Want Another Way to Help Your Graduate Students? Start By Talking About Careers

Joseph Fruscione is currently an editor and writing consultant, as well as Reinvent the PhD’s social media consultant. He has a PhD in English and taught literature, first-year writing, and adaptation studies from 1999-2014—including at Georgetown from 2006–2012. Most recently, he coedited the book Succeeding Outside the Academy with Kelly J. Baker. He’s also series coeditor for Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia, also with the University Press of Kansas.

If you’re a Director of Graduate Studies or another faculty member who works with MA and/or PhD students in the humanities, and if you’re oriented towards solving the “there are no jobs” problem, know this:

Change starts with you.

On Friday, January 26, we had a great workshop on career development and diversity. Our project manager, Lauren Frey, did a great job organizing the workshop. The panelists—our PI Kathryn Temple, Daniel Fisher of the National Humanities Alliance, and MA alum, writing coach, and PhD candidate at CUNY Rob Yates—discussed their work as publicly engaged humanists and gave the students in the audience great advice about diversifying their interests.

The workshop addressed such issues as how we define “humanities values and skills,” as well as how to help administrators understand—and then celebrate—the many successes of PhDs. Temple noted how a part of applying a humanities mindset is unlearning old knowledge and then creating new knowledge.

This unlearning-to-new-learning dynamic also illustrates how we need to keep reevaluating graduate study in the humanities. Frey mentioned a similar change and self-reevaluation in her opening remarks. “When I started working for Connected Academics,” she began, “the first semester of this master’s degree, I was still in the mindset that master’s degrees in English literature were essentially funnels for PhD programs in English literature. I did not see any another option for professionalization, so the pressure was on.” She added:

Part of this discussion is helping to expand the definition of what this training really is both for the MA and PhD. Since becoming more involved in Connected Academics, I’ve found that the master’s is not a funnel for the PhD. Rather it is a sort of flowchart, a training that opens up many pathways—personal and professional—for thinking about career options. If the training equips us with a complex set of skills and ideas, why is it so hard for us to imagine or accept a complex set of outcomes?

This funnel-to-flowchart shift that Frey and I also chatted about before the workshop can be a useful model for humanities graduate programs to rethink their curricula and approaches. It’s no secret that the market for tenure-track jobs in English, history, and other humanities disciplines is brutal. Encouraging students to first prepare for and then seek out multiple career pathways can go far in expanding the engaged and public humanities work for which our ReinventPhD initiative advocates. You could also remind your students that they’re not just learning specific content; they’re also learning transferable skills, processes, and ways of thinking that will help them in a variety of careers.

During and then after the workshop, I shared some ideas on Twitter about what faculty can do to help prepare their students for a variety of careers #WithAPhD. (See the original thread.) In the discussion portion of the workshop, a PhD student raised the question that always comes up when talking about graduate training and contemporary academia: What can grad faculty do? What, she continued, are the department’s and the institution’s responsibilities in educating grad students and then preparing them for a variety of careers?

Yes, it’s tough for faculty who have worked exclusively in academia for years to prepare students to work outside it.

But there are some simple, concrete, and effective things you can do, starting right now.

First and foremost, be supportive and open-minded. Students may have initially wanted to pursue an academic career like yours, but then had second thoughts—and/or wanted more options. Please support this.

I’ve talked before about how change starts first at the individual and then the departmental level. I don’t just mean changes to curricula. I mean changes to mindsets and to how you envision the many things we can do to #ReinventThePhD. There’s nothing wrong with an MA or PhD student who changes their mind mid-course about pursuing an academic career. They might be anxious about telling you, though. Your job is to assuage their anxiety. Be approachable, supportive, and, above all, willing to help.

After you offer personal support, offer practical advice about the options they can pursue: writing, librarianship, editing, consulting, K-12 teaching, and so on. Yes, maybe you’ve never done such work. But, chances are you know people who do. There’s a simple thing that you can do as soon as you finish reading this post: make a list of people you know who are not professors. It could be:

  • a librarian or archivist you’ve worked with,
  • an editor you’ve met at a conference,
  • a grant or proposal writer you’ve worked with,
  • a K-12 teacher,
  • your child’s friend’s parents,
  • someone from the gym or other recreational activity,
  • a neighbor.

Keep thinking about it, and keep adding to your list. You might be surprised by how many people you know outside academia.

Essentially, you can do a little research on your own network, make a list, and be prepared to share it with MA or PhD students who are interested in work outside academia. If nothing else, this will help your students expand the networks that they’ll need regardless of what career paths they find themselves on. Try to imagine yourself as an MA or PhD student facing an uncertain, gig-heavy job market: having access to a large, diverse network would help you a lot. In addition to making your own list, encourage your colleagues to do the same. You could even start a shared spreadsheet listing the person’s name, profession, and point of contact at your institution. Collectively, you know a lot of people. Use this vast network to help your students. Just imagine how big and helpful such a list would be if faculty in other programs contributed to it—or, at least, shared it with their students. Yes, some faculty will brush you off and even resist this change. But you owe it to your students to try.

While making your list, take this advice from Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood: “Once a month, meet with someone on the campus who works in a nonfaculty role. Start by taking the office administrator of your own department out to lunch or coffee. Then, broaden your reach to other offices.” This would further help your graduate students both know who else works at your institution and, if necessary, who they can seek out for informational interviews. Add these people to your list.

I want to come back to what Frey said when introducing the panel: “It’s not always easy to talk about this in terms of our future lives, careers, incomes, and even our future selves. Indeed, often we have the conversation about diverse careers and public engagement only in response to the problem with the academic job market, that there are very few tenure-track jobs available,” she noted. Moreover,

Even though as humanists we are trained in nuance and empathy and complexity, we have a very hard time applying those values to our own lives and narratives in academia in a social and cultural sense. The work of rethinking valuable career outcomes is not only our responsibility as students; it’s also a responsibility that belongs to the institutions that train us.

Communication is crucial. Be open to your students’ ideas or requests for, say, a workshop on writing resumes, working as a librarian, or getting a job in university administration. A graduate student I know from Duke has talked often about how important this open communication is. Give your students regular chances to ask: What’s working? What’s not? What can you add? Be receptive to their suggestions.

Yes, you can’t get permanent, full-time jobs for all of your students and fix the job market. But you can support your students by:

  • sharing your expertise,
  • introducing them to the experts from other industries and professions,
  • visibly supporting diverse career choices,
  • reminding them that their degree isn’t a funnel to one thing but a flowchart to several interconnected ones, and
  • supporting them however they need your support.

Remember: change starts with you.