It’s well-known that academic jobs are in short supply for humanities PhD graduates right now, but the question ‘what can I do with a PhD in the humanities?’ should have less to do with a lack of academic positions than it should the sheer number of career possibilities. That was the focus of ‘What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?’, a 5-week Graduate College workshop run by Derek Attig that I attended last Spring. The workshop covered advice and resources for finding jobs beyond academia, weekly conversations with humanities PhD graduates working in fields like public radio to environmental advocacy, and self-assessments of values and skills. The self-assessments were particularly illuminating, and they allowed each of us to approach the broader workshop questions with a focus on our own goals and interests.
For me, there were two significant results of this focus. First, the reassurance that in doing my PhD I’m already doing useful work towards a wide variety of careers (and you probably are too). And second, I finished the workshop with a much better idea of what else I could be doing to make it easy to keep my career options open in the future.
I’m sure I’m not the only PhD student to occasionally worry about falling behind my peers in the workplace. So it was a relief to learn just how many transferable skills I’ve gained in the process of my PhD already. In other words, the PhD is work experience. Take, for instance, your field exam, or prelims. On the face of it, nothing could seem more academically-focused. But the exam also demonstrates your ability to quickly learn and distil a large field of knowledge that can be applied widely to other fields. One Illinois alum with a PhD in English found that this very skill helped them land a data science job in DC. To take another example, teaching demonstrates your ability to explain complex ideas to a range of audiences, create engaging presentations, and provide useful feedback. And almost every guest we spoke to told us that their ability to write made them stand out in their post-PhD jobs. Humanities PhDs already have countless skills; the real challenge, I learned, is to tell a different story with them than we’re used to telling.
I also left the workshop with a strategy for adding skills and experiences to those I already have, without taking away important time from dissertation-writing. They are small things, which I enjoy – writing short non-academic pieces like this one, and involvement with the GEO, for instance. Depending on your interests, there are any number of small experiences like these that can help you both explore and prepare for a range jobs. In fact, you might already be doing them. For two of the guest speakers, blogs they began for fun in grad school were surprisingly helpful when it came to finding jobs in communications. The blogs were related to neither their academic work nor the fields they ended up working in – they were about fashion and baseball – but they demonstrated the variety and strength of their writing skills.
With so many options, it can be frankly daunting if you’re not sure what you want to do with your PhD – how do you even begin to narrow down your options? Perhaps this is why, on a recent trip to New Orleans, I gave in to touristic curiosity and had a tarot card reading. When the psychic asked, “What are you going to do after your PhD?” I told him that was the big question. “Well,” he said, gesturing at the cards scattered on the table in front of him, “you could really do anything.” I wasn’t expecting a lot, and it certainly didn’t answer the big question. But then, I didn’t need to go all the way to New Orleans for that anyway. All I needed was the opportunity to take a step back from my research and writing to see it in a new light. That’s what the workshop did for me. And while I haven’t yet answered my big question, I now have the tools and confidence to approach it as an exciting, rather than daunting, prospect.
Alexandra Paterson is a PhD candidate in English. She participated in the What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? group last spring.
This year’s What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? Group starts November 2 and includes a field trip to the University of Illinois Press. Get more information and register online.