Recap: A Tool Kit for Doctoral Student Career Planning

Recap: A Tool Kit for Doctoral Student Career Planning

At this year’s MLA conference, I attended a Connected Academics Initiative event on “Doctoral Student Career Planning.” It turned out the event was quite different from what I had imagined it to be. From the description, I thought that it would be more geared towards doctoral students, but the target group was definitely faculty and advisors in academic institutions—especially those who wanted to advise their students about careers different from those of the traditional humanities career-track:

Humanities PhDs have always made fulfilling and well-compensated careers within and beyond the academy, using their expertise for the social good throughout our society and economy. Participants consider resources and strategies doctoral programs can use to help their students recognize the versatility of doctoral study and pursue the broadest range of occupations available to them. (MLA Conference 2018 Schedule)

Because of the terrible snowstorm hitting New York City, the registration desk at the conference was running behind and it took a while for them to sort out my registration (which had been generously supported by the Development and Professionalization Office at The Graduate Center, CUNY).

When I finally arrived at the panel, I heard Kelly Brown (University of California, Irvine) speak from her perspective of leading seven professionalization workshops within the UC system. She told us that she strives to help graduate students to feel and be empowered to make the choices that are right for them—whether that is a career beyond the classroom, a tenure-track position, or working as an adjunct. She provided us with four points of best practices from the workshops, directed to faculty planning:

  1. Graduate students should be fully included through all of the aspects of the planning and execution of the workshops; don’t assume you know everything about their concerns, anxieties, and questions. A concrete example had come through a suggestion from graduate students in what they wanted from these workshops: Networking dinners structured around research interests/topics, which were followed by even more informal time later on in a bar. They had also organized panels under the theme of “Stories from the Field,” where graduate students chose themes, panels, and framed the conversation through questions.
  2. Respond to graduate students’ needs and desires as much as possible through evaluations after every workshop. Take evaluations seriously, and make sure to listen to the critique.
  3. Go back to your former graduate students—and create a graduate advisory committee—in order to request even more feedback.
  4. Be ready and stop to talk in the middle of an activity even if you have planned a day packed with activities. If you sense anxiety in a workshop, despite your planning, stop and engage with it.

Brown mentioned that there were two main takeaways from the workshops:

  1. Community matters to graduate students: A strong graduate student community that supports one another can be very rewarding for grad students. Help them create it. Foster a community where people don’t feel isolated.
  2. Graduate students want both practical and theoretical aspects of professionalization: We shouldn’t just offer workshops on “how to get a job,” “how to write the best bio and CV,” etc. but also address the theoretical aspects of practical professionalization. We need to consider all the different aspects of participating in professionalization.

Next up was Tyrus H. Miller (University of California, Santa Cruz), who wanted to address the oft-quoted response to professionalization and especially preparing students for an alt-ac career: “I don’t need this. My field is fine, and my students find academic jobs.” We need to consider, he pointed out, not the current state of the field but what it will look like in the near future. We also need to meet statements like these with statistics, data, and evidence of the actual large-scale picture.

Miller also pointed out that it’s important for academic programs to keep in contact with alumni. It’s important to not just know your own advisees but also that you know about the successes of students of other faculty advisors. It’s a common tendency among academics to think of research and teaching as elements of faculty careers only, but once we turn to our alumni, we will learn that both research and teaching matters in careers outside of academic contexts.

Miller’s crucial point was that Directors of Graduate Studies are very important in this regard. Usually, they are more informed about the issues graduate students face in individual departments. They should be informed and trained, and the Doctoral Student Career Planning provides a good starting point for them. They can then lead faculty mentorship and inform faculty mentors about the issues at hand. They can also point faculty to resources. Miller pointed out that there are more resources than people are aware of, and that the problem seems to be fragmentation and access.

In order to begin to change the conversations about student success in our disciplines, we need to also consider proactive work—talking to deans and sharing the Doctoral Student Career Planning and other documents (see below, The Many Careers of History PhDs for example).

Next speak up was Maureen McCarthy, Council of Graduate Schools, who spoke from her heart about personal experiences and the real need to reevaluate graduate studies and career opportunities. She pointed out that this is in no way saying that we shouldn’t be training doctoral students to be great professors—we should be doing both. But there are a number of things we can do to kickstart the conversation:

  1. If your class ends with a seminar/research paper, also require your students to write a lay summary. It gets students thinking about the language they use around the ideas they want to formulate. It occurred to me, while McCarthy was speaking, that this is another reason why an online presence is good—we are forced to face a public and formulate our ideas and thoughts succinctly and in lay language. McCarthy added that you could also skip final research papers altogether, and consider other ways to demonstrate deep engagement intellectually with the content of the course, presented in different formats, such as a series of lesson plans for high school, a website, etc.
  2. You can offer (or find) professional development training for students, co-centrally located in the institution. I.e., not discipline-based but broader professional development that makes students take what they learn and adapt it to their own circumstances.
  3. You can also radically change the department’s curricular offerings. In order to do that you must deeply understand your mission, it must be a faculty-led initiative, supported by administration (this is part of the “sense of community” we talked about before: whom you admit, why you admit them, what questions are they asking, what do they want out of their lives). I don’t think it was McCarthy’s intention but it occurred to me that it was strange to leave students out of the description of how to change the department’s curricular offering. To me, it’s deeply important to include students’ perspectives in curricular decisions (whether or not it concerns a radical change).

Q&A Session

We then moved on to a Q&A session, which I’ll try to briefly summarize here.

Q: Do you have examples of departments that have radically altered the shape of their graduate curriculum?

Maureen McCarthy: It’s still work in progress around all of the NextGen institutions. There are a lot of different, primarily Canadian institutions, who have tried. McGill, for examples, issued a statement of principles on how to prepare doctoral students in the humanities: White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities. An example of their radical decisions in this white paper is the idea to open up for a joint team-based dissertation option for humanities students. So far, I don’t know if anyone who has completed one. An interesting model in the U.S. comes from University of Delaware, which received an implementation-grant for NextGen programs. They’ve integrated an internship experience, which is to say too little about their change. Rather, it’s an external learning opportunity built into the research component of the Ph.D. and made it an integral part of training. That’s probably the best example.

Stacy Hartman: I also want to add Georgetown’s several years of the Public Humanities Ph.D. It might be easier to start building something from the ground up rather than change an already existing program. There’s a risk aversion, generally, in the humanities, which comes from the state of the job market… No one wants to put themselves at risk—by writing a co-authored dissertation for instance. Is that true? I’m not sure, but there’s a sense on part of students and faculty to minimize risk, and radical change is hard in that sense.

Kelly Brown: Co-authoring articles is a great strategy, but the Ph.D. is still awarded individually. So this relates to deep questions about identity. If I co-write a Ph.D. dissertation, how much of that Ph.D. “belongs” to me? I’m also watching the Comparative Literature department at UCLA—some faculty members are fighting a hard fight, very invested and connected to their career center. It’s also a good place to look.

Q: Do you have any advice for graduate students who want to get involved in changing the Ph.D.s/curriculum for graduate students looking for a career?

Tyrus H. Miller: You have to acknowledge that you have a part in all this. Find a faculty member who can go with you step-by-step. With one advisee, I had to say: “I’m getting into territory where I don’t know how to advise you but I’m willing to go with you each step on that track; I’ll learn along with you.” Also, make sure to find more than one person to get support from. You’ll likely need more advise, expertise, and support outside of your department. Advisors are certainly important but you need to expand your mentorship network. Think about your peers as mentors too.

Chris Golde (career coach at Stanford, in the audience): Yes, and. Longer view: I participated in the Carnegie Initiative of the Doctorate. We learned that students are the secret agents of change. We constantly forget about the students knowledge and how they can help shape the future of education. Bring in alumni. CV workshop. Online presence. Informational interviews. All of those are cheap things to do… Put together a lunch seminar on careers in the university for people with a Ph.D. who don’t want to teach or research.

Kelly Brown: Also go to the (Public) Humanities Center at your university…!

Stacy Hartman: I want to reemphasize: don’t put your advisor into the position of your sole mentor. Seek out different forms of advisory/mentorship.

Graduate student in the audience: Also make sure to join your graduate student council and push the agenda there.

Another graduate student in the audience: It’s a leadership of love. We need to create coalitions with undergraduate students. We need to have them with us. Change will only come if we’re showing faculty and administration evidence of students who are interested in the seats in the PhD programs in the future. We need to cultivate the future graduate students.

Q: I’m a director of graduate studies. I don’t have faculty with me in wanting to address these issues/questions. How can I get through comments like: “This is not my job.” Is there anything in your toolkit that addresses this?

Kelly Brown: Yes, in “Promising Practices,” you find a section on this.

Audience member: This is an area where leadership from above can be helpful. Derek Bach makes suggestion: A Dean of Graduate Studies can say: “You [department] don’t get another Ph.D. slot until you graduate old ones.” Don’t always tell deans to crack down…! But here’s a place where it can be good! I also want to ask: How many in here are faculty? (Five people out of the forty in the room raise their hands.)

Chris Golde (in audience): I want to reiterate that you should find other fellow travelers in other departments who can join your ranks.

Audience member: I’m from UC Santa Cruz where the Institute for humanities research tried to establish “PhD+” series—training for academia and bringing back alumni. Hearing new and old alumni talk about how their job is connected to their PhDs is very eye-opening, event for disgruntled faculty. They don’t think they know how to advise, which is OK.

Tyrus H. Miller: Director of Graduate Studies or Graduate Program Committee (however it’s framed in your program) has some stakes or mechanisms for ensuring there’s good, accountable mentoring and teaching in the program. Assignment of graduate courses (tend to be seen as a privilege for faculty to teach) is one mechanism. This can also be enforced on admissions level. Faculty don’t necessarily have to be advising but know what resources are available when they go beyond their competency. But of course, their competency needs to be expanded as well. Given that this is going to be a slow process, at least they need to be able to direct students to a place where they can find more information. That’s what’s important.

Kelly Brown: We also have a one-page tip sheet from the toolkit… If a Director of Graduate Studies want to bring in a tip sheet and have a conversation at a faculty meeting, that could be a good place to start—and not too much to ask people to add to their reading load.

Q: I’m at the University of North Texas and we have a Creative Writing Ph.D. program—I would love to create the community you spoke so passionately about, Kelly, to make a connection with people all over the state. How would I go about bringing this community together? How can I fund it intercollegially? It would be so useful for graduate students.

Kelly Brown: UC has been successful because we get out of our campus. We also don’t hold the workshops in campuses: museums, libraries. It changes the conversation. But it also takes money. Humanities Institute there is really about doing cross-campus work. Money from Mellon helps. Getting people to come together for a day really works to kickstart the conversation. But we have also been successful because people are interested in what they work on. People do networking thing during dinner and talk (informally). That sets the stage for having an engaged conversation later. (Importance of unstructured time during conferences?) Taking conversation outside of the university.

Tyrus H. Miller: Perhaps circulate students through consortium-courses? Also, in certain places in the Bay Area there has also been research consortiums. Early Modern groups have met, for instance.

Q: I’m curious if you can comment on the future of the dissertation? I’m writing a dissertation in the area of public access so access is important to my question. It seems to me counter-intuitive to create a Word document that only a few people can access. Is this part of conversation in your toolkit? Is this conversation happening?

Kelly Brown: Yes it’s happening. Clemson had a doctoral student write a dissertation as a rap. Matthew Kirschenbaum has advised many websites, interactive projects… Biggest one is Ulysses. ProQuest? Depositing different formats…

Stacy Hartman: MLA Commons is another good platform to start exploring this topic.

Kalle Westerling (in the audience): HASTAC is another good platform. Or HASTAC Scholars, which I’m the director of. It’s a free and open community of people who are interested in this exact topic that we’re discussing here today. 

Tyrus H. Miller: Digital humanities and Ph.D. in creative fields have pushed the traditional monograph. A lot of conversation right now is about whether it’s knowledge production and that’s where there seems like there’s a lot more work to be done.

Q: I have an adjacent question… How can we make a traditional dissertation into something that’s also pushing the envelope? I wrote a fairly traditional dissertation but am still interested in pushing and opening a lot of paths.

Kelly Brown: Some institutions require lay presentations. Others video abstracts of a dissertation in form of a three minute-thesis to be submitted with the PDF. Students don’t have to make it public, but many do.

Chris Golde: “Imagine PhDs” does a lot of interesting skills and interest inventories. Check it out (free):

Kelly Brown: Ask yourself: what community do you want to work in? Doing a video makes you really think about WHO you’re writing for, and come out with it.

Tyrus H. Miller: There are lots embedded in the research and generic conventions of the dissertation. Various sorts of things can be disentangled from that and associated to other orders. For instance: Actually thinking about managing your Ph.D. as techniques of project management. It happens tacitly and sometimes partially explicitly, around deadlines etc. But there’s a way that that could be raised to more consciousness with respect to the project but also the skill set you’re developing. I haven’t done this as an advisor yet, but only in my proseminars: Make student choose a research topic to work on over a quarter. Take it into different forms of scholarly communication: annotated bib, abstract, grant proposal, website. But not the dissertation. But its all periphery and process of modes of scholarly communication that the dissertation could help organize. If I take the structure from proseminar and use it as an advisor, it might be extracting more value out of that huge project that the dissertation is.

Resources Listed

ImaginePhD: A Career Exploration and Planning Tool for the Humanities and Social Sciences <>

Doctoral Student Career Planning: A Guide for PhD Programs and Faculty Members in English and Other Modern Languages from the MLA’s Connected Academics Initiative <>

One-page tip sheet from resource above <>

Promising Practices in Humanities PhD Professional Development: Lessons Learned from the 2016–2017 Next Generation Humanities PhD Consortium <>

Carnegie Initiative of the Doctorate <>

ASA’s The Many Careers of History PhDs <>

White Paper on the Future of the PhD in the Humanities <>

More Resources (Post-Scriptum)

Career Diversity for Historians/AHA’s five-skills initiative <>