Job seekers

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.


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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.