My Advice to PhDs in the Humanities

Wednesday, November 24, 2010
Last week I was invited by the Career Services office at Rutgers University to be part of a panel speaking to humanities PhD candidates about careers outside of academia. I was at the receiving end of a similar panel discussion many years ago, when my PhD degree was new, so I was happy to pay back the debt I owed. I’ll give you the gist of what I said last week.

Your career will change many times during your working lifetime, and you will find ways to pursue interests you don’t expect to pursue. You also will find the need to develop new abilities and use abilities you don’t realize you have. But your immediate need is to find a job that matches the interests and abilities that you can identify now. You should start by clarifying these interests and abilities.

The panelists I listened to when I was a new PhD referred to a career-development book that helped me but that now is definitely showing its age. I’d rather you buy my books, but I’ll explain to you what specific career-development exercise in that book helped me. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. In the leftmost column, write the names of some jobs you have held or work-relevant accomplishments. In my case, I had done some college teaching and had written my dissertation. In the middle column, write the major tasks that you did in these jobs. Regarding the dissertation, I mentioned settling on a topic, identifying research resources, taking notes on research, organizing the notes, organizing what I wanted to write, and so forth. In the rightmost column, identify the skills you used to accomplish these tasks. Then notice which skills turn up most often and decide which you enjoyed using most. That should point toward your goals for your next job.

In my case, I realized for the first time that teaching did not satisfy me as much as researching and writing. That became my job target. At this time, my wife was working at Educational Testing Service and was passing on to me the job postings that she considered relevant to my background. I rejected two of these because they didn’t fit this new career goal, but the third was for a job researching and writing about careers for the SIGI computer-based career information system. I’ve been doing variations on this job ever since.

However, I’ve had to develop many new skills along the way. One of these is working with technology. In the early days of the SIGI system, we typed up information and handed the paper to the person who operated the ridiculously complex mainframe text-entry program. After a couple of years, I was given the responsibility of developing a database about college majors and learned a crude text-editing program. But the technical specifications for the database kept changing, and I needed an efficient way to be able to manipulate the text to match. My boss convinced me to take a computer-based course in BASIC to learn the skills to do this. Several years later I took three one-day courses, paid for by ETS, to learn Microsoft Access, a skill I still use almost every workday. I taught myself Excel from a manual.

I had struggled with math in high school and had avoided it in college, so I had assumed I’d never find a workplace use for my interest in technology. But now I was able to find an outlet for this interest and develop the appropriate skills. I’ve also needed to develop my writing skills in ways that I didn’t expect. Writing the narrative screens (as opposed to career information) to develop the SIGI PLUS system, I had to find ways to get my points across and extract input from users in an interactive format with highly limited space. Once ETS decided to get out of the career development business, I had to learn a different style to write books for JIST, my current employer. Actually, writing for JIST demands not one style but several. My recent book 2011 Career Plan called for a pushy style quite different from what I’d used previously, and I needed to use a simplified style for the Quick Green Jobs Guide and other booklets in that series.

As a JIST author, I also have needed to develop skills related to promoting my writing, such as the ability to make a good impression in a television interview.

Our economy does not have many obvious career paths for humanities PhDs, or in some cases the obvious careers don’t have a good outlook. When you look for work, it probably will help you to think not in terms of occupations but in terms of skills you want to use. I was not looking for “career information developer” as a job, and I would have missed the opportunity at ETS if I had confined my job-hunting to the obvious research-and-writing occupations such as journalist. You can increase your options if you avoid stereotyping yourself with a pat occupational label.

Because your career path is not obvious, your career is going to have many ups and downs. When you encounter adversity, don’t lose faith in your long-term prospects. When I was downsized from ETS, my 16-year-old daughter said to me, “Think of this as an adventure, Dad.” And it does help to put your career downturns into the larger context of the narrative arc of your life. Think of your immediate career difficulties as a plot complication and not as a tragic denouement.

The other really important lesson to take away is the importance of networking for finding jobs. Although I found my job at ETS through a job posting, this is no longer the most effective method. I found my job at JIST through networking with a JIST author whom I knew from a professional association. I started as a consultant, preparing the data-intense content for books, and I gradually increased the amount of prose I wrote and the number of hours I worked for JIST.

In my panel presentation at Rutgers, I discussed networking at greater length, but I’m not going to discuss that here because it would duplicate other blog entries.

My story was not greatly different from what the other panelists had to say. Although the specifics of their careers differed from mine, we all pursued new interests and developed new skills over the course of our careers, and we got hired for almost all of our jobs through networking. Humanities PhDs have tremendous potential for rewarding careers if they are willing to do the work (which never ends) of discovering and fulfilling their potential.


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