Future of the PhD in the Humanities, Part II

If you missed the previous post on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities Conference, you can read Part I here. There were a lot of excellent presentations and discussions that I’m skipping over, but I wanted to summarize some of the things I that I felt were important (and useful) as a student.

First, multiple presenters talked about the fact that many PhDs don’t end up working in academia. In fact, these people represent a minority and the issue of PhDs ending up in non-traditional career paths isn’t a new one. Issue might be the wrong word to use – the problem seems to arise not from PhDs being unable to find work outside the academy, but a lack of preparation for these paths during their training.

One speaker (Dr. Alex Usher I believe) referred to the doctoral education process as “one of the last great apprenticeships in white collar [professions]” and one that has none or very little oversight. He was making the case for more accountability and structure across programs, which is a discussion I touched on briefly in my last post. In my own experience, the apprenticeship characterization is a good one because so much of the graduate school experience depends on your particular supervisor and program (opportunities for practice, professional development, etc.). Dr. Jill Stoner highlighted the need for a culture change in the humanities – “we do not take a step down when we step out” – around how non-academic career paths are treated (a point I think applies to many other disciplines & programs). Given the importance of supervisors in framing the value of the PhD and shaping student experiences, her point is crucial. If supervisors and programs don’t value, or aren’t aware of alternative career paths, it’s likely their students won’t either. Dr. Jennifer Polk discussed the impact of this on graduates, saying that our identities can often be wrapped up in the degree itself (“I am an academic”) which creates a barrier to exploring alternate paths and a sense of loss when we leave the academy. Some of the suggestions from the grad student panel, like alumni talks from those in applied settings, could introduce some of this information to departments and provide students with mentors and additional support.

Switching gears slightly, other presenters talked about what happens to PhDs on the non-academic career path once they graduate. In a panel on non-academic career paths, speakers working at Indigenous Affairs (Dr. Morin), the Conference Board of Canada (Dr. Bloom), the Canadian War Museum (Dr. Oliver), and Library and Archives Canada (Dr. Tector), talked about what it’s like to hire PhDs. One of the key points is to understand (and be able to explicitly talk about) the skills you’ve acquired during the PhD. For example, information management – the ability to understand and synthesize large amounts of data – is basically another word for dissertation. Many job postings won’t state that they’re looking for someone with a PhD, but if you look at the skills the ad is asking for, you’ll end up with many more potential opportunities. Keep in mind that “PhD” may not be that meaningful to potential employers, so being able to explain exactly what you can do will be beneficial. Dr. Jennifer Polk (From PhD to Life) and Dr. Maren Wood (Lilli Research Group) echoed these sentiments and emphasized talking about what you DO instead of what you KNOW. For example, instead of just saying ‘I do research,’ ask yourself ‘ok, how do I do that?’ and break it down into the tasks and steps you take – making the skills apparent. Other helpful tidbits were to explicitly describe how you meet the skills in the job ad in your cover letter, to create focused resumes tailored to each position (the CV in an insider document not particularly useful outside the academy), and to take the time to follow-up with employers when you weren’t successful – find out why and build on these experiences for future positions. I came out of the second day feeling optimistic – though there may not be enough academic jobs for all the PhDs out there, there certainly is no lack of interesting employment opportunities in the community.

In other words, “universities have been doing job training for years, its just not the jobs we thought they were” – Dr. Yachnin.

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