How to Master the Humanities Job Search: Lessons from the PhD Career Day

Chiara Girardi is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where she teaches language classes, has worked as editorial assistant for Modern Language Notes (MLN) and has published in peer-reviewed academic journals. She received her Masters from Boston College, where she was the recipient of the Donald J. White Award for Excellence in Teaching, the S.L. Nguyen Summer Research Grant, and Teaching Assistant for “Comparative Policy: Comparing Immigration Policies in Europe and in the US;” and “Human Mobility: The Challenge of Justice and Care.” These courses took her back to her home country, Italy, to lead summer programs that allowed graduate students to meet with immigration specialists in the American and Italian government, academics, faith leaders and NGOs. This experience opened her mind on non-academic work and stimulated her curiosity to better understand how the skills learned in graduate school could be applied to the professional world.

It was an early Friday morning in Washington, D.C., when a lively group of PhD candidates in the humanities from several area universities met at Georgetown University for a PhD Matters Career Day. The event—sponsored by ReinventPhD, the Connected Academics project at Georgetown—was a different kind of career fair from the ones I’ve been to before: there were no recruiters from big firms on a hunt to find the best candidate, no brochures about office perks and work-life balance, and no frantic exchanges of résumés and business cards in the hope of landing any job. The point of the day was to think about our future lives after the PhD and to reflect upon our careers as humanities professionals.

The event was divided into two sessions. In the morning, John Paulas, founder of PhD Matters Ltd, led an interactive seminar, where he encouraged us to self-evaluate our strengths and skills to broaden our employment horizons. Paulas argued that PhDs in the humanities work in the most diverse sectors and positions, from management consultants to UX designers. Therefore, the first step to a well-informed and successful job search is defining one’s career ambitions and interests.

In the afternoon, D.C.–area humanities PhDs working in private, public, and non-profit sectors joined the conversation on the versatility of doctoral training. We connected with five successful professionals and learned more about their transition from academia to non-professorial positions in a fast-paced ‘speed-dating’ format. We had 15 minutes with each guest speaker to ask about their work, sector, and transition. While their stories and chosen sectors differed widely, it was easy to identify common threads in their recommendations to future professionals. Unsurprisingly, they matched the bits of advice Paulas shared in the morning about job searches for PhDs. I decided to collect and share the organizers’ and guest speakers’ recommendations to help fellow PhDs (in the humanities and other fields) in their job searches.

1. Network

Once you figure out the careers you are interested in pursuing, whether it’s communications or higher ed administration, start building a strong network. Friends and family can put you in contact with people in your desired field of work; the career center at your institution may connect you with professionals through networking events, or you can reach out to new contacts via LinkedIn. Twitter is also a useful, dynamic resource for connecting with PhDs working inside and outside academia. But don’t expect to have an immediate return. Evan Rhodes, Manager at Deloitte Consulting, mentioned that most of the emails he sent when looking for a job in consulting went unanswered. But he didn’t lose faith; he continued to grow his network and initially learned about his first post-PhD job through his connections.

It certainly can feel uncomfortable to contact strangers and ask for help. The fear of rejection might prevent us from networking, so do it a little at a time until you get more comfortable. I started networking by contacting PhDs in my field (Early Modern History and Romance Languages) and Johns Hopkins alumni, knowing that it would have been more natural to create a personal connection if we had shared institutional affiliation or academic interests. Meeting PhDs in a variety of careers has been helpful in better understanding of how to tailor my résumé to specific jobs. It also allowed me to discover careers I hadn’t even thought about, and I learned about the evidence-based and results-driven attitude that characterizes most sectors.

2. The Job Search is Automated

While it is indispensable to have an online presence and a well-crafted LinkedIn profile, it is not advisable to apply to jobs on digital platforms or other online search tools such as Monster or Indeed. Our guest speakers listed two reasons for this. First, job postings are not updated frequently. John Paulas and Raashi Rastogi, Communications Lead at the Alexandria Health Department, suggest searching for positions on the company’s website to look for updated postings and more detailed information about the organization. Second, job searches on these platforms are automated, meaning that PhDs risk being excluded from first-round interviews because their experiences and skill-sets don’t match the basic keyword qualifications requested for the job.

My own advice is to apply what PhDs usually do best to the job search: research. This means researching:

  • the organizations where you wish to work 
  • job ads on the companies’ websites to learn about basic qualifications and job responsibilities staff profiles
  • people you can connect with to learn more about the organization through an informational interview.

And, similar to what PhDs do after gathering a massive quantity of information for their dissertations: summarize the content of your research and then make it relevant for your target audience. Create a concise table where you include relevant information about the organization, job openings, and deadlines. Jennifer A. Vogt, Innovation Manager at Ashoka, explained that during her job search she created tables to see how she could translate her skill-sets to job responsibilities. She believed this exercise helped her tailor her application materials to best fit the job’s requirements.

3. Be Results-Driven

This is perhaps the greatest jump from the traditional academic mindset that tends to focus more on content. The guest speakers highlighted that hiring managers were rarely interested in their dissertation topics. Instead, they were fascinated by the more practical results of their research activities, namely their abilities to

  • summarize a large quantity of information,
  • complicate their narratives through effective research and persuasive writing, 
  • and translate them to different audiences and media.

Hiring committees appreciated how frequently they engaged in public speaking activities, how effectively they juggled multiple responsibilities, and how they respected tight deadlines.

Similarly, the guest speakers recommended that we market our teaching experience in terms of outcomes rather than content. That is, instead of focusing on what you teach, explain how you teach: describe in your cover letter how you effectively translated and simplified complex information to your target audience, how you managed your “team” to help them achieve their objectives, and how you successfully maintained a professional relationship with your students. On this subject, Rhodes suggested that applicants should demonstrate how they excelled at achieving results when applying for jobs. For instance, he shared students’ course evaluations as outcomes of his excellence in teaching.

This passage from content-based to results-driven applications outlines an identity shift that will improve the job search for PhDs. It will help us recognize how the outcomes achieved during graduate school could make us ideal job candidates for any position, regardless of our chosen academic field. Remember, too, that you can start this kind of work now: as you’re teaching and/or doing your academic research, keep track of the transferable skills you’re developing in a shadow CV.

4. Learn the Language

Paulas recommends that we use our research skills to learn the language of the industry—and then use this language extensively when drafting a cover letter and résumé. As we expand our networks with informational interviews, we can learn the industry-related language by listening carefully to how our interviewee describes their profession, organization, and results. Patricia A. Soler, IT Specialist at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, remembers that “collaboration” was one of the keywords commonly used by professionals in her industry. Since “collaboration” is rarely associated with the typical image of the solitary doctoral student in the humanities, Patricia decided to focus in her cover letters on her accomplishments in collaborative projects. She also framed her dissertation as a collaboration with, among others, her advisor.

When I have asked professionals to provide graduate students with recommendations that would strengthen their résumés, I have primarily gotten advice to learn how to market my experiences and skill-set effectively for that industry. Look at job ads, company websites, LinkedIn profiles, and other venues where people in that industry are describing their work. Then, adopt this language for your résumé and cover letter.

5. Diversify your Résumé

All the guest speakers highlighted the importance of having a unique résumé when applying for jobs. They all recommend diversifying your résumé through a variety of experiences—from doing an internship to building a successful university group on campus—and providing concrete examples. Joe Leonard, Jr., Chief of Staff of the Senior Advisor to Mayor Muriel Bowser, directed the Citizen Education Fund PAC at Rainbow/PUSH Coalition during his PhD at Howard University. He claimed that experience showed direct applicability of his graduate research in the Civil Rights Movement to the nonprofit sector. Patricia A. Soler assisted in the founding of the Georgetown University Chapter of Student Veterans of America during her graduate years at Georgetown. She believes her engagement on campus for Veteran Affairs demonstrated her commitment to public service and helped her secure the prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship in 2014.

Be intellectually curious during your graduate years and look for inspiration beyond your dissertation. Search for opportunities on campus to engage with the community and try to apply your academic interests to collaborative projects. The variety of opportunities your institution can offer will surprise you. My institution (Johns Hopkins University) offers curatorial fellowships to graduate students interested in launching a public exhibition in collaboration with the library. In addition to that, my program offers editorial fellowships with Modern Language Notes for students interested in careers in publishing. Moreover, PhD students and postdoctoral fellows from all schools can take professional development courses in Project Management, Marketing, and Communications through the Center for Leadership Education.

6. “The PhD is Part of your Journey” 

Joe Leonard, Jr. stressed this when speaking about his career. He spoke of teaching, both at the high school and college levels, in terms of public service. He believes this training efficiently prepared him for a successful and meaningful career in politics and in the nonprofit sector. Similarly, Raashi Rastogi perceived a direct connection between her doctoral training in Renaissance Literature and her current career in health communications. During her PhD at Northwestern University, she had the chance to teach a course in Medical Humanities. She said that this teaching experience provided her a tangible connection to obtain her job in the healthcare sector. 

In reflecting on this PhD Career Day event, I find it fundamental to remember that the PhD is an essential part of a long professional journey. Although we talk so little about diverse career outcomes, doing a PhD in the humanities not only prepares people for careers both within and beyond academia; it also helps them to succeed in the most diverse fields and professional positions.

While it is always energizing to hear stories of those who launched brilliant and well-paying careers beyond academia, remember that this is not that case for everybody with a PhD. This event thus served as a strong reminder for me that a PhD is not enough to establish a successful career: training and commitment in the form of internships, volunteer activities, and courses are necessary to make the first step into work outside academia. With heavy academic workloads, most PhD students struggle to find the time and intellectual energy to pursue extra-academic experiences without feeling guilty for not dedicating enough time to their dissertation and, most importantly, without extending their time in graduate school.

Advisors and administrators can keep acknowledging that it shouldn’t be solely up to students to get prepared for what awaits them after their PhD. Advisors and other faculty members could start by:

  • Encouraging your students to expand their networks to include people working outside academia. Likewise, encourage them to visit the career center at your school to learn about their options.
  • Connecting your students with PhD alumni to expand their knowledge—and networks. You could then share your own non-academic connections to help your students.
  • Organizing workshops like the one I attended about different career paths that feature your alumni and others working outside academia.
  • Doing whatever you can to connect your students with employers about paid internships, informational interviews, and other opportunities.

Departments should start reflecting on how to efficiently include non-academic training and networking in their graduate programs to prepare their students for a variety of professions and sectors. This objective could only be reached through structural changes at the departmental and graduate school levels. This would help doctoral students in any field be well equipped to respond to the challenges that all job markets face—both those in the academy and beyond.