Professionalizing Ph.D.s by Honoring Skills They Already Have

Grad students should recognize and articulate the work experience they've gained through teaching and their dissertation, and academic departments should help them to do so, writes Erica Machulak.

September 17, 2020
 
 
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During a webinar on Ph.D. career pathways in early August, the Modern Language Association sparked a chorus of Twitter affirmations with this quote: “Time spent in a Ph.D. program is and should always be considered work.” Given we recently celebrated Labor Day this month, it is time to reflect on the actions that departments can take to recognize and frame this work.

Congress made Labor Day a legal holiday in 1894. The gesture was meant to recognize the value of American workers, and it was hard won on the part of the people who mobilized against the injustice of their working conditions. When organizations and institutions recognize the value that their employees provide, they help foster a more trusting and effective culture. Academic departments -- especially their chairs, deans and advisers -- can accomplish that by investing time and resources to help Ph.D. candidates recognize and articulate the skills that they are already using to achieve their degrees.

In the face of an academic career landscape made still bleaker by pandemic, advocates like Stacey Hartman and Katina Rogers have offered approaches that departments and institutions can take to better prepare Ph.D. candidates in the humanities for life after dissertation. Their advice balances concrete suggestions with greater systemic shifts in the way that we define both the academy and the Ph.D. I’d like to recommend an incremental change that departments can make immediately: recenter your professional development courses to articulate the work that your Ph.D. candidates are already doing.

Most departments offer some sort of professional development course for their graduate students, but the content and quality vary widely. Such courses should present tangible and immediate opportunities to validate and mobilize the career skills that Ph.D. candidates already have in their arsenals. Departments can make their professional development courses more effective by reframing the two core components of the humanities Ph.D. candidate’s work experience: 1) teaching and 2) the dissertation.

While most Ph.D. candidates are doing all kinds of additional work beyond teaching and the dissertation, these two shared elements are the trickiest for many students to break down into job materials. Ph.D. candidates can and should pay attention to the ways that their core graduate work contributes to their professional development. And by structuring a professional development course around these skills, rather than bifurcations between tenure-track and alt-ac job searches, departments can prepare their Ph.D. candidates to think more holistically about the connection between the value of their labor and their capacities to pursue fulfilling careers.

The following sections break down teaching and the dissertation into the clusters of skills they represent.

Teaching is work. When I was a graduate student, a career services adviser told me that, if I included teaching on my résumé, a nonacademic employer would assume that the job they were offering was my plan B. That is nonsense.

My teaching experience was by far the most résumé-friendly aspect of my Ph.D. experience. It was also the one that best prepared me to work in a team setting. Designing and delivering a course in the humanities requires planning a long-term project with many moving parts and stakeholders (students). It involves developing robust evaluation plans, tracking the progress of many individuals, coordinating peer groups, conducting assessments and providing critical mentorship.

Being an instructor caused me massive anxiety as a graduate student, because I constantly felt underprepared to present myself as an expert in a conversation that, by my own design, could move in organic and unanticipated directions. After working as a staff member in a central academic office for a number of years, I have come to learn that the humanities seminar-style mode of teaching is, in fact, a distinct disciplinary advantage. For example, professional meetings require organization, planning and active engagement. The drawbacks of ineffective meetings have only been exacerbated with the necessity of making them virtual, and so the ability to guide a productive discussion has become an even more marketable skill -- especially if you have experience teaching online.

The emotional intelligence and flexible thinking involved in teaching a humanities seminar course are difficult to quantify. However, outside of the humanities, I have learned that a word and a role embody these skills: “facilitation.” The ability to get a group of people with differing views and experiences to have a productive conversation is vital and surprisingly rare. If Ph.D. candidates can capture that skill in their job materials, it will likely be much more impressive than the number of students taught.

The dissertation is work. The “dissertation” item of my first résumé went something like this: “Wrote a 264-page dissertation. Drew on sources in X, Y and Z languages. Explored Arabic influences on medieval English literature.” That was not an effective hook for potential employers, because it didn’t tell them anything about how I would work for them. The dissertation is an idiosyncratic experience, and it is so all-consuming that it can be difficult to examine the process and skills involved from a critical distance.

If you are a Ph.D. candidate, you have defined the scope of a sprawling initiative in consultation with senior colleagues. Project management in the context of professionals who speak the language of project management -- “deliverables,” “roadblocks” and so forth -- is a challenge. Project management as a junior colleague in an academic department -- a system of obscure processes, idiosyncratic working habits and erratic communication -- is Everest. You have designed timelines, articulated milestones and responded to a complexity of feedback the likes of which you may never see again. Name and honor those accomplishments.

Framing the dissertation in terms of its skills can also provide immediate opportunities to practice research communication and build Ph.D. candidates’ professional online presence. Departments should consider incorporating at least one exercise related to research communication in their professional development courses. The ability to distill a chunk of a dissertation into a blog post, op-ed or even a tweet is a vital career skill.

The practice of translating in this way can help any student become comfortable discussing their work in any professional context, be it a campus visit or a career fair. Such an exercise can be designed to help students actively build a social media presence to consolidate and highlight skills in both research communication and networking. By orienting the core elements of the Ph.D. candidate’s experience around teaching and the dissertation, departments may help relieve some of the pressure to learn new skills.

And if you’re a grad student, the deeper into the weeds of your specialization you get, the easier may be to forget how much you already know. If you first take stock of your existing strengths and goals, it will become much easier for you to filter an endless landscape of skill development opportunities and focus on the ones that will best prepare you to thrive in your chosen career paths.

Bio

Erica Machulak is the founder of Hikma Strategies, an organization that helps researchers distill complex ideas into language that is both rigorous and accessible.

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