Dr. Who? Dr. You!: Career Advice for the Professional Humanist

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I recently had the opportunity to attend Dr. Who?: A Careers Conference for Professional Humanists at Binghamton University. I want to share what I learned there to help other graduate students think about their career prospects in a more expansive and positive way.

I am a Ph.D. candidate who will be applying for academic jobs next fall, but I am also interested in learning more about alt-ac jobs.  From my own experience, I realize that it’s easy for graduate students to fixate on becoming faculty.  As Leonard Cassuto points out, graduate students want to model themselves after the people they know and admire most: their professors.  We also may feel that there’s nothing else we’re qualified to do.  But the tenure track is only one of many fulfilling paths from which PhDs (i.e. career humanists) can choose.  This message is spreading through events like Dr. Who?, which addressed how faculty and graduate students can empower themselves and revolutionize the humanities PhD.

Two Roads Diverged . . . or Do They?

Before the conference, I believed that I had to choose between the academic or the alt-ac path, or that I could focus on only one at a time.  But after talking to lots of people at the conference, I now think that while the job materials are different (resume vs. CV), the overall preparation for both is similar.  The employer roundtable participants revealed that academic and nonacademic employers are looking for comparable qualities in job candidates, including adaptability, the ability to collaborate, and a sense of ambition and purpose.  They urged applicants not to stress over checking every box on the job ad, but rather to focus on the big picture and what you can offer the organization.  The ideal candidate, they agreed, convinces the employer s/he has something valuable to offer, which may be something the employer had not expected or imagined.  In other words, don’t try to contort yourself into what you think an employer wants you to be; instead, show the employer why s/he should want you.

The Capacities for Success

When looking at job ads–both academic and alt-ac–you can quickly become overwhelmed by the number of skills employers seem to require.  You may feel pressure to obtain as many skills as possible, but a better approach is to first recognize and appreciate the abilities you already possess, such as synthesizing information and presenting it in written and oral form–a valued skill in many professions.  In her keynote address, Sidonie Smith argued that doctoral programs in the humanities should help students develop new “capacities,” a term that she prefers over “skills,” which tend to be more narrowly conceived.  Instead of forcing students through the same rigid route, Smith said, programs should encourage students to take control over their learning, for example, by rethinking the seminar paper and the dissertation.

While some doctoral programs, like Binghamton’s and Lehigh’s, are gradually changing, students can also take the initiative to shift their thinking about professionalization.  In “Growing Your Skill Set Without Losing Your Mind,” Kevin Boettcher urged us to reconsider the process of “skill building.”  He led us through a process of self-reflection to come up with a realistic plan for developing our capacities.  At the end of the session, he asked us three questions, which I list below along with the answers I wrote during the workshop.

How can you

  1. get better at something you already do? I already write a lot, but I can always get better.  Taking the time and effort to write in other genres besides academic writing, such as short stories and blog posts, would improve my writing capacity.
  2. add a new component to something you already do? One of my dissertation chapters focuses on female mentorship in eighteenth-century America.  I could use that historical/literary perspective as a springboard for think about mentorship today—its challenges, limitations, and possibilities.
  3. find new opportunities to grow? I have been thinking about how grief is handled in academia.  Although the topic of grief has nothing to do with my dissertation, I am interested in pursuing this topic; I could propose a roundtable discussion for next year’s NeMLA. (Note: I did submit a proposal on grief and the humanities that has been accepted for NeMLA 2018! http://www.cfplist.com//nemla/Home/S/16860)

Doing the exercise was very enlightening and generative.  By taking just a few minutes to self-reflect, exciting ideas emerged that had been pushed aside because I have been so focused on the dissertation.

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What’s Your Story?

“Tell me about yourself.”  Why does this question make so many of us flustered and tongue-tied?  Why is it so hard to talk about yourself?  In the workshop, “Framing and Reframing Your Story,” Mearah Quinn-Brauner presented strategies for introducing ourselves with aplomb.  She said that when people tell their story, they tend to start at the beginning—where they were born, where they went to school, etc.  She encouraged us to disrupt this chronological narrative by starting with the present—our current skills, interests, and values—which we then use as a lens on our past and future.  Ask yourself:

  • Skills: What am I good at? What do I enjoy doing?
  • Interests: What makes me excited and curious?
  • Values: What motivates me? What are my priorities?

Review your answers to these questions and identify emergent themes that can help you frame your unique story.  Revise and play with your story to suit different contexts and audiences, and, most importantly, share with others!

I hope that my thoughts about the Dr. Who? conference inspire you to seize control of your own professional journey.  Instead of feeling adrift or pulled by the tides of the academic job market, think more expansively about the humanities PhD–and yourself–in order to steer your own career path.

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