A Message to Next-Gen Humanities Ph.D.s

As a graduate student or alum, you can be an important part of the conversation about the future of humanities doctoral education and its possible career paths, argues Amy Pszczolkowski.

November 21, 2016

In August, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded approximately $1.7 million in funding to 28 institutions for planning and implementing changes in doctoral education. That has heightened activity and discussion around transforming humanities doctoral education and better long-term tracking of career outcomes for humanities Ph.D.s. across several institutions this fall. More recently in the news, the Council of Graduate Schools received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to support institutions in the collection of data on the career outcomes of humanities Ph.D.s.

Both are wonderful initiatives, and the best part is that you, as a current graduate student or graduate alumnus, can help. As national stakeholders ramp up efforts to support changes in humanities doctoral education, at the institutional level, we need to hear from current graduate students and graduate alumni, as you are a key stakeholder in your graduate education and future career paths. We hope that you will:

Help create a next-generation graduate student network. In a recent conversation with a new doctoral student in the humanities at my institution, whom I’ll call Claire, I was encouraged by how carefully she had already thought about her graduate education. We talked about some of her criteria in choosing a graduate school, like openness to talking about diverse career paths and the transparency and reporting of graduate students' career outcomes.

Claire was invigorated by the openness of the faculty members with whom she spoke throughout the process, but she was surprised by the attitudes and resistance from more advanced doctoral students in the program when she arrived on the campus. As she began to express her broad career interests and reasons for pursuing a doctorate, she was met with puzzlement and comments from senior graduate students in her department who’d never thought about it, and therefore felt unable to advocate for her at the departmental level.

Finally, after Claire met with a supportive professor in the department and was connected to an advanced graduate student pursuing jobs in foundations and grants management, she was relieved to find peers in her program who were understanding and willing to be helpful.

Does Claire’s story suggest that a new generation of humanities graduate students is arriving on campuses? And if so, are advisers and departments prepared for those new graduate students who are entering their programs with more diverse career interests? Just as academe is a huge network of former graduate students who have become faculty, we can also create a supportive network of doctoral humanities students and alumni pursuing interesting careers outside of academe.

Talk to your adviser, department colleagues and university stakeholders. If your institution is one of the NEH grant recipients, it may be worth your time to learn about the project and how you may contribute your ideas. If your institution is not a grant recipient, you may want to share with your department what other colleges and universities across the country are thinking and doing with regard to transforming graduate education.

Many of us involved in the planning grants are interested in listening to a broad range of ideas from various stakeholders, including graduate students, while we are in the discovery phase. Graduate students are often concerned about sharing their ideas around new forms of scholarship or broader career interests with their advisers, departments and fellow students; however, departments need to hear from you to better understand the career development needs of current students in a changing academic job market. (Please read David A. McDonald’s article for tips on how to do this.) We also have much to learn from the STEM fields, as they have been discussing these topics for much longer and have launched some interesting programs to address the challenges in their disciplines.

Make a point to share your ideas with the director of graduate studies in your department or your graduate school deans. Reach out to your STEM colleagues to learn how they are talking about this in their departments. Instead of dismissing colleagues in your department who may be looking beyond the tenure track, be part of a graduate student and faculty committee in your department to address the changes that would positively affect graduate students and encourage more open and transparent conversation.

Tell us what you are doing. When I meet graduate students, they have a huge appetite for more long-term data on Ph.D. career paths, particularly in the humanities. Many institutions are putting into place new or improved systems to collect the first position of their graduate students after completing their degree (now called first-destination surveys by some groups). However, much work is yet to be done in tracking long-term outcomes.

Whether you are a current graduate student, recent alum or someone who completed your Ph.D. 15 years ago, you can be part of the solution by sharing with your institution -- or graduate department -- where you currently work. That may sound simple, but let’s not be naïve. After several conversations on this topic with colleagues at my institution, it’s clear that barriers to collecting this data from graduate alumni still exist because of the culture of academe. We all know careers are not linear and graduate exit-survey data or first-destination data, while interesting, only gives a snapshot in time early in an alum's career.

We need your help to collect and disseminate better information to the stakeholders -- faculty members, trustees, alumni, current and prospective graduate students -- about the many interesting career choices of our alums. As institutions and graduate programs, we need to do a better job of destigmatizing the diverse career paths beyond the tenure track and report on it comprehensively. Some graduate programs will continue to perpetuate the belief that everyone will get an academic job if we don’t have comprehensive data on all alumni.

And as this next generation of graduate students enters graduate school and begins its journey, it’s important that we listen to those students’ evolving career interests early and often, so that we are better able to help them prepare for the myriad of careers they may pursue. It equally important that we stay connected with them as they become our alumni and advance their careers. It becomes a rewarding full-circle moment when former graduate students are invited back to campuses or connected virtually to provide timely and relevant advice to the next generation.


Amy Pszczolkowski is assistant dean for professional development in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University. She is also the president of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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