I’ll just say it: the humanities PhD has value beyond the academy
It’s a special kind of irony that people trained to translate stories find it nearly impossible to tell their own stories.
You can argue that academics aren’t the most concise writers. (For the record, neither are lawyers. Neither is the IRS.)
The need for and movement by academics toward clear writing was beautifully illustrated in an October 2015 article in The Atlantic: “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.” Victoria Clayton argues that “needlessly complex writing” “has become something of a protected tradition” in academia.
That said, as a person who faces the digital quill every day of his life, I understand intimately that writing clearly is hard work.
It’s especially tough when one is faced with writing objective about oneself, while simultaneously translating important-but-not-easily-understood experience to an audience that may be predisposed to discounting your experience in less time than it takes to blink.
And hence, the onus is on humanities PhDs, post-docs, and PhD candidates wanting to explore roles beyond the academy to define what they do, even when they may not know what they want to do.
In early 2014, I was invited by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) to speak on translating academic CVs into a corporate résumé format. I had no idea that the event would turn into a multi-year partnership, with funding by the likes of Carnegie Mellon Foundation and the Modern Language Association (MLA).
Over the years, many of my clients—PhDs, JDs, MBAs, and other highly educated professionals with 15-25 years of experience—have lamented a common theme: “If only I’d know this when I was in grad school.”
Now, would they really have schlepped down to the career services office on campus? Would the career services office have been able to help them? We can’t know. But one thing is clear: there comes a point in even the most successful professional’s life when they reach an inflection point and begin to pursue a deep examination of the self.
My work with University of California humanities PhDs, postdocs, and PhD candidates through UCHRI has been both illuminating and fulfilling, because they have the opportunity to launch and grow their careers from Day One.
So what’s the prognosis for the humanities PhD?
It would be irresponsible to lump every person’s circumstance into a single solution. Or even a set of strategies. Life doesn’t happen like that. Personal matters like debt loads, family needs, relationships, geographic preferences, job interests, and even personalities can impact the outcome of a PhD’s career.
But turning my 18-or-so years of experience with executives and senior professionals into solutions for people at the beginnings of their formal careers has brought several high-level needs into focus:
- It’s up to your to identify roles that might be worth pursuing
- It’s up to you to translate, position, and advocate for those jobs
- It’s up to your to develop a job search strategy that transcends the obvious, but lottery-like activity of responding to posted job ads
- It’s up to you to quantify your experience, when you don’t normally even think that way (let alone know how; the struggle is indeed real)
- It’s up to you to start speaking in concrete, solution-oriented terms (much as it might repel you, listen and learn “business speak”)
- Brace yourself; your dissertation may not follow you into the work world, but the skills you gained writing it will
Also, avoid the temptation to think you have it worse than others. Yes, STEM and business and law graduates sometimes have lock-step career steps, growth opportunities, and prospects. But they have their own worries, fears, and decisions, and if they decide to make a career change in ten or twenty years, it’s much harder because they’ve entrenched themselves. So you’re here now. Don’t waste time feeling blue or thinking the grass is greener in MBA land. It’s not. At least it won’t always be.
Instead, invest your time early in productive activities. Think about and translate/write your story in a way that resonates with the people and companies that matter or will matter to you. Find a mentor. Build your network. Your network may be where the most interesting and most valuable roles come from twenty years from now. (I was privileged to co-author “Rapid-fire career development strategies to help you reach the top” with Shauna Bryce, Esq., for the National Association of Women Lawyers Journal. The link will open as a PDF. Yes, you’ll need to translate the ideas for yourself, but flip to page 42 for a bunch of career development ideas.)