Category Archives: Faculty

Mentor the Whole Person Blog Post: Every Ph.D. Needs an Exit Strategy

A soon-to-be English Ph.D. comes across a recent graduate studying in the library stacks. One is finishing her dissertation and excited to be nearing the end of the process. The other? Well, the euphoria from the defense is dissipating. When you’re adjuncting at the same university for less money than you made as a graduate student and you’re diligently trying for job after job (in academia, in publishing, in writing…) with little to show for it, you can start to wonder: what can I do with a Ph.D.?


This little graduate school morality play may seem a little bleak, but the thing is, you can actually do a lot with a Ph.D. In “Humanities Unbound,” a survey of humanities Ph.D. graduates working in “alternative academic” positions, Katina Rogers found that respondents had gone on to find careers in the fields of academic administration, government, and journalism, or worked at institutions like cultural heritage organizations, libraries, or non-profits. And while we’ve all heard horror stories about needing to take the Ph.D. off a resume to be more hirable, in fact many employers value a Ph.D. in a job candidate. Several employers interviewed as part of the Pathways Through Graduate School study by the Educational Testing Service and the Council of Graduate Schools saw candidates with graduate degrees as having not only advanced knowledge, but also the ability to lead, design projects, and problem-solve in innovative ways.

So why do so many Ph.D.s struggle to find stable work upon graduation? Some certainly take positions as adjuncts to persevere with the dream of a tenure-track academic job (a separate issue, recently devastatingly summed up by Kevin Birmingham), but many others simply don’t know what else to do. It’s possible to leave a Ph.D. with a polished dissertation, a teaching portfolio, and selection of well-crafted cover letters for academic jobs, but with no resume, no contacts outside academia, and no idea of what jobs you’re qualified for. It’s also difficult for many Ph.D.s to articulate their many skills for employers beyond the content of their dissertation and teaching. For example, few non-academic employers will value my deep knowledge of fifteenth-century religious education and how to revise comma splices, but they could certainly appreciate my grant-writing techniques, my proficiency as a researcher, and my ability to set goals and work independently to reach them.

What every Ph.D. student needs to create, preferably before the frantic last lap of the dissertation process, is an exit strategy. This plan goes beyond writing a strong resume (though that’s a great start). Students should be able to name a couple of career paths they’d like to pursue, and should have conducted research into the vocabulary and required skills for these fields. They should talk to Ph.D. alumni, explore internships, sit down with employees in these potential careers, write for audiences outside academia…the list goes on. Basically, every student should start thinking about what he or she wants do after graduation long before finishing the Ph.D., even if the main goal is an elusive tenure-track job.


At the recent meeting of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. project on “Mentor the Whole Person: Career-Wise Counsel, Promising Partnerships,” faculty members and administrators from different departments across the humanities shared their initiatives to help students prepare for careers after graduation. These insights highlighted several avenues for improving graduates’ confidence on entering a non-academic job market. One suggestion involved expanding the role of the placement officer to include non-academic careers. In the Philosophy department, a member of faculty now works on enhancing non-academic placement, while the placement officer focuses on academic appointments. In the English department, the placement officer is now assisted by a Job Placement Committee, who can draw on a wider range of teaching (and life) experience to assist students on the job market.

Several departments are focusing on expanding their students’ teaching skills. In Philosophy, there are plans to hold a summer camp for high schoolers, so Ph.D. students will have the opportunity to work in K-12 teaching. In English, the placement officer is working to prepare students for careers at community colleges, independent high schools and beyond. Discussions with English Ph.D. alumni in the Peace Corps and the Park Service have highlighted how their employers valued their teaching experience, so focusing on this aspect of the Ph.D. could also help students answer questions about the value of their Ph.D. on the non-academic market.

Another key factor is not only normalizing non-academic jobs, but also raising their prestige among faculty members. Of course departments should still promote their graduates’ achievements on the academic job market, but they should also highlight that a tenure-track academic job is not the norm; more students will find careers outside this category than within it. One goal in the Theology department is to teach faculty to see non-academic jobs as equally attractive, so that this perception could also trickle down to students and pervade departmental culture. Departments can easily contribute to the valuing of non-academic careers by promoting students’ achievements from outside the academy as well as within it. Why not send out a congratulatory email with the list of students who received competitive internships or post links to articles students have written for non-academic publications?
Another way to demonstrate a commitment to non-academic positions as well as academic ones is to Invite alumni in exciting careers back to the department to speak to current students about their jobs and how they got them. Students can then get ideas for what to look for, and will feel encouraged to take the initiative and search for opportunities on their own.

Alumni in particular are an excellent resource, offering tangible proof of the many careers a Ph.D. can lead to. As well as showing how to market a Ph.D. for a variety of careers, alumni can also provide that oh-so-elusive quantity for many Ph.D. students – professional contacts outside academia. Many departments currently don’t track their alumni working in careers outside academia, even as they meticulously list which graduates hold postdoctoral fellowships or academic positions. But Jason Pedicone, President of the Paideia Institute and a guest speaker at the last “Living Humanities” Ph.D. meeting, emphasizes the value of talking to alumni and showcasing their career paths. The Legion Project, a Paideia initiative that tracks students who pursued advanced degrees in Classics and publicizes their current careers, not only shows what can be done with an advanced education in Classics, but also helps create a community that Ph.D. students and graduates can tap into. Such projects can also be aspirational for students. For instance, the series of Compatible Careers seminars held by Fordham’s Medieval Studies program, at which former Medieval Studies MAs discuss their current careers, not only provides insight into the range of jobs available to graduates but also shows students that getting such jobs is possible, and that their skills from graduate school have value outside the academy.

So if you’re a graduate student, whether a starry-eyed first year or a world-weary dissertator, take some time to brainstorm what you’d like to do after graduation. Research how you could prepare yourself for this coveted career, be it with an internship, an informational interview, or a plan to publish in an online magazine. If you’re a faculty member, think about reaching out to former dissertation mentees – are they all in academia, or have some found fulfilling careers elsewhere? As the soon-to-be Ph.D. at the start of this piece, I’m trying to follow my own advice – as I prepare myself for my defense, I’m also thinking about what I’ll do next.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century 


For more about the “Mentor the Whole Person” planning theme and suggestions for further reading, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.”

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Transformation, Not Replication: Training the Next Generation of Doctoral Students

Is it possible to “unlearn” something? This was one of the main questions at the recent meeting of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century project, focusing on the planning theme “Inhabit the New Learning Ecosystem.”

This term comes from Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, in which she draws from Alvin Toffler to suggest that “the key literacy skill of the twenty-first century is the ability to learn, unlearn, and relearn” (12). Some participants scoffed at this description, seeing it as old hat. Don’t we do this in our classrooms every day? Isn’t this a skill that dates back to Plato? But perhaps this idea bears repeating – in adapting doctoral programs to suit a twenty-first century learning ecosystem, we need to let go of old assumptions.

One of these assumptions is that every Ph.D. graduate will go into a tenure-track academic faculty position (or that every student enters a Ph.D aspiring to this career). Today’s Ph.D. graduates are grappling with a much larger job market. While many candidates still make the tenure-track professorship their primary goal, others focus more on so-called “alternative academic” careers (alt-ac) or careers outside the academy altogether in non-profits, museums, government, or business, among others.

A second assumption is that incoming doctoral students will learn and conduct their scholarship in the same ways that their professors did. The constantly evolving digital and informational landscape means that students have new avenues to acquire knowledge, from the internet to MOOCs, as well as new systems of learning. One professor noted that he finds it harder and harder to find cultural parallels with his students, and feels that he is forcing them to use his systems of learning rather than the ones they have grown up with.

So how can we adapt doctoral programs in the humanities to accommodate more career outcomes? One suggestion is to talk to Ph.D. graduates who have gone to other careers. In “Graduate Education Reconsidered,” James Grossman and Emily Swafford of the American Historical Association (and members of the “Living Humanities” Ph.D. project) mention asking alumni from History Ph.D.s working outside the academy what they wished they had learned during their degrees. They found five areas to address that could easily benefit students going into academic careers as well: “communication beyond the scholarly and classroom modes, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy/engagement.”

Among these five areas, communication stands out. At the meeting, several participants emphasized the need for Ph.D. students to address different publics both inside and outside academia. They saw this skill not only as a way for students to advocate for themselves and highlight their skills to employers, but also as a means of promoting Ph.D. study in the humanities more generally. Ph.D. alumni working outside the academy could become strong ambassadors for their disciplines, communicating what they achieved in their degrees to a much broader audience.

Participants had many suggestions about incorporating more career outcomes into Ph.D. programs, but they were less certain about how to engage students who were accustomed to learning through primarily digital means. So how can doctoral programs adapt to engage these students? Some participants were skeptical about making big changes at a time when digital tools are changing so frequently. What if we adopt something that turns out to be a passing trend? How do we maintain our traditions and standards of excellence while also staying current?

The general consensus seemed to be that we have to be willing to change, to unlearn outdated methods and try new ones (even if they might not last). But participants also highlighted elements of doctoral education that still remain constant. The key skills of mastery and manipulation are still key to learning, even if they are being done differently in our digital age. Moreover, some of the functions of studying the humanities still stay the same. They can still tell us how we got to where we are today, creating a “living archive” that makes the past current, and they still offer self-knowledge to those who study them.

Through the process of unlearning, perhaps we can let go of old assumptions about what Ph.D. students want to do and how they want to learn to create doctoral programs that will best serve new generations of students. As the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature puts it in their 2014 report, we should encourage “a shift from a narrative of replication, in which students imitate their mentors, to one of transformation, since graduate programs should be centered on students’ diverse learning and career development needs.”


For more about the “Inhabit the New Learning Ecosystem” planning theme and suggestions for further reading, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” To learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

  • Samantha Sabalis, Graduate Assistant, NEH/GSAS Grant, The “Living Humanities” Ph.D. for the 21st Century

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The Faulty Memory of Nostalgia

The December holiday season is steeped in nostalgia, whether we’re singing about sleigh bells ringing and roasting chestnuts over an open fire or reflecting back on past years as we look ahead to a new one. We constantly reminisce about a past that probably did not happen quite as we remember it. This fond, if flawed, recollection of the past is a constant presence in academia, from looking back at the good old days (remember when all Ph.D. graduates could get professorial jobs?) to invoking academic tradition to discourage innovation (the dissertation has always looked like this; why change it?).

This inaccurate recollection of the past of academia and how it can hinder the transition to a new model of doctoral education were two of the main topics under discussion at the most recent meeting of the “‘Living Humanities’ PhD for the 21st Century” project. Entitled “Revitalize Learning Outcomes,” this meeting featured guest speaker Sidonie Smith, Mary Fair Croushore Professor of the Humanities at the University of Michigan and the author of Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (available open-access from University of Michigan Press).

There are many exciting developments happening in higher education in this digital age. In her presentation, Smith discussed the use of new media for scholarly communication, shifting knowledge structures that focus as much on collaboration as on individual research, and a distributed university that has graduate students working not only with one or two faculty members at their own institutions, but also faculty and fellow students at institutions around the world.

But alongside these steps towards a more digital, collaborative model for higher education, there is also resistance to change. Smith explained how these changes could be misunderstood by faculty members, who sometimes perceive projects that use this new model as a Ph.D. “lite,” as opposed to a Ph.D. based on the more traditional formats they are accustomed to – a single student writing a proto-monograph with the assistance of a select committee of faculty members. With their students’ best interests in mind, some faculty advisers fear that making changes to the doctoral degree or dissertation can harm candidates’ prospects on the academic job market, rendering them less able to compete with their peers. Addressing these concerns, Smith is very direct – if we stick to the twentieth-century model of graduate education, we are actually disadvantaging our students, as these normative standards do not assure academic excellence.

Not only are these so-called normative standards not a guarantee for excellence, but they have also not always been the norm for doctoral education. As I said, nostalgia can give a flawed perspective of the past that does not match the historical reality. For instance, one professor from English highlighted that the current gold standard for the dissertation in the field, a four-chapter proto-monograph, was not always the only option. Going back to the 1960s and 70s, he noted the accepted alternatives of the critical edition of a neglected text or the three-chapter dissertation. If dissertation structures have changed before, can they not do so again? In the same vein, another professor noted that our concept of the academic tradition is not as fixed as we would like to believe, but instead is made up of many subtle, continuous changes over time.

With so many avenues available for doctoral students and faculty in the humanities to create innovative projects and take research beyond the boundaries of the university, we need to take a hard look at the traditions that we cling to. So as we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and prepare to face 2017, let’s try to set aside our nostalgia about the academia of yesteryear.

To read more about the “Revitalize Learning Outcomes” planning theme, see its description on the website for “The ‘Living Humanities’ Ph.D. for the 21st Century.” If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes. For the reading material for this meeting, see Sidonie Smith’s Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times.   If you want to learn more about the meeting itself, read the full discussion in the official minutes.

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