Malkah Bressler is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Fordham University and a participant in the “Living Humanities” PhD in the 21st Century” Project. She participated in the MLA’s 2015-2016 inaugural Connected Academics Proseminar. The following post is a reflection on the planning theme of the fifth meeting of the project, “Mentor the Whole Person: Career-Wise Counsel, Promising Partnerships. For a fuller overview of the meeting, see the companion post by Samantha Sabalis.
When I was writing my BA thesis, I told my advisor that I was considering a PhD in English Literature. Without missing a beat, Lisa said “well, you certainly have the creativity.” It struck me as odd that my advisor valued creativity first before intellectual engagement and writing acumen. Creativity appeared to belong to the realm of creative writing and poetry and not to the analysis of books and poems. As I pursued my graduate education, however, both my MA and doctoral studies have revealed that Lisa is right; it is our uniqueness of thought and our ability to connect disparate texts and theories that attracts us to the academic life. As I write my dissertation, it is those moments when I “realize” something, when I make a connection, that fill me with a rush of joyful exuberance.
That “spark” of realization is, I think, the major impetus that propels us to dedicated six to ten years of our lives to the study of the humanities. The creativity we enjoy even extends to our teaching practice, crafting an argument, and creating elegant prose. Creativity is at the heart of everything we do except for one, very important factor of the graduate education: the inescapable job search. Why does our profession, at the moment when a student is deemed ready for the degree, contract and direct that student to the most expected and uncreative outcome?
Although it has never been the case that all people with PhDs assume a professorship, the narrative that doctoral candidates apply for and enter in to tenure track jobs has been ingrained into the collective psyche of the academy as well as that of non-academics. Anne Krook rightly observes that the more time a student has spent in graduate school, the more fixed this outcome appears. Isn’t it strange? The more a student hones her ability to think creatively, the more she cleaves to a specific and expected path.
These days, we have realized that not every graduate student will or wants to become a professor, and we are developing methods to help graduate students find meaningful professions. Krook and many others have offered useful tasks that students, faculties, departments, and graduate schools can do to refocus their vision of post-graduate life. Suggestions include inviting those who have left academia to talk about their jobs, educating graduate students on the current state of the academic job market, offering graduate students the opportunity to conduct projects and internships that will build new skills, and of course, changing the mindset of students and faculty who are not wholly in favor of these new measures. As my colleague Samantha Sabalis mentions in her companion blog piece, several graduate departments at Fordham have already implemented programs and have created resources to help graduate students. At both the micro and the macro levels, there is a collective effort.
But I think we are missing the linchpin to this entire issue: although all of these fixes help, the only way to ensure lasting success is for us to constantly apply our creativity. As Katina Rogers argues “I think that the discipline of the humanities should be disentangled—or, unbound—from the rigid academic pathway leading to the single goal of the tenure track job.” The “unboundedness” that Rogers identifies is an invitation for us to take our creative powers and use them to help graduate students discover various professions and the manifold ways in which a student can find meaningful employment.
Allow me to offer an example.
Not all graduate students want to teach; many value the doctoral education for the training in writing and researching. Obviously, these students need something different than exposure to non-academic teaching opportunities, but students are easily discouraged by not knowing how to begin. I think that this moment is an invitation to think creatively. A student might start by side-stepping the issue. For example, the student might ask herself “what topics do I enjoy researching?” When I asked myself this question, I realized that I enjoy writing about the connections between the environment and culture, and then I conducted a Google search for like-minded publications and organizations.
As I push further with this notion of creativity, I am reminded that Krook suggests that students write companion pieces to their dissertation chapters that are tailored for a non-academic audience. The goal is for students to demonstrate their ability to write in both academic and non-academic prose. But how do graduate students ensure that potential employers become aware of their abilities? Most graduate students know of the utility in maintaining a professional website that features teaching practices and dissertation updates. Why not add a section on non-academic writing?
Finding the advertisements for non-academic jobs seems painfully difficult, but the angst can be ameliorated when the student becomes imaginative. Of course networking with alumni promises the most success in terms of gaining a job, but before that, a student needs to know what to look for in a potential alumni interviewee. Recently, a friend mentioned interest in becoming an editor but was wary of publishing houses. As we considered what other organizations require editors, we both recalled a recent article in The Atlantic that was written by an employee of the Brookings Institution. It suddenly dawned upon us that organizations like the Brookings Institution, the World Bank, and the IMF employ in-house editors to review manuscripts that are later published in a variety of print and on-line publications.
Taking this creative thinking one step further, it dawned upon us how similar finding non-academic employment is to our research methodology. We begin our research by identifying a seminal scholarly text, and then we build our bibliographical arsenal by finding and reading texts that cite the initial work. We must approach the non-academic job search in a similar fashion. For example, once a student identifies a prospective employer, the student should review the biographies of employees, paying close attention to their past employment. From one website, the student will glean perhaps three or four others institutions to consider as well as an idea of whom to contact for an informational interview. We academics excel at these sorts of sleuthing exercises. It is how we find forgotten texts, it is how we find that one last article we need to read before we can finish writing, and it is how we find a dissertation or article topic that has yet to be explored.
We must unbind our creativity and let it thrive as we help students find their next career path. In doing so, we will ensure that the job search remains fluid and open, and we will avoid calcification. Embarking upon the search for non-academic professions is very much like that moment when we ask ourselves “what shall I research and write about next?” and feel a rush of excitement as we anticipate learning something new and writing something not yet said. If we keep our creativity close to mind, we will find the freedom to discover so many more opportunities and even, create new ones for our peers and students.
- Malkah Bressler, Ph.D. Candidate in English, Fordham University