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hand holding magnifying glass over the word humanities, which is surrounded by many other words like human resources, management and so forth

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Humanists, your work matters.

I’m not referring to the vital work you do to keep your university running by teaching classes, advising students and supporting faculty research. But in the academic sector, where the humanities are framed as a field in perpetual crisis and graduate students in the humanities as a problem to be solved, I want to highlight some of the ways in which an advanced degree in the humanities prepares you extraordinarily well for the world of work—now and especially in the future.

Your research matters. When people talk about “wicked problems” and “grand challenges,” they are talking about the humanities. The trick is that they probably don’t realize it, and you, rather than promoting the value of your work, are very likely to undermine it by describing it in limited terms. It is possible that you are reading the obscure works of an obscure author who has been dead for decades if not centuries. What does that work mean for the world we live in now? How many ways can you come up with to describe its potential impact?

I could tell you, accurately, that I wrote my dissertation on the semi-autobiographical works of three authors who investigated the relationship between history and memory in 20th-century France. But the underlying questions are much broader: What does it mean to tell the truth? Are authors responsible for the consequences of what they write? How do people write themselves into being?

What essential questions guide your work? If you have the answers to them, they aren’t big enough. Keep going until you arrive at a problem that seems eminently important, and too big to solve alone. Those are the questions that drive careers.

Your facility with words matters. As a result of the intensive self-monitoring that comes with an advanced degree based on words, narratives, arguments and interpretations, humanists can, at a minimum, write clearly and correctly. They can speak fluently and persuasively. They can find just the right word that conveys just the right thing, and they can usually churn out a lot of text relatively quickly. Many of us can do this across languages.

A highly trained humanist doesn’t have the option to neglect the development of their public speaking skills due to an almost universally heavy teaching load. Humanists don’t have the option to not write, since the field is both publish-or-perish and single author. Such attributes are ingrained in our doctoral training. Embrace your ability to speak in public, to write polished texts, to pursue those opportunities that others dread and in which you will shine.

Your research methods matter. Eleven years after receiving my Ph.D. in Romance studies, I understand what it prepared me to do methodologically: I was trained to identify patterns and deviations from those patterns, to determine whether and how they are significant, and to explain why. In most cases, these are qualitative data, although some humanists work with quantitative data as well. The key point is that these are data and not to be dismissed as intuition or orthodoxy.

You need to understand and respect your own methods before you can explain their value to others, including the family and friends who think you are “just reading books” or the STEM colleagues who think you are “just talking.” The product of a highly trained humanist’s methods can appear either fantastical or magical depending on the audience and the results; it can seem like you “just know things.” Dispel those myths and own the tools of your trade. Your data set is vast.

Your secondary skills matter. You need to figure out what these are and, if possible, how you developed them. As a graduate student in French, I one day opened a book and discovered I could read academic Spanish. In another class, I read early modern literature in Italian. The underlying attention to language and patterns instilled by my training, combined with the shared Latin roots of Romance languages, created new skill sets that extended my work in unexpected directions. That ability to see and interpret language at the level of the letter and the word has allowed me to maintain a 10-year freelance career as a professional copy editor and proofreader. Where have you extended the boundaries of your work—intellectually, creatively, administratively or methodologically? What has your degree enabled you to do alongside and beyond the confines of your specialization?

Your awareness of self and others matters. The longer you study the humanities using its tools, the more you realize that multiple viewpoints, ideas, perspectives and stories exist in the world simultaneously. A humanistic argument is inherently multivocal. In other words, your work cites others who think differently than you and acknowledges the value of diverging arguments and beliefs. Skeptics may call this relativism, but with a high degree of self-awareness it becomes commitment. That allows highly trained humanists to empathize with individuals whom they might otherwise dehumanize and to understand ideas they might otherwise demean. Your ability to process complex and conflicting information in this way is a skill that you can use to empower people, resolve conflict, promote transparency and create community.

Can you plan and facilitate an academic discussion on a sensitive topic, with clearly defined rules of engagement and outcomes? Can you build the trust that motivates your students to share their thoughts constructively? If so, you can plan and run a business meeting in which people feel able to express their ideas in service to a common goal. You can give the members of your team constructive feedback that will help them become better at their jobs.

Even as advances in artificial intelligence dominate the headlines, its reflection of our collective knowledge lacks a key factor: empathy. In a society where knowledge production is increasingly automated, the ability to relate to others as fully human, to understand their intentions and your own, can only grow in value. In other words, when your coworkers are literally robots, the soft skills that are so hard for them to learn are your distinctive contribution to the workforce.

Humanists, it is unlikely that you are experiencing a surfeit of praise and appreciation in your professional life. In fact, you are probably hearing from a few vocal naysayers who are slowly eroding your confidence and navigating systems that weren’t designed to help you thrive. The solution to this problem is not to retreat to your ivory tower, your library carrel, your delightfully dusty archive. It is to go forth into the world and talk about what you do and why it matters. It is to use your powers, developed through years of rigorous training, for good. It is to take up your share of space in society by serving as a translator of ideas, a motivator of people and a harmonizer of dissonant voices. Your work matters. And thanks to your training as a humanist, you have the tools you need to explain why.

Vanessa Doriott Anderson is assistant dean for academic and career development at the Graduate School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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