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Home » Discover Rackham » Career Clarity in the Humanities: Unsolicited Advice and Commiseration for My Fellow Graduate Students

A little while before I started writing this blog post, I decided to get real with my Facebook friends. I asked them:

Bonnie's Facebook status reads: I've been thinking a lot about my career choices (or in some cases career accidents?) lately, and I'm wondering how others my age feel. So this one especially goes out to millennials: do you love your job? Does it matter that your do or don't? What are your thoughts on the idea of the

Yes, I too have participated in the existential hand-wringing that has become so central to the experience of the humanities doctoral student. These questions posed to my Facebook community came about at the end of a long year wherein I, like many people who are writing their dissertation, fell prey to struggles with motivation. What was I doing this for? I knew with relative certainty at the beginning of my degree that I didn’t want to go into a tenure track position, and my motivation at the time was that I wanted to be able to write–to be able to engage a wider audience with a topic that I care a lot about.

Now, while the embers of that passion are only just glowing, I have been focusing on the end game: what comes next? How will I support my family while hopefully, maybe (I realize how profoundly privileged I am to even be able to consider this) being challenged by or finding some meaning in my work?

My friends had some truly humbling responses to my questions. Only two out of 16 said that they remained committed to pursuing the idea of a dream job. While I realize this isn’t exactly a scientific study (Hello STEM fields & social sciences peeps!), it did do this for me: I realized that I’m not an exception, that my thoughts idealizing a bread and butter career are not singular. It seems like a good portion of my generation has experienced a fall from the idealism of our upbringing, echoing the familiar sentiments of our thrifty, practical grandparents who sought useful skills and stable work above following our “passion.”

But, I haven't given up on the idea of cultivating interest and skill into passion once my career is locked and loaded. And, in spite of all the uncertainty, I still remain committed to the value of a humanities education. For although my now quelled grumpiness (too euphemistic? Ok, how about deep anxiety) about my career prospects has not been exceptional, my experience within institutions of higher learning have been. Over the past year or so I have heeded my anxiety’s little voice and sought resources that could help me start working towards my “next steps.” (Note: this is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of post–truly, I was fighting my way through understanding a really tough situation, and I had to ask for a lot of help from some amazing people along the way).

Part of what helped me gain so much clarity was that I spent the better part of a year attending events and programs in Rackham humanities to help me professionalize and gain career clarity. Now, in my experience, “professionalization” or professional development, the kinds of skills that can help you interview, craft a CV or resume, make connections between your experience and the required skills for a job, and networking are not something guaranteed to any doctoral student, regardless of their career intentions. Most graduate students are on their own for professional development, and the process is anything but centralized. Rackham is in a really unique position to offer support and provide space to think about developing your career.

So what exactly is Rackham? It's a rare bird. It’s a graduate school, so a big piece of its pie chart is paperwork and policies. But Rackham also supports students by providing funding and through sustained programming designed to help students professionalize.

My introduction to Rackham started with “What Now?” for humanities Ph.Ds. in 2013, and that event followed by 6 months of attending Rackham professional development events in 2015 have helped me understand that I possess a wide array of skills already and provided me with opportunities to apply and enhance those skills.

So, here’s the timeline of what I attended:

  • May-August 2015: The Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship at Rackham’s Development and Alumni Relations gave me on-the-job experience and a chance to apply skills I had used to research and write in service of a cause I care about.
  • May 2015: The Mellon Public Humanities Immersive with Innovative Library Services at Oregon State University gave me the opportunity to learn about a field I had no experience in.
  • September 2015: Although I have no plans to pursue a tenure track position, I got some amazing feedback on my CV and resume at Preparing Future Faculty. Because the sessions are highly customizable, this mini-conference would be amazing for anyone considering a teaching position or someone already on the market who needs feedback.
  • October 2015: The “Grand Challenges and/in Graduate Education” lecture by Dr. Bethany Nowviskie was a fascinating theorization of the future of graduate education. Not only was it encouraging to hear alternative approaches to graduate education be considered so seriously, it was amazing that my graduate school made the space for a conversation like this to happen.
  • November 2015: “Careers for Ph.D.s in the Humanities” was an inaugural event that provided a space for career exploration as well as informal opportunities to talk to people with Ph.D.s who are already entrenched in “alternate” academic careers. This would be great for someone still in the early stages of deciding what they want to do with their Ph.D. or for someone ready to make connections on the job market.

These and similar opportunities will be available in the future through Rackham (and partnering organizations like the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning). What have I gained from attending these events? Probably the most life-changing is realizing that I actually have built some pretty rad skills over the past several years, and I can now explain that to potential employers. Humanities students are trained in knowledge, and so we grow to believe that we have neglected any applicable “skills” as we have tried to craft ourselves into experts in a field of study. “What Now?” (coming again in May of 2016–look for more info about how to register at the end of February) was really what enabled me to name and communicate my skills most effectively and will be great for anyone still in the exploratory and planning phases of career building.

I want to emphasize, by the way, you are completely justified spending your “grad school” time on professionalizing–you already spend time writing proposals, attending conferences, reaching out to other scholars. Building a secure, rewarding future is literally what you’re here to do, so begone feelings of guilt. You owe this to yourself.

I encourage you to start as soon as possible on your journey towards professionalization. You’re definitely getting a world-class education at the University of Michigan. You’re learning deeply about your field and creating new knowledge within it. But that’s not all there is to having a successful career, and not all departments are prepared to arm you with professional development, whether you definitely want a tenure track position, definitely don’t, or are absolutely uncertain. And any or all of these are legitimate approaches to pursuing your career–and you’re not alone if you feel lost. We’ve put ourselves in a complicated situation by pursuing knowledge to this degree (get it?! Feeling despair? Anxiety? Fear not, Bonnie will heal you with puns!) But seriously, know that there are tons of communities and resources around campus to help you figure out what to do with your degree while you’re still in the safety net. Engage them!