From the Basement to the Dome

How do Ph.D. students, and those involved in their training, James M. Van Wyck asks, navigate this liminal moment in career and professional development?

April 29, 2019

The national conversation around Ph.D. career preparation in the humanities and social sciences has transformed in the last 10 years -- a transformation that has accelerated even more rapidly in the last five years.

This change is reflected in the ways universities now view and value Ph.D. career and professional development initiatives. This January, I saw this shift firsthand, as I joined two colleagues on a trek to the University of Virginia, where we attended a regional meeting of the Graduate Career Consortium. While we were there, we joined a celebration for PhD+, UVA’s robust suite of professional development programming for Ph.D. students.

The celebration culminated with attendees raising a celebratory champagne toast in the university’s signature space, the Dome Room in the Rotunda. In a question-and-answer session before the toast, an administrator noted that, just a few years earlier, the staff member devoted to helping Ph.D.s look for careers beyond the academy had been housed in a basement office.

This symbolic move -- from the basement to the dome in a few short years -- is, of course, not merely symbolic. Nor is it a fad.

The fundamental changes in attitudes and values are reflected in the language we use to describe what a Ph.D. is and what Ph.D.s do. James Grossman and Emily Swafford wrote recently that the American Historical Association “is now in the third stage of what has come to be called ‘career diversity’” -- a focus on the ways Ph.D. programs in history prepare “producers and disseminators of new historical knowledge in the public interest.” This proposed emphasis, they hasten to add, is “only a point of departure for conversation,” as the AHA is not in the business of issuing directives to member departments.

Whether or not this language -- and the emphasis it suggests -- takes root, it’s clear that we’re in a new normal when it comes to Ph.D. training, especially in the humanities.

The Ph.D., and Ph.D. training, is increasingly more town than gown. Initiatives like the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows Program provide an external partnership model for graduate schools and Ph.D. programs to adopt on a smaller scale. The logical extension of this program, the Mellon/ACLS Scholars & Society Fellowships, will equip tenured humanities faculty at doctoral universities with the experience needed to effectively mentor graduate students who are considering a career beyond the academy.

There are sustainable ways to make career diversity happen at the local level. Robert Weisbuch and Leonard Cassuto’s 2016 report, “Reforming Doctoral Education, 1990 to 2015: Recent Initiatives and Future Prospects,” documents in great detail the national shifts in Ph.D. training and addresses the reasons why departments were (and at times remain) reticent to adopt necessary new practices and reforms. Weisbuch wrote to me in an email that the Mellon model -- a costly project -- points the way forward, but it isn’t the only way to achieve similar outcomes.

Weisbuch noted that the Modern Language Association’s “summer boot camp and its one-semester offshoot at the University of Michigan offered to any students in Ph.D. humanities programs prove that a single faculty-led course, shared by several departments, is extremely cost-effective -- one faculty assignment for a course that well may improve the careers of 20 students. That’s leverage! The students research extra-academic opportunities, visit workplaces and prepare applications for jobs not specifically soliciting Ph.D. graduates.” Weisbuch concluded that “any graduate school now has a tested model” for helping Ph.D.s navigate this liminal moment.

Taking part in these kinds of programs, whether in well-funded Mellon initiatives or via more local and bespoke iterations, often better positions graduate students for tenure-track jobs, which increasingly have a laundry list of qualifications beyond the production of peer-reviewed research.

And perhaps they point a way forward, beyond the binary of academic/nonacademic and toward a more blended, holistic understanding of the Ph.D. in the world. In an essay on career diversity and the future of doctoral education in anthropology, Sarah Lyon notes that “rather than viewing nonacademic work as entirely separate from their scholarly pursuits,” many of the anthropologists she interviewed “described a flexible career trajectory shaped through repeated pivots between academic and practicing spheres.” They highlighted a reciprocal relationship between their “nonacademic work” and their “scholarly engagement.”

One thing is clear: career and professional development for Ph.D.s will never be the same, and we have many of the tools needed to make it robust and vital for the 21st century.

But it isn’t yet what it will be. Institutional, interpersonal and structural forces still hold back Ph.D. students, as at times do advisers, departments, funding structures and public opinion. And that means that Ph.D. students today are betwixt and between, navigating a world that has recognized the need to change -- and is changing in ways large and small -- but hasn’t yet figured out how to completely turn the ship.

So how do Ph.D. students, and those involved in their training, navigate this liminal moment? Here are a few suggestions.

Intentionally and proactively plug in to career and professional developments on your campus. As graduate schools and departments bring new programs online, the communications piece can often be one of the more difficult ones to crack. So make sure to sign up for Listservs, bulletins, updates and the like, and then schedule a few moments (while on the bus, for example) for skimming each email from campus partners.

At a recent meeting I had with graduate students, several of them noted that they were more inclined to attend events that were forwarded to them from their department or from a fellow graduate student. So you might also consider establishing an informal referral network: when you see the poster highlighting an entrepreneurial conference, don’t assume that your engineering colleague has seen it. Take 45 seconds to snap a pic of the poster and share with that friend. And let your friends know what you are looking to learn about, so they can apprise you of events in the same way.

Think globally. Your home institution, no matter how well resourced, shouldn’t be your only information source. Plug in to national networks early and often in your training, so that when you need a particular resource, you aren’t scrambling to find it. One tip here is to make use of your alumni networks. You’re probably the graduate of at least one institution by the time you start a Ph.D. program, and many of you have been enrolled at two or even three. Reach out to career services and alumni relations personnel at all the institutions you’ve attended. Each college or university will probably have strengths that the others don’t have. Set up a simple LinkedIn profile, as the platform makes finding alumni from your alma maters an easy task. But also ask point people at these institutions: a personal note from a trusted source is more likely to connect you with an alum.

Remix your conference attendance practices. Your modus operandi should not be to mirror the conference habits of your adviser. For starters, attend a variety of panels, including panels focused on professionalization and careers. But don’t stop there. Make a plan to connect with one alum per conference. If you fly to Chicago to attend a national conference without reaching out for an informational interview with an alum in a career field you’re interested in, you’ve wasted a valuable opportunity. (I speak as someone who wasted many such opportunities during graduate school.)

Find ways to work on passion projects. Maximize the value of these extracurriculars by intentionally working with graduate students (and with all kinds of partners) outside your area of specialty.

Know the tenure-track job options in your field. Most fields don’t have “a market,” and never really have. So get to know all the tenure-track routes. Some of you may be headed for tenure-track jobs at teaching-intensive institutions. Many of you may find teaching at community colleges rewarding. Each of these possibilities requires intensive preparation, so begin your exploration of them early in your graduate training, as a focus on teaching at a diverse range of institutions will give you more options.

Don’t get your career advice from one source. Rely in particular on those who have thought long and hard about career diversity -- the Graduate Career Consortium, for example, has been advocating for graduate students since 1987 -- and listen to their advice in stereo. Resources that didn’t exist when I started graduate school are blossoming all around. Some of them are terrific, providing community and resources that would have previously been hard to come by. But quality varies. The safe bet is to get your career advice from a range of voices.

Join with current graduate students and young alumni to ask your department for what you need. Don’t go it alone. Coming as a group to your department to ask for things you need -- like job placement data, a job search handbook, an alumni networking evening or funds for internships -- is much easier than doing this alone, or even in pairs. You needn’t reinvent the wheel: find models at the department and institutional level. Look at programs like those at UVA or the University of Notre Dame and organizations like the AHA. Do your best to do bring these models, and your adaptations of them to your local context, to your department in a collaborative way -- perhaps in consultation with your graduate school or graduate student government and with support from career services and alumni relations.

While in graduate school, I wrote with Joseph M. Vukov that graduate students need to be empowered to shape the future of the Ph.D. As we transition away from an apprenticeship model, graduate students need to have a voice in how to bury this model and fashion a new and better one. We all would do well to listen to graduate students, particularly those from populations historically underrepresented in Ph.D. programs.

One day soon, career diversity will be the norm. Terms like “alt-ac,” coined less than a decade ago and still somewhat serviceable, will slowly pass out of circulation, as we embrace the 21st-century Ph.D. and talk about career outcomes in increasingly neutral language. Until then, let’s all do all we can to help graduate students navigate this fraught moment and empower them to find and secure the kinds of futures they imagine for themselves.


James M. Van Wyck is the professional development program specialist in the Office of the Dean of the Graduate School at Princeton University. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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