Rethinking Professional Development

Humanities departments need to recognize today’s job market and change the tenure-or-bust attitude that’s still too prevalent on many campuses, writes Marcus Cederström.

November 2, 2016
iStock/Zack Blanton

It’s almost inevitable. Explaining that you’re a folklorist getting a Ph.D. in Scandinavian studies raises some eyebrows. And then comes the question “So what are you going to do with that?” While it isn’t always easy to answer, especially for those looking for jobs outside academe, it’s a legitimate question. Learning how to answer that question -- learning how to translate the skills we develop during our graduate student years for eventual employers as well as friends, family members and new acquaintances -- is necessary to understanding how the training we receive as humanists is preparing us for a variety of jobs. But a successful answer requires rethinking professional development in graduate programs.

What’s missing in many humanities graduate programs is the framework that will help us translate the skills we develop, the guidance to do so and the support to pursue employment outside of academe. That has to change. And fast.

In a job market where hundreds of people are applying for the same tenure-track job, only one person can accept that position, leaving a whole host of people looking elsewhere. Some adjunct, some find postdocs and plenty leave academe. But that does not mean that they failed, as many often feel, or that they leave their humanistic training behind. Universities and individual departments must begin (or continue, if you’re lucky enough to be at a university that has already started) to acknowledge that success and placement mean many things. A linguist who leaves to work at the FBI is using her Ph.D. in the humanities, just like a folklorist who leaves to work at a design firm is using his, just as the historian who lands the tenure-track position uses hers.

Graduate programs must encourage students to look for jobs beyond, as well as in, the academy. Departments can advocate for higher wages, better working conditions and more tenure-track positions while simultaneously encouraging students to work outside academe. These advocacy programs are not mutually exclusive. Some universities are banding together to develop alt-ac programs like the Humanities Without Walls alternative academic career summer workshops for predoctoral students in the humanities. But such programs are often limited by geography, finances and personnel and can therefore only accept a small number of participants. While graduate students should take advantage of these types of programs when available, there are simply too few of them to meet the need. Instead, universities, professors and graduate advisers need to incorporate professional development, for all types of post-Ph.D. jobs, into training for graduate students.

Faculty and staff members must be prepared to answer questions about potential industries and companies, potential jobs and internships. Departments should require incoming graduate students to take professional development courses that emphasize the transferable skills developed in a graduate program. Such courses should also examine potential career choices and develop job search skills and offer job application advice. Faculty members offering these courses should allow for the possibility that incoming graduate students do not yet know if they want to pursue a tenure-track job or look for work beyond the tenure track. Instead of focusing on an either-or assumption, those courses should emphasize that the skills necessary for a career in academe are also necessary for jobs outside it.

That’s a lot to ask of professors and graduate advisers who are already overworked and whose expertise is in preparing students for work in the academy. That’s why universities need to support training for those professors and graduate advisers. Just as graduate students need to be prepared for the changing job market, so too do professors need to be prepared to mentor and teach in response to that changing job market.

But it can’t, and shouldn’t, all fall on individual professors. They shouldn’t be expected to know every industry or every potential job available to graduates. They should, however, be expected to know where to send students for help -- whether it be online services like Versatile PhD or campus services like the career center, where students can receive help in crafting cover letters and navigating the differences between résumé and CV writing.

Ideally, universities would rely less on virtual services and more on the expertise that already exists on their campuses by employing counselors who are specialists in career services for graduate students. And if those positions don’t currently exist, they should be created sooner rather than later.

Knowing where to send students for help can also mean relying on graduate student alumni. Developing relationships with such alumni should focus on the industries in which they work, the jobs they perform and even the potential internships or job openings they can offer. It also means building relationships with students who left with an M.A. or who left ABD. Those relationships ensure that students interested in post-Ph.D. jobs away from academe have chances to conduct informational interviews with people in a variety of fields.

Such relationships offer another opportunity for professional development by inviting speakers onto the campus. For example, departments or colleges that house humanities departments might offer a monthly colloquium series inviting people working outside academe with advanced degrees in the humanities to discuss their jobs, their education and the intersection of the two. Or it could be a simple question-and-answer session over lunch with Ph.D.s who left academe. It can also mean organizing on-site visits by partnering with the many organizations that operate in university communities and that employ people with advanced degrees.

Departments and universities need to recognize these measures for what they are: investments. As humanists, we must present ourselves positively to donors, state governments, the administration and students at every level and in all disciplines. Rethinking professional development requires both time and money, something that is in short supply at many universities. But investing in professional development is good for students, departments and the field as a whole, as more people recognize what many in the humanities already know: you can do a lot with that degree.

So how are graduate students going to answer what-are-you-doing-to-do-with-that questions? That’s up to all of us. The crucial point is that a humanities degree isn’t just preparing students for the tenure track. It’s preparing us to be activists, educators, humanists. It’s preparing us for work at universities, museums, nonprofits and foundations, advertising bureaus, banks, IT companies and consulting firms. Now humanities departments need to recognize today’s job market and change the tenure-or-bust attitude that’s still too prevalent on many campuses.

Choosing a job outside academe is not a failure, and it doesn’t mean leaving the humanities. A degree in the humanities means we are humanists, always humanists, no matter the job we take. We’re using six, seven, eight years of humanistic training and, upon leaving the university, someone is willing to pay us to use our expertise. That’s what professional development in humanities graduate programs is all about.


Marcus Cederström is a Ph.D. candidate in Scandinavian studies and folklore at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.


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