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This article is part of a series documenting the efforts of Rackham graduate programs to reimagine graduate education as student centered and faculty led. In developing the work described in this article, the Department of English Language and Literature partnered with a team of Rackham experts through the Advancing New Directions in Graduate Education initiative. The initiative represents a significant investment by the graduate school to facilitate faculty leadership in rethinking what graduate education looks like at the program level. Its guiding principle is that solutions to the current challenges in graduate education must be worked out by faculty in their own programs and in relation to practices within their own fields.

Amid the declining number of tenure-track faculty positions and the growing interest of doctoral students in pursuing careers outside academia, graduate programs are rethinking how to best prepare students to succeed after attaining their degrees.

Over the past few years, faculty and students in U-M’s Department of English Language and Literature have collaborated to explore innovative professional development opportunities and embed them in the graduate program. Along the way, they have also worked to normalize and build support for the idea of diverse career outcomes for the department’s Ph.D. students. 

These efforts are currently being led by Gaurav Desai, professor and department chair; Associate Professor Aida Levy-Hussen, who served as director of graduate studies from fall 2019 until spring of this year; and Megan Sweeney, the current director of graduate studies and an Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of English, Afroamerican and African studies, and women’s and gender studies.

“I used to hear stories of students having to prepare for alternative careers almost secretly without letting their mentors know, because they were worried that the mentors would not support them,” says Desai. “We are now at a position where everyone is open about the fact that we have to train our students to do all kinds of things and pursue various paths.”

Levy-Hussen agrees. “The faculty has lively conversations about the responsibility we bear to the future of the profession and to envisioning alternative possibilities beyond careers in the professoriate for our students.”

A Student Centered Approach

Rethinking the components of a doctoral program is no small task for such a large department, one with Ph.D. tracks in English language and literature, English and women’s and gender studies, and English and education. The group sought to develop an approach that would leverage the department’s size and internal diversity rather than be hindered by it. To that end, they invited students to nominate or self-nominate possible representatives from each of the three units. Students then voted in representatives who they thought would speak well to their concerns. 

“I used to hear stories of students having to prepare for alternative careers almost secretly without letting their mentors know… We are now at a position where everyone is open about the fact that we have to train our students to do all kinds of things and pursue various paths.” —Department Chair Gaurav Desai

“The representatives would relay communications between our working group and their constituencies on a regular basis,” Levy-Hussen says. “They would do internal polling. They took their responsibility of representing the range of interests and perspectives within their unit very seriously. Their presence was crucial.”

Seeking to build upon and focus efforts that had previously been underway, the group helped to generate changes in curriculum and program structure. This work included implementing a mandatory career reflection statement to help students to think actively about professional trajectories connected to their training (along with consulting Rackham’s coordinator for graduate student career advancement, Kirsten Elling). They led extended conversations about the preliminary exam, resulting in significant reforms to the structure of this evaluative milestone and a set requirement for how many texts students are expected to read as part of the process. And they created a pre-prospectus workshop pilot for Ph.D. students to receive guidance on their dissertation, discussing everything from the purpose and stakes of the project to what an actual dissertation looks like.

“Graduate education has long been approached as learning through osmosis, and we’re trying to change that approach,” Sweeney says. “In one group I led, most of the students had never seen a dissertation. We took a whole session to demystify it, and talk about its parts, its length, what it does, and what it’s for. We’re trying to be much more explicit about how iterative the process of writing a dissertation is, and how things are going to end up on the cutting room floor.”

Funding New Experiences

As part of the campus-wide effort to extend extra funding to doctoral students delayed in their progress due to COVID, the English department decided to get creative: It chose to provide support in the form of internships, offering yearlong, funded internship experiences with institutional partners. Students are matched with an experience that speaks to their research areas and their interests.

Graduate students can initiate and design their own internship experience or work with a list of internship partners, including internal U-M departments and external partners like the Detroit River Story Lab, the Detroit Justice Center, and the Ecology Center. 

A group of people pose for a photo at table with a University Career Center tablecloth; various logos represent internship site partners.

Internships are available with a range of internal and external partners. Ph.D. candidate Sarah Van Cleve (left, back row, second from left) poses with team members from her internship position at the University Career Center.

Ph.D. student Jeremy Glover completed two internships with the University of Michigan Press and served as an assistant editor for the Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. 

“I worked mostly with the acquisitions department but also with marketing and production,” he says. “This gave me a broad overview of the publishing industry, as well as the skills and values needed to turn a book from an idea in an author’s head to an actual physical object. My experience also allowed me to think about scholarship at a more macro level.”

Carlina Duan interned for Michigan Quarterly Review, working as an education coordinator for their literary journal.

“The internship provided an immersive entrance into the worlds of creative writing education and literary arts production,” she says. “It also further fleshed out my understanding of the publishing world and invited me to stitch together my creative and academic identities in a hands-on way.”

Lisa Makman began in 2017 as the department’s first internship director for graduate and undergraduate students. In addition to helping identify site partnerships, Makman designed and facilitates a seminar in collaboration with others on campus to help students get the most out of their internships. 

“The seminar provides a forum for exploring the possibilities of the expanded job market and offers support for students as they acclimate to new work cultures and new forms of work in their internships,” she says. “In the seminar, we frame the students’ internships as opportunities to build skills—such as project management techniques—and to identify the transferable skills they have been developing in their academic work, as well.”

Through the internships, students have the chance to explore a wide range of professions in an experience that is integrated into their graduate program and progress toward degree.

“We have put a lot of effort in the English department over the past few years to rethink graduate education and training,” Desai says. “I think we have a lot to be proud of even though we have a lot of distance still to cover.”

The group agrees that collaboration and student input are key to such efforts.

“The students are leading us,” Sweeney says. “They are doing a really great job of telling us what they need and what makes sense to them. And they have a huge range of desires in terms of what they want to do.”


How Rackham Helps

The group credits Rackham for providing funding to help foster department-level conversations and a model for the academic term internship. In addition, the graduate school connected programs across campus in this work. 

“The cross-departmental conversations that Rackham has been hosting have really allowed us to get an expansive view of what people are doing in other departments, what models they’re using,” says Levy-Hussen. “We studied comp lit’s prelims reform effort as part of our own thinking about prelims. We looked at history’s model for their Reverb Effect podcast. So there was just a lot of information sharing that I don’t think would have happened if Rackham hadn’t self-consciously countered the decentralization of the university.”

“And we’ve learned a lot from American culture about the prospectus writing workshop,” adds Sweeney.