Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Efforts at UVA

This blog post is co-written by Sonali Majumdar and Brandon Walsh as a review of Katina Rogers’ recent book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving In and Beyond the Classroom. This blog is also published on Scholars' Lab page.

What is a humanities PhD good for? Where does it lead? What can it do?

Both of us work with graduate students at UVA to help them answer similar questions for themselves as they prepare for a variety of careers. As students navigate these conversations and the job market, it can be helpful to draw upon the examples of those who have parlayed their humanities Ph.D. into successful careers. Putting the Humanities PhD to work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom, by Katina Rogers and published by Duke University Press in July, offers a range of useful resources for those who advise graduate students as well as a trenchant case for reforming graduate training in the humanities. Throughout the book, Rogers weaves personal narrative and professional advice, drawing upon a wealth of experiences from her career trajectory that has been anything but straightforward. Such is the case for many holding positions like those for which Rogers advocates: the path is rarely clear and often idiosyncratic. Rogers does an excellent job extrapolating from her own experiences to offer advice for others to "find their footing on their own individual paths, wherever those may lead." The book feels intensely personal, but it also shows how institutional practices can help or hinder students as they try to make their own way.

Rogers outlines the value of connecting and applying PhD training in humanities to a wide variety of impactful work in society, both within and beyond academia. First, broader career pathways enable inclusion of students from diverse backgrounds and experiences into PhD programs who can then apply their training in a variety of meaningful and fulfilling careers. On the other side, diverse career outcomes of PhDs underscores the value of humanities training to employers across sectors that may facilitate higher financial investment for humanities training. At UVA, through the PhD Plus program and graduate programs in Scholars’ Lab, we strive to make those connections and translations visible and viable. The work begins by de-centering academia through the use of language like "diverse careers" as opposed to "alt-ac", a term that can imply that such paths are merely secondary options to the otherwise more desirable faculty position. On an institutional level, UVA participates in Council of Graduate Schools’ PhD Career Pathways project to foster transparency of career outcomes and collaborates with departments to develop frameworks of outreach and communication for these outcomes. Further, we highlight the ecosystem of varied positions within academia for PhDs- in administration, graduate professional development, curriculum and instruction design, program development, advancement, among others. As we introduce students to a range of careers, we try to critique the internal prestige economies that might be at work across the academy for those stepping into these positions. 

Rogers posits that institutional commitment towards transparency on PhD careers and programs to support careers and professional development, while essential, are not sufficient for impactful change. Reflection and review of labor practices and academic programs are imperative. Departments should integrate prior experiences and career aspirations of their students to review doctoral program expectations and design flexible educational and labor experiences. Similar to this vision, American Association of Universities announced the PhD Education Initiative, to promote more student-centered doctoral education at AAU universities by making diverse Ph.D. career pathways visible, valued and viable. The initiative provides participating universities the opportunity to collaborate with one or more departmental teams in Humanities and STEM. UVA is one of eight member universities participating in Phase 1 of the program. As part of the program’s goals, English and Religious Studies departments at UVA will examine current practices and implement practices and programs for a student-centered graduate education.

Rogers makes the case for a renewed focus on the professional opportunities currently available to students while also developing new ones. For starters, Rogers argues that higher education should re-invest in the craft of teaching as a meaningful part of their career development and as a viable vocation rather than simply as a source of labor during their degree programs. This investment takes many forms: adequate payment, better attention to teacher training, and also affording it a higher level of prestige that tends to be more associated with scholarship. Doing so would help to address crises of adjunctification in higher education while also connecting these labor practices to meaningful and viable vocations that can await students after their educations conclude. In addition to a renewed commitment to teaching, Rogers recommends expanding experiential learning opportunities beyond teaching, to support professional development for a broad range of careers. At UVA, PhD Plus provides ABDs with the opportunity to pursue an internship with a University office or external partner. 

Rogers frames research, teaching and impact as core values driving PhD training. She highlights that competencies developed during the course of PhD can be applied in diverse careers. We encourage PhD students to identify their defining core values, and engage with additional activities that align with a broad set of values. Further, PhD Plus created six categories of competencies that are valuable for professional success in a wide variety of careers. PhD students can develop one or more competencies by participating in relevant PhD Plus and Scholars’ lab programs. Access to professional development resources and mentors for career support may be a barrier for some students. Resources like Imagine PhD developed by members of Graduate Career Consortium are commendable efforts to advance equity of professional development. Moreover, professional development programs, although beneficial, often require additional investment of students’ time. Rogers suggests that the dissertation provides an avenue to incorporate professional development within academic work. Reimagining the form of the dissertation beyond a protomonograph model will facilitate development of diverse communication skills. Further, public humanities and community-engaged research can facilitate development of skills such as project management, and collaboration that students may not typically develop through individual scholarship. One of the examples Rogers cites from UVA is the Praxis Program, which offers a year-long, project-based introduction to these skills and experiences by way of digital humanities. Programs like these can foster public trust in the value of humanities training and may go a long way in funding advocacy for humanities programs. 

The problems described by Rogers can often feel too large for any one person to take on. It can feel all too easy to think that the ability to make meaningful reform rests with others who possess more power or more prestige. And it can sometimes feel like some aspects of reform like those described above are more worthwhile, carry more prestige than others. But perhaps the most useful thing about Rogers' book is that it offers ways to start making change–right away–no matter your position in the academy. The book makes the case for the work to take place from a number of angles. In an afterword entitled "Ten Ways to Begin" (recently excerpted for a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education), Rogers argues, "whether you are a student, faculty member, or administrator, there are things you can do right now." The task of reforming humanities graduate training for the better is something for us all to take on–students as well as teachers. It's up to all of us, and we all have a role to play. As much as Rogers' book is a call for institutional reform, it is also a call for individual and collective action. As Rogers concludes her book: "The time for change is now. Let's get started." 

Blog Authors

This blog post is co-written by Sonali Majumdar and Brandon Walsh as a review of Katina Rogers’ recent book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving In and Beyond the Classroom

  • Sonali is associate director in the University’s office of graduate and postdoctoral affairs 
  • Brandon is head of student programs in the Scholars’ Lab in the University of Virginia Library


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