A Different Doctor: Reimagining the Humanities PhD for a Changing World

This is part of our special feature on Sustainability & Innovation.

This past year, my institution Binghamton University, had the chance to participate in a grand experiment. In August 2017, we were one of twenty-eight schools selected for the Next Generation PhD program, a new initiative from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) which provided more than $1.6 million in total grants to PhD-granting universities across the country.[1] At its core, the grant was designed to help each of our universities dream up (and test out) new forms of doctoral training that could not only prepare our students for a wider range of possible careers, but, as the NEH put it, “both transform the understanding of what it means to be a humanities scholar and promote the integration of the humanities in the public sphere.” While there had been some similar approaches to rethinking these educational models in the past, the Next Gen program introduced two important wrinkles. First, it stressed that internal reforms for doctoral programs are, counter-intuitively, best supported by looking outwards, by connecting graduate students, faculty members, and university staff with partners in the community and in the private sector. Second, it treated the problem of PhD career outcomes as one that can only be solved through collective action. To that end, the NEH pointedly referred to all of the grantees as a “consortium,” a diverse range of individual institutions who, united by the same challenge, could be more than the sum of its parts.

If you look at the list of twenty-five universities who received $25,000 planning grants (including us) and the three schools who received $350,000 implementation grants (Duke University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Delaware), you will see that we were a motley bunch. Some schools had been actively working on these issues for decades, while others (like us) were taking their first serious crack at them. Our group was comprised of geographically and demographically diverse institutions, including a mix of city campuses and rural ones, centuries-old private universities and upstart public colleges, those with graduate enrollments in the thousands and those with just a few dozen current students. Likewise, the people leading the charge at these Next Gen PhD schools occupied very different roles within their own institutions, ranging from high-level administrators (graduate deans, provosts, directors of interdisciplinary humanities institutes) to ground-level practitioners (department chairs, faculty members, graduate students, university staff), each of whom hailed from more than a dozen different disciplines within their home institutions.

With such a big tent, so to speak, there was the danger that we might talk past one another – in other words, that a graduate dean from a University of California campus might not be able to find meaningful common ground with a professor from a seven-student doctoral program in St. Louis. But that was rarely the case. Instead, our Next Gen consortium acted as a gathering place for all the ideas and insights that might have otherwise lived (and died) only in a single department at a single university. Good projects that might have fizzled out in one place could find a new life somewhere else, while smart approaches and innovative practices – shared via monthly webinars or posted to a collaborative website – could spread from program to program. For our part, we tried to embrace this ethos of academic glasnost from the start, treating our own materials – our proposals, meeting notes, internal documents, and project plans – as a public good that needed to be shared with other schools. This was certainly the right choice, though not an easy one. We knew that, more likely than not, we would all be competing against other planning grant recipients for the much larger implementation grant. But we realized early on that zero-sum thinking was a losing position. Our colleagues at other schools would gain nothing from us, and we would lose out on the public exchanges that can transform merely good ideas into great ones. Equally important, we saw, was the message that this openness sent to members of our own institution. Our planning grant was built entirely around internal collaborations: over the course of the year, we had involvement from the chairs of English, Comparative Literature, History, and Philosophy, as well as dozens of other faculty members, graduate students, administrators, alumni, and staff.  How could we hope to preach teamwork inside our university if we did not practice collaboration with those outside its walls?

At Binghamton University, our story is at once common and unique. We see ourselves as a modestly sized public university – we have about 14,000 undergraduates and 3,300 graduate students – that punches above its weight class in terms of both research and teaching, despite the fact that we only officially became a “university” in 1965. Long regarded as the leading liberal arts campus within the State University of New York (SUNY) system, we are located in a small city (or a large town, depending on who you ask) about three hours northwest of New York City, in a rather picturesque but financially depressed corner of the Rust Belt. Currently, we have five humanities departments that offer doctoral degrees – Art History, Comparative Literature, English, History, and Philosophy – and they enroll about 360 students in total. Our students come from all over the country and the world, though the majority of them tend to find jobs either within the state or further afield in the northeast. When our doctoral candidates go on the academic job market, they tend to fare about as well as their peers from similarly ranked programs, whom they also resemble in terms of time-to-degree, debt, and other standard metrics for graduate programs. On paper, I would be tempted to call us “normal,” but there are too many things – our strengths, our weaknesses, our history, our location, our students, our mission – that are categorically different from any other university in the country. We are a strange beast, though a recognizable one.

Our work on the Next Gen planning grant over the past year reinforced this paradoxical sense of similarity and difference with other schools. Though we learned powerful lessons from our colleagues across the consortium, we discovered that we needed to find our own way. It was difficult to observe in real time, but during the first few months of our grant-sponsored work, our thinking about how to tackle the problem before us slowly changed. Our initial proposal to the NEH made a confident pitch about expanding existing professional opportunities and developing new programs for our humanities PhDs, both of which were cornerstones in most other planning grants. We explained our plans to develop (1) internships for doctoral students based on successful undergraduate programs; (2) a mentoring network that would include alumni in non-academic careers; (3) a pilot version of an individual development plan, or IDP, that students could use to set and pursue professional goals; and (4) public forums where we could persuade faculty members to support (or at least accept) a wider array of career outcomes for their graduate students. Agenda in hand, we went into our first full committee meeting raring to go. It was early in September, and our group of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and administrators were excited to get to work on the ambitious plans we had made. But somewhere in that first meeting, though, somebody raised a question that gave us pause: What do our graduate students actually want?

So, we asked. In October, we sent out an online survey to all three-hundred-odd PhD students in our humanities departments. In order to break out of the all-too-common dichotomy between “academic” and “non-academic” – terminology that perpetuates the false belief that moving outside of academia means never using your brain or reading books ever again – we elected to follow the AHA’s lead and call our tool the “PhD Career Diversity Survey.”[2] Designed in-house and built from the ground up, the goal of the survey was to get an accurate reading of ground-level conditions in these departments. Students were invited to respond anonymously to a broad mix of open- and closed-ended questions about their career goals, their needs, their job prospects, their faculty mentors, and other aspects of their department culture. Three weeks and sixty-odd responses later, we had our results.

The survey data, once we sifted through it, yielded some expected results, but also a few surprises. Most of our PhD students wanted a tenure-track job but were willing to entertain other possibilities, too, since they knew the slim odds of succeeding in the academic job market. We were pleasantly surprised to find that most of our respondents said they would be comfortable broaching the matter of non-tenure track employment with their adviser, compared to just a handful who said they would be uncomfortable. Likewise, they knew about career-seeking resources on campus (even though they appeared to use them only rarely and they described having regular (albeit pessimistic) conversations with other PhD students about their professional futures. The longer written comments, in turn, radically expanded our committee’s mental picture of what a “graduate student” looked like. We were helpfully reminded that our student body included working parents, older students, distance learners, and international scholars, as well as people caring for ailing family members, facing serious medical diagnoses, or living on the other side of the country. And if we wanted to serve all of them, we needed to find solutions that could meet them where they are.

Reading across their answers, however, one clear theme emerged: graduate students wanted to explore more varied career paths, but they had no idea where to start, whom to consult, or how to look for jobs. In short, they were motivated, but lost. Less than half of all respondents had worked a full-time job for a year or more before coming to graduate school, and just a quarter reported ever having raised the question of “non-academic careers” with a faculty member. Perhaps the most quietly alarming data point, though, was that only a third of our respondents could identify at a PhD alumni from their department who had gotten a job other than standard research and teaching positions. Even if they were willing to explore other professional trajectories, our doctoral students could only see a black veil in front of them. What they wanted was a guide – or, rather, several guides – who could point them in the right direction. It made sense. Two of the key traits cultivated by doctoral programs in the humanities – intellectual independence and self-directed learning – shape graduate students into excellent autodidacts. Give them some basic tools, a clear task, and a reasonable body of evidence, and they can succeed. Now, we only needed to figure out how to do that in the next six months.

 

The idea came from a visit to the annual MLA conference in early January, where a colleague and I attended a series of workshops and panels organized by Stacy Hartman, the Coordinator of the MLA’s Connected Academic program (and a PhD in German literature). The events – which included, among other things, workshops on developing transferable skills, sessions on building professional networks, panel discussions about graduate seminars, and a meet-and-greet with PhDs happily employed in non-academic careers – were well-attended, and with good reason. They were empowering, exciting, and eminently pragmatic. The graduate students and faculty members who participated always left the room with a renewed sense of purpose and a few more tools in their professional toolbox. As we met and talked with people at these events, it became clear that something important was happening. Students reported feeling relieved, even giddy, to talk openly about other careers without feeling like they were being judged, while faculty members came away with a wealth of ideas for how they might create new graduate courses or workshops that would expand their students’ professional horizons. They were hopeful, and so were we. Our Next Gen working group had spent the previous months struggling to create a meaningful public space in which people in our humanities departments could envision not just a wider array of careers but the pathways that led to them, and it seemed like we had finally seen what that might look like.

Coming away from the MLA convention, we realized that we needed something big, something that would be collaborative and exciting and, most of all, that would imbue our campus with the same energy and enthusiasm that we had just found. We needed to take conversations about PhD careers out of the conference room where our committee met, out of the bar booths and back hallways and closed-door offices where graduate students whispered to one another about alternate careers in hushed tones, and to move this discussion out into the open. So, we pitched a new idea. We would put on a one-day, high-impact event that would pull together a host of experts – alumni, faculty, employers, and other outside experts – who would offer exactly the kind of guidance and skills that, as the survey had shown, our graduate students both needed and wanted. Having seen how well Stacy’s events went at the MLA convention, we would copy them wholesale (“All the best teaching ideas are stolen,” a former mentor once told me) and add a couple more things for good measure. Putting on a conference was a bit of a gamble, and we knew it. We had a little over three months of runway left to come up with a program, invite the speakers, organize the events, and, last but not least, coax graduate students and faculty members into actually showing up. We would be asking people to spend a Saturday on campus at the end of April, right as the semester was wrapping up – and we would be asking graduate students to basically out themselves as being (maybe, potentially) interested in something other than a tenure track career.

But something miraculous happened. As we started reaching out to people about the conference, a few tentative emails and phone calls to possible speakers, they all started saying yes. We reached out to almost twenty recent PhD alumni about participating in our “alumni circulator” – an event where students could have brief conversations with many different alumni who are now working in a range of careers – and they said yes. We reached out to faculty members and university staff to help run workshops, and they said yes. We reached out to the experts we had met at other events and colleagues from the Next Gen consortium, and they said yes. And when we reached out to graduate students, both at Binghamton and at other schools in the region, more than one hundred of them signed up for the conference in a little over a week. It was as if everybody we spoke with had been waiting to be asked – and the alumni most of all. They were brimming with ideas about ways they could contribute because, as many of them put it, they wished that there could have been the same open conversations when they had been students. Even though Binghamton is not a particularly easy destination to reach, they were willing to spend time and money traveling here, all so that they could help current students navigate the trails that they had needed to blaze for themselves.

And so, at the end of April 22, Binghamton University hosted “Dr. Who?: A Careers Conference for Professional Humanists.”[3] Even more than the size of the crowd at the conference – we ended up with close to eighty attendees, participants, and organizers from more than a dozen different institutions – we were struck by the diversity of viewpoints, experiences, and insights that they brought to conversations throughout the day. Our alumni circulator included a National Parks historical site director (Andrea DeKoter, History PhD), a library information systems specialist (Carolyn Fargnoli, English PhD), an attorney specializing in environmental law(Jessica Kyle, Philosophy PhD), a visual resources librarian (Jeannine Keefer, Art History PhD), and – I should disclose – a very talented director of the Council for European Studies (Nicole Shea, Comparative Literature PhD). Our employer panel included a talent recruiter for charter schools (Sarah Ames, Success Academy), a department chair from a small liberal arts school (Douglas Ambrose, Hamilton College), and a vice president from a tech startup (Michelle Paul, Patron Technology). Our workshop leaders included a charismatic English professor from one of our NEH partners (Jenna Lay, from Lehigh University), an experienced PhD career specialist (Mearah Quinn-Brauner, from Northwestern University), and a nationally recognized expert (Stacy Hartman, from MLA Connected Academics), while our keynote (Sidonie Smith, from the University of Michigan) was a former President of the MLA and had written the book – quite literally – on transforming doctoral education in the humanities.[4] And our working theory about our graduate students – that they wanted guides and mentors, as the survey suggested – proved entirely true. For seven hours straight on a sunny Saturday, they asked panelists questions, and participated in workshops, and talked with alumni, and shared their own advice with one another. They learned a lot over the course of the day but, equally important, they learned that they wanted to learn more in the coming weeks, months, and years. When we requested feedback from our graduate student after the event, they described seeing their degrees and their intellectual lives in an entirely new light, as a series of branching paths and new possibilities rather than a grim march towards the doom of the academic job market. Or as one commenter put it, “I really feel better.”

 

No one on our NEH Next Gen PhD Planning Grant Committee (yes, that was the official full title) thinks that a single survey and a one-day conference were a “fix” for the long-term problems with graduate education in the humanities. But they have helped move towards something new. These projects, along with others we began under the grant, are a vital first step for our university in reshaping doctoral programs as sustainable enterprises for the twenty-first century, and even as we build on them here at Binghamton in the coming months and years, we also hope to keep building the partnerships and collaborations that allowed us to do this work in the first place. To that end, I wanted to close by offering – to any graduate students, faculty members, university administrators, PhD alumni, or other interested parties – what I think are the three key lessons that we learned this past year, and that might, I hope, be useful to you as you navigate your own same-but-different path ahead.

  1. Bring alumni back to campus. They are, by far, the best resource that students and faculty have at their disposal for learning about where a PhD from your program can lead. Alumni are not only full of field-tested, evidence-based knowledge about professional preparation but, if our experience is any indication, they are excited to share it with you.
  2. Talk to more people, and listen. As we learned, national trends in your field can help point you in the right direction, but students (and institutions) are idiosyncratic. For faculty and administrators, the more time you spend talking to them and collecting narratives, reflections, and data about their experiences, the more effective you will be. For students, reaching out to supportive faculty, professional mentors, alumni, and university staff will yield new opportunities in spades.
  3. Do what you can, and collaborate often. Doctoral programs in the humanities are complex, multifaceted, and glacial. They are slow to change, but that change can Though we were lucky enough to have a large, grant-funded committee to work on this, often the most meaningful innovations come from small groups or individuals finding new ways to expand the scope of their programs, and then sharing those ideas or tactics with one another. Open, supportive collaboration help to magnify and extend the work that you are doing.

 

Kevin Boettcher is the Research Development Specialist for Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University, where he also serves as a project coordinator for the College’s NEH Next Generation PhD Planning Grant. A writing coach and university instructor for more than a decade, he currently helps faculty and graduate students to craft competitive proposals for grants, fellowships, and other funding opportunities. He holds a PhD in early modern English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

 

References:

[1] For more on the program, see the NEH’s website on the Next Generation PhD Planning Grant. More about this past year’s recipients and their proposals can be found in this press release from the NEH on August 10, 2016.

[2] The American Historical Association’s Career Diversity website can be found at https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/career-diversity-for-historians.

[3] The full conference program can be found at https://www.binghamton.edu/harpur/phd-careers-conference/img/program_phd_careers_conference.pdf. My apologies for the terrible pun in the title, which was originally meant to be used as a placeholder but somehow stuck.

[4] Sidonie Smith, Manifesto for the Humanities: Transforming Doctoral Education in Good Enough Times (Michigan UP, 2015). A digital copy can be found at <http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/dcbooks.13607059.0001.001>

 

 

Published on July 6, 2017.

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