Integrating the Public Humanities With Career Development

The Ph.D. co-op model can offer graduate students skills growth, financial stability and a broader range of career options after they finish their degree, writes Henry John.

November 2, 2021
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Each day of my hands-on academic experience begins with stepping off the bus in Lake Cowichan, British Columbia, surrounded by mountain slopes crisscrossed by 100 years of clear cuts. Deindustrialization and mill closures have ravaged the economy of this town, and every third shop in the town center has boarded windows. On this particular morning, I arrive at my place of work -- a small museum and archive dedicated to forestry labor unionism, the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives -- to be greeted by a veteran logger keen to discuss his recently written history of chain-saw innovations in the region.

I was hired as an archivist by the museum to arrange and describe a massive collection of records belonging to the national forestry union IWA-Canada. The main bulk of my work involves ensuring these 300 banker’s boxes of records are safely stored, arranged according to archival principles and accessible to researchers through the use of a finding aid. However, on some days, I might be interviewing veteran forestry workers regarding their career in the industry, and on others, I might be in a Zoom meeting with members of the local First Nation as we look to modernize the museum’s dated settler-colonial displays.

What brought me here, to my place as a trusted custodian of the history of the rural forest industry, from a year ago, when I was an urban-living, tree-hugging Ph.D. student researching environmental history? The answer lies in the University of British Columbia’s Arts PhD Co-op Program, an optional program that provides training, mentoring and institutional support for Ph.D. students wishing to apply their skills and expertise in pursuits beyond postsecondary institutions. This level of mentorship, as well as the salary, differentiates co-op from traditional internships (which are not usually integrated into a student’s degree), and ultimately provides participants with both skills growth and financial stability.

In fact, co-op is a model that can facilitate innovative and publicly engaged humanities scholarship, while also providing graduate students with a broader range of career paths to pursue after they finish their degrees. While internships are usually short-term work placements without a direct connection to a students’ academic interests, co-op positions are interwoven with the dissertation-writing process and enable grad students to bring together traditional and unconventional forms of scholarly work.

That the humanities Ph.D. -- and graduate and postsecondary education as a whole -- is currently in crisis will likely not be news to readers of Inside Higher Ed. In a soul-crushing process, newly minted doctorates face increasingly long odds of landing a tenure-track research or teaching job at an academic institution. Add to this the fact that the traditional doctoral degree only provides specific training for the very jobs that seem in shortest supply, and Ph.D.s often finish feeling totally unprepared for work beyond the academy. Meanwhile, universities continue to raise their tuition fees, even in the midst of a pandemic, exacerbating the financial burden of the doctorate and intensifying the inequities that underpin North American postsecondary education.

But a Ph.D. in the arts or humanities can and does build skills that are in demand beyond the academy. An arts Ph.D. co-op position leverages a student’s existing skills -- whether that is in grant writing, community organizing or public engagement -- and enables them to practice looking at what they can do through different frames, in different contexts. And if, at the same time, we’re able to complicate our research by integrating community engagement or bidirectional public humanities scholarship, all the better. On our campuses, we are trained to write, to organize, to analyze, to educate. Putting those skills into play off the campus is simply a matter of framing and of connecting with the relevant stakeholders.

The narratives that there are no jobs -- or no jobs that require a Ph.D. -- negates the experiences of those who have transitioned into a nonacademic sphere and still continue to contribute to knowledge about and analyses of heritage, cultural productions and history. Just because people in alt-ac roles may no longer publish in peer-reviewed journals does not negate the value of their applied and public humanities work.

More problematically, though, the “no jobs” narrative implies that knowledge production can only come from the academy, marginalizing nonscholarly forms of expertise -- from that of practitioners and holders of traditional Indigenous knowledge to those with lived experience and expertise. There’s no reason why humanities research can’t engage the expertise of nonscholars. Participating in co-op has helped me to understand that the true public scholarship is bidirectional and involves building real relationships with other people who are holders and creators of knowledge -- not just treating them like fleeting sources of information.

In eight months of co-op work terms, not only have I learned more about being a public historian than in almost a decade of graduate school, but I’ve also discovered that doing such work is transforming my dissertation research. As I study different perspectives on the history of environmentalism and forest protests in the region, by working in and with these communities, I have achieved a status as a trusted insider, which bestows an unparalleled level of access. As such, my two arts Ph.D. co-op work terms at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives mean I can write chapters of my dissertation from the perspective of communities that I would otherwise not be able to access.

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I don’t stop being a history Ph.D. student when I chat with that former logger about the development of the chain saw, even though I’m on the clock at work while we talk. It’s time to stop framing career conversations as separate from the work that we do as scholars. Work is work. Co-op is a model that provides significant benefits for a Ph.D. -- at least, for me. It has given me the financial security and intellectual space I need to develop relationships that are enhancing my work as a historian. It has also opened up unexpected and gratifying options for me and for my life after my Ph.D.

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Henry John is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at the University of British Columbia. More details about the IWA-Canada collection at the Kaatza Station Museum and Archives can be found on the archive’s blog at iwaarchive.wordpress.com. He’d like to thank Letitia Henville, graduate co-op coordinator in the UBC arts co-op program, for her contributions to this article.

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