understanding of how my labor is valued in this unfamiliar space.

While on the job market (both traditional and non-traditional), you are writing frequent cover letters, each of which requires you to frame your work in a specific way that addresses the position—rather than simply expounding on all of your accomplishments.

Now that I’m actually starting out in a new position, taking purposeful time to assess my work seems essential—not just for meeting my tenure benchmarks, but for remaining cognizant of how the steps I take align—or don’t align—with that “track.” Also, what labor is most valued by the institution?

In these first months, I need to:

  • Gain clarity on what specifically I’m being evaluated on, and how it occurs.
  • Identify formal and informal mentors who can help me with this process.
  • Define accomplishments for myself (outside of the requirements).

I’m reminded of using my training as a researcher to understand a new field or career; this time, I’m applying it to a new environment.

Keep track of what I’m doing as a way of celebrating my hard work.

I’ve heard some good pragmatic advice about how to prepare for your annual review reports (which, in turn, prepare you for your tenure application). It involves developing a system for keeping track of what I’ve done: such as emailing myself anything of note and keeping those messages in an “annual review” inbox folder; adding regularly to a living Google Doc; or keeping my Outlook calendar up to date so that it provides a 12-month retrospective of my meetings, deadlines, and other artifacts of my activities.

I’m sad to say that I have never systematically kept track of the work I do in such a holistic way. The degree to which I will need to account for myself struck me as far more involved than simply adding the next line to my C.V.. At first, I was mildly panicked by how daunting a task this seemed to be. But that feeling led me to an important realization: I have fallen into a practice of taking my own labor for granted (which risks inviting others to do so, too). I’m reminded of how it can be a struggle for humanities PhDs to shift how we talk about the work we do in the context of different audiences, and how striking it is when we realize how broadly we do have experience, knowledge, and ability. Actively keeping track of my activities and accomplishments is an opportunity for me to maintain my own sense of worth and capability, irrespective of how those fall on my tenure rubric.

By thinking about this advice for new faculty in terms of the broader humanities career landscape, I feel more equipped to develop and safeguard my own short and long term career goals. Put another way: instead of “getting oriented,” I’m more prepared to orienteer my way through academia. That is, once I make sure I start my first class in the right classroom.

Author bio: Dr. Molly Appel is an Assistant Professor of English at Nevada State College, where she teaches courses on composition and literature. Her work focuses largely on how literature works as a space of teaching and learning for human rights and social justice in the Americas. You 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.

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!

***

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.

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic on five places to explore careers outside of the academy.

This blog series has, so far, taken a bird’s-eye view of the stakes and possibilities involved in exploring careers in the humanities more broadly. It’s been encouraging to hear from friends and colleagues who feel ready to move beyond a “damage-control” mentality of job-seeking and find other ways of approaching one’s career path (and from colleagues who want to better support their graduate students). At the same time, many still aren’t sure how, exactly, to proceed.

To get you started, here are five resources that can help you take tangible next steps in your broader humanities career search.

1. Imagine PhD

This is the most comprehensive, clear, and subscription/firewall-free resource I’ve found for career exploration and planning. Once you create an account, you have access to tools that will help you uncover opportunities by bridging the gaps between what your PhD does in academia and what it does in other career pathways (whether addressing those gaps requires building experience or simply shifting vocabulary). These tools include:

  • Self-assessments related to skills, interests, and values
  • “Job families” with descriptions, application avenues, and sample job materials
  • A tool for creating an individual career development plan to help you set specific, achievable, and time-based goals for your career (whether academic or otherwise)
2.  Connected Academics

For folks in the humanities, this is an excellent place to start. Thanks to a Mellon Foundation grant, the MLA was able to develop a space for exploring diverse career opportunities for both job-seekers and for departments looking to improve their graduate training. The site includes blogs with perspectives on graduate training and job searching, short articles addressing advice for departments and job-seekers, and profiles of PhDs with careers that are “alternative” to the tenure track. They’ve also collated more pragmatic tools such as planning frameworks, tips for using LinkedIn, or resources for job-searching. One particularly helpful page is Beth Seltzer’s skills self-assessment, practice in job ad analysis, and next step guidance (@beth_seltzer on Twitter).

(Side note: Publics Lab at CUNY is now taking up a lot of this work and moving it forward.)

3. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Outlook Handbook

This is, admittedly, a rather unexpected resource, but it’s actually quite informative! The site gives you ways to explore jobs within particular labor categories, and for some jobs, it also includes guidance on how to pursue that career path. The handbook also provides information on things like:

  • Typical duties
  • Work schedules and environments
  • Median pay
  • Projected employment prospects
  • Data on local and regional opportunities
  • Suggestions for similar occupations
  • Places to look for more information on particular careers (and where to apply for jobs in that career)
4. Subscription-based online communities

There are a handful of growing online communities that provide built-in tools, networks, and guidance for career exploration. The two I’ve seen come up most often are Versatile PhD and Beyond the Professoriate. Some of their resources can only be accessed behind a subscription paywall, but even their free resources are quite helpful.

5. Use the networks you already have!

These include your secondary and tertiary contacts on LinkedIn, your college alumni networks, and the people you know outside of academia (like the cousins you only see at obligatory family gatherings, your friends from church or from Teach for America, etc.). Use these networks to set up informational interviews—which are, in fact, just conversations. When you make these connections, you are cultivating your own professional communities along with developing a sense of how you might fit in a particular field.

Academic Twitter is also a fantastic way of building networks, discovering opportunities, and finding (free!) resources. Folks like Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife on Twitter), co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate, actively tweet advice and resources and foster connections across PhD and professional communities.

Just taking some time to investigate these options will help you broaden your thinking about your work, give you a better picture of your own capacities and worth, and build a network of humanities practitioners. Enjoy the process!

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.

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.

This blog post continues our series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic on three guiding principles to recharge your job-seeking energy and efforts.

Those of us living through the job market cycle are in a tenuous place at the moment. We’re doing campus visits and waiting to hear news, all while putting out more applications. At this stage, more of us are starting to actively seek out different kinds of opportunities for PhDs. When one is so deep in the weeds of the job market, it can feel impossible to see the big picture of how we got here and where we’re aspiring to go.

I was able to recharge my job-seeking energy during a chat with Katina Rogers about her forthcoming book, Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work: Theory, Practice, and Models for Thriving Beyond the Classroom (anticipated publication in spring of 2020). Katina is the Director of Programs and Administration for the Futures Initiative and HASTAC at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Katina is invested in helping people think differently about their career and job search altogether. As she explains in her HASTAC blog post about the book: “Intended for graduate students in the humanities and for the faculty members who guide them, this book grounds practical career advice in a nuanced consideration of the current landscape of the academic workforce and an emphasis on reaffirming humanities education as a public good. It explores how rhetoric and practices related to career preparation are evolving, and how those changes intersect with admissions practices, scholarly reward structures, and academic labor practices—especially the increasing reliance on contingent labor.”

My conversation with Katina helped me identify three guiding principles that will keep me energized for the road ahead.

1. A PhD in the humanities is so much bigger than we realize.

Katina describes Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work as “an activist and an intellectual project” that encourages us to adopt a more holistic view of what it means to get a PhD in the humanities. She says that one of the things people tend to overlook when considering why people pursue humanities PhDs, and why that work might matter, is that this pursuit has as much to to do with method as it does with content. In order to take the deep dives on content that we all are doing when we go through a PhD program, “we exhibit critical thinking, analysis, an ability to grasp and synthesize many different viewpoints, historical contexts, and distill them into something meaningful. That skill alone is so valuable in so many different contexts. Every time I talk to employers—that ability to do research and write about it in a meaningful way is huge.” In other words, the methodologies we learn in humanistic study have as much value as the original scholarly “content” we produce.

Katina insists that it’s an urgent political and historical moment for those who are adept in humanistic study. “We need people who can engage in questions of ethics, have the ability to see patterns and imagine possible futures from a trajectory we might be on, who can parse statements that have varying agendas in a moment where truth is being questioned.” Whether in a corporate or public environment, Katina asserts that “we need people with that background and training to think about perspectives that aren’t their own, who can think about implications from a philosophical and ethical standpoint, then communicate and implement them.”

2. One reason job-seeking is so hard is that the academy isn’t set up to practice what it preaches about public impact—but my PhD gives me the capacity to imagine differently.

Katina knows that many institutions do provide resources and advice on job-seeking beyond the academy. At the same time, she encourages us to think about where departmental advice on job-seeking is coming from. Departments see that there aren’t enough jobs for people with PhDs; providing information for people on how to find jobs elsewhere should be seen as the solution. Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work seeks to understand how this crisis is actually one part of a larger, fundamental dissonance in the academy around what is valued as “work.”

In her book, Katina argues that the professional values upheld by our current scholarly reward structure are at odds with an investment in the public impact of the humanities. “This reward structure encourages us to keep our research focused inward. The research people have to do for tenure and to complete a PhD is not usually the work that has the highest public impact.” If departments do encourage their students and faculty to engage in public work, that work is usually only valued in addition to the standard criteria. “What I see happening now is there’s a stated goal of having a greater public impact, and growing institutional support for what that looks like. But the people who do that work end up having very divided attention.”

Katina hopes that “we can start to crack open the conversation about what we consider to be a successful and interesting scholarly pathway.” But our ability to imagine differently is directly related to who makes up the community having these conversations. Katina argues the question of how we place value on our work is inseparable from the ongoing problems our universities face in regards to diversity and inclusion—particularly as it plays out in graduate admissions criteria.

That criteria is further buffeted by the broad devaluation of teaching and the obvious dismissiveness of diverse career pathways that many programs still have. “The myth of the solitary researcher,” she writes, “casts a long shadow over what we do.” Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work addresses how this ethos yields a professoriate that doesn’t support in practice the values that our intellectual work is claiming, sustains the growing reliance on adjunct positions, and dramatically limits the diversity of those who may see an “academic” career as a possible pathway.

3. Finding and building communities to talk about these issues benefits everyone involved (and the health of the humanities as a whole).

Katina observes that “conversations about these issues tend to occur in silos.” She cites some ways that like Humanities Without Walls and the Scholarly Communication Institute have been cultivating conversations about these issues, but the existence of these kinds of initiatives tends to be contingent upon grants. Furthermore, they don’t always reach those who are currently on the job market, wanting to explore opportunities beyond those recognized by strict reward structures, but work in a place that isn’t equipped to help them.

Katina has a couple of great suggestions for building communities around finding different ways to put the humanities to work.

  • “Having open conversations with advisors from as early in the process as possible is one part of it. Looking around your university a little helps too. There’s so much that grad students have to do and balance—it can be hard to take a step back to see what’s going on in other departments and spaces of the university. Look at Centers for Teaching and Learning, for example. Some departments may have a speaker or workshop series that will connect you with others thinking about these questions.”
  • “Looking outside of the institution is also a really good way to find support around questions that might feel delicate. Apply to the HASTAC scholars program, or simply create a HASTAC account and start blogging. Places like Humanities Commons and #academictwitter are also great for finding community and solidarity.” (And I would add the MLA Connected Academics initiative as wealth of information on how to find and build supportive career communities.)

Katina hopes that her book will help make sure these conversations are happening early for prospective humanities PhD’s. “I’d love to see the book show up in faculty reading groups so that they can advise students more effectively. I’d love to see a dean of graduate students encourage faculty members to assign this book to first year students as they are coming in. If students are thinking about this from their first year of study, it can change the way that they’re approaching their work to think more creatively.”

Katina’s work makes me hopeful for a brighter, more expansive future for the academy. In the meantime, these insights can be guiding principles for all of us in the midst of seeking out the next step in our career in the humanities.

***

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.

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.

This blog post continues our new series, Scholar at Large, written by an academic exploring both the traditional tenure track, and the not-so-traditional alternative academic job market.

In my first post about broader career exploration, I discussed three things I would do to get in touch with the non-academic job market. One of those items was setting up an informational interview. To wade into the waters of informational interviewing and get myself comfortable, I started with more familiar spaces: an institution of higher education and the education-focused non-profit world. What follows is an account of how I approached this interview, as well as how I think my takeaways can help me on both the traditional academic job market and the more expansive job market for PhD’s.

I thought about who and what I wanted to talk about.

This past summer, I worked for the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), a Johns Hopkins-affiliated non-profit focused on gifted education. While there, I met Sean Watkins, who earned his PhD in Media and Communication, with a focus in cultural studies, in 2013. Sean took on a job as an assistant program manager shortly after he defended his dissertation, and has moved into the role of program manager during the past five years. Sean shapes and manages some of CTY’s many summer programs. His job involves a range of tasks, including:

  • Curriculum development and teacher training
  • Facilitating Hopkins research studies
  • Turning new research on child development into summer programming
  • Gathering information from and responding to student and family concerns
  • And managing full-time and summer staff

Some of this work sounded very familiar to the realm of traditional academia; some of it seemed farther afield. I was interested in hearing more about the extent to which his preparation as an academic translated to this work, and how he managed the transition. Unsurprisingly (given our training as scholars), we ended up talking far more broadly about trends he’s observed in how academia graduate programs prepare graduate students as young professionals.

“You can’t continue to have that number of folks in your programs and not train them how to get the jobs that they will end up getting. It’s a disservice to not only their experience but also to the world, because us PhDs actually have really great things to contribute outside of academia.”

I spent time preparing for the interview and what I wanted to learn.

I used my baseline familiarity with Sean’s work to develop some questions that would help me understand his trajectory, and how that translates to the work he’s doing now. I developed questions related to:

  • His educational path and work experience prior to CTY
  • His job search process and experience
  • His transition to working at CTY
  • How the work he trained for translated to the work he does now
  • What graduate students, and graduate programs, can do to better account for non-academic or non-traditional academic careers

I had four major takeaways after talking with Sean.

These are a just a few of the insights I gained during the course of our conversation. I’ve included an edited version of Sean’s comments with each point.

1. The work you do in graduate school—and more importantly, the work you love to do—can translate to the impact you can make in the world more broadly.

Much of Sean’s work draws from the same interests that drew him to and through graduate school. He emphasizes the difference as a matter of impact. His interests have complimented the needs of CTY: “One of the things I valued in my graduate programs was being in an environment of folks wanting to learn, to push themselves, to do the research and have discussions about it. I’ve recreated some of those experiences here at CTY.” Related to his work on diversity, Sean has run film series, reading and discussion groups. “Today,” he says, “I’m looking at research on summer camps and supporting LGBTQ students. But I’m doing so while knowing that I’ll be implementing that research for thousands of students. So I’m using my Critical Marxist framework for thinking about the world; but I’m not just thinking with that framework, I’m doing something with that framework.”

Beyond implementing his research interests and methodologies, Sean has been able to draw from his experience with teaching as a graduate assistant. “I happen to be working at an ed nonprofit,” he says, commenting on how that work prepared him. “I’m the chair of the humanities and writing committee, we develop curriculum, I’ve developed a bunch of new classes over the time that I’ve been here. Being the lead instructor in a classroom has really helped me here think about the needs of our instructors and students.”

2. But… academia can teach you some bad habits for being a professional.

Sean explains, “I was a person who went straight through grad school. There’s a benefit to that – I was 28 when I got my PhD. One of the things I wish I’d had more experience doing was having real jobs. I got too many bad habits in academia.”

The truth is, he says:

“I had these expectations of myself and others that came down to feeling full of myself because I’m a PhD. When I first began my work here, I felt like I was in a position where I could be the leader when I really wasn’t. I didn’t know anything.

You get a lot of good things from your PhD program – you learn to articulate complex thoughts, to argue for what you believe in. But this doesn’t translate to using Excel in a job, and doesn’t translate necessarily for how to manage people. When you’re an academic, you can basically do your own thing. I developed bad habits for how I communicated with my students that are standard for academia, but that don’t translate to how you communicate with colleagues. I can’t be like the busy professor sending one-word answers over email; I have to set a conscious model for how professionals communicate with each other.”

Sean also remarks on how his work now has led him to reflect on what his graduate training missed, as well as helped him continue to grow the skills he began honing in graduate school in new ways. “It’s been a mutual relationship,” he explains. “I wish I could go back and redo some of the teaching I did as a graduate student. My pedagogy would be more differentiated, less elitist, and more understanding of students and the competing priorities they juggle. Now part of what I do is teach people how to teach, and I help them think through how to modify what they do for our population. The things I now train teachers to do, I wasn’t good at because no one taught me how to teach.”

3. There are a few things graduate students can do to more holistically prepare themselves for the professional world.

Sean encourages folks with PhDs or training for PhDs to let go of their elitism about how and where they apply their skills and knowledge. “We can use our knowledge to do different things and that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world.”

He mentioned a few pragmatic ways grad students and recent PhDs can make themselves legible within the professional world (and enhance the impact of their work at the same time):

  • Capitalize on your summer work. “Take summer gigs seriously. Use them to develop yourself as a professional in a way that your PhD program is incapable of doing.”
  • Build a broad network of people. “If you want to get a job that pays well in an area that you want to live, you have to know somebody who can help get your resume in the right hands.”
  • Branch out and dabble in things, or connect your research to something that could be translated into a job. He gives an example from his own field of cultural studies: “I’m going to focus on health communication, and use a survey of a hospital as part of my research. You can then say, ‘I spent all of this time working with administrators and health professionals – I know how to talk to them.’”

4. Grad programs can do a better job of helping students with this.

Sean observes that many of the people in the primary position of mentoring undergraduates into grad school went to grad school themselves or experienced the job market back in the 90s. Folks who are charged with admitting and training graduate students (and now, preparing them for other potential options in the glut of the job market) haven’t been outside of academia in decades. This makes the crucial shift in mentality about academic careers very difficult.

“There should be value given to whatever path someone’s career takes them in,” he urges. “As grad students are told to be data-driven; programs also need to be transparent with the realities of what comes next.” Sean suggested bringing career services into departments: “It would have been nice to have a class on professional training, or even on exploring jobs outside of the typical academic track.”

After this conversation, I’m convinced that informational interviews are great, low-stakes opportunities for growth.

Aside from a rich and thoughtful conversation with a colleague, I gained two tangible things from my interview with Sean that I can leverage on the academic and non-academic job market:

  • Insight about what kinds of soft and technical skills I may have developed through my research that I can be more aware of.
  • An ability to speak very specifically about how the work of the humanities enters the world – something that goes beyond the “critical thinking” pitch we so often throw at undergraduates to take our classes. I can bring my knowledge of this to any department invested in recruiting students as well as equipping their majors or graduate students to enter the the broader career world.

I’m optimistic that continuing to do a variety of informational interviews will only add to these outcomes. These interviews will prove to be rich and thought-provoking conversations about how to be a holistic practitioner of the humanities, whether within or without the academy.

Have you taken steps to explore the alt-ac market while on the academic job market? Share your insights with me 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.

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.