Humanities Training, Leadership Skills, and International Development Work

By Meg Ahern, gender specialist at the Global Partnership for Education at the World Bank. Dr. Ahern completed her joint PhD in Women’s Studies & English in 2012.

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Dr. Meg Ahern

When I was at Rackham, I never attended any alternative career panels – I was in full academia-or-bust mode.  Upon graduating, I had the incredible luck to get the research-only postdoc of my dreams at the University of Chicago, working with a team of amazing scholars on the exact topic I thought I wanted to write a book on.  Then, midway through, some troubling events in my life made me think in new ways about how I most wanted to spend my remaining days (since no one gets an unlimited number).  I’d been involved in international development in college and during summers in graduate school, and I felt an irresistible pull to contribute more to this field with my career.  So when I wrapped up my postdoc in 2014, I moved to Washington, DC, and have been astonished – astonished – at how readily my doctoral training has translated to the work I do here.

While I’ve also consulted for UNICEF and the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative, I’ve spent most of my time at the Global Partnership for Education at the World Bank.  GPE is a partnership among international donors, NGOs, and the governments of 65 developing countries, aimed at providing better and more equal educational opportunities for children in these countries, mostly through equipping governments to develop and implement more effective sector plans to reach their own goals.  Here I work on the Strategy, Policy, and Performance team, where I’ve been concentrating mainly on advancing gender equality in and through education systems.

The analytical skills I honed in graduate school, particularly the humanist training in analyzing complex patterns and contradictions to create a synthesizing interpretation, have been exactly what I need in a variety of international development settings.  For example, I’ve applied them to:

  • Analyze a wide range of statements from UN agencies, NGOs, and other partners and distill the ten core principles that can define a new coalition aimed at improving coordination between humanitarian and development actors in emergencies and protracted crises
  • Advise leaders on key directions for GPE’s new strategic plan, in areas such as gender equality and children with disabilities, based on what we heard in thematic consultations with a wide range of partners
  • Advise a $40bn foundation on where the future is for advancing gender equality in education in developing countries, and where the best opportunities are for them to make a unique impact

I’ve also brought the feminist training I received in my Women’s Studies joint PhD at Michigan to bear on the work I do at GPE.  For example, when I got the chance to co-author our first gender equality policy earlier this year, I made sure to write in language that would enshrine intersectionality as a key principle in our gender equality work, so that we are looking at all of the different ways that children can be marginalized, in each specific context, as we work for greater equality for all.

In addition, I’m continually struck by how the vast majority of the *extremely* valuable leadership skills – and other essential people skills – that I now benefit from using in the workplace I got from teaching college students.  Running a classroom is an outstanding training ground for crucial skills like these:

  • Conveying new concepts to others
  • Adapting a message to different audiences
  • Engaging a room – public speaking that energizes rather than bores others
  • Empowering others and building their skill sets along with their self-reliance
  • Giving clear, constructive criticism while remaining kind and approachable
  • Leading a team in a way that allows the stars to shine while offering compassion and assistance to those who are struggling

As many others have observed, skills like these are critical but relatively rare in most workplaces.

Last but not least, most organizations need good writing – in fact, this is why I was originally hired at GPE.  I started out helping an expert in learning assessment develop a concept note for a new global initiative – working on the argument, synthesizing inputs from colleagues, etc.  And I still chuckle at how often I feel like I’m back in Angell Hall as I continue to meet with co-workers to coach them on their writing: how to improve their results report chapter, how to write a policy brief, etc.

A few months ago, someone from Rackham asked me how I’d suggest that humanities doctoral education could be changed to make it more applicable in the broader world.  My response was emphatic: nothing needs to be changed except humanists’ self-regard!  Academics – but especially humanists – have lamentably low self-esteem when it comes to how their skills translate to the world beyond academia.  You have no idea how useful you are.  Besides, a major difference between academics and non-academics when it comes to hiring is that the former are focused almost exclusively on content credentials (what was your dissertation on, where have you published?) while the latter are concerned primarily with skills (what can you do for us, and how can you help us get from A to B?)  This is how humanists end up thinking that libraries or academic publishing are the only other industries they’d be qualified to work in.  But if you are a humanist, you probably already have in spades the very kinds of analytical, leadership, and communication skills that will make you supremely useful in almost any arena.

So you can do anything you want – now what?  Others have written more and better on this, but I’ll just leave you with a couple of basic thoughts on how you might find your path, if you’re curious about the world beyond the academy.  First, you’ve tossed out the idea that you need to figure out what short, narrow list of industries are thought to hire humanities PhDs like you, right?  Okay, good.  All kinds of industries need people playing many different kinds of roles within them, so don’t constrain yourself there.  In contemplating what industry you might want to get into, consider instead what cause or field you most want to contribute to during your lifetime – as well as quality-of-life factors such as what parts of the country/world you want to live in, what the reputation of that industry is for having nice people and decent hours, etc.  If your main concern about leaving academia is anxiety over tenure being off the table, I’m going to ask you to drop that now as well.  For one thing, federal jobs can have comparable security; but more broadly, you will always have career security when you have valuable skills – which you do.

The other major question for you to contemplate is what kind of role within your chosen industry (or across several over a career) you’d be happiest in day to day.  This is where you’re going to want to think about what activities you enjoy most, in what kinds of settings, and with what kinds of applications.  For example, if you love teaching and empowering others, you might want to work in the organizational learning arm of a large organization, designing and running trainings, running communities of practice, and/or helping the organization as a whole to collect its own knowledge, learn, and evolve.  If you love strategic thinking in a complex relational setting, you might want to work in strategy and/or partnerships, helping your organization to think about where it wants to go, how best to get there, and how to negotiate successful interfaces with partners that can advance both parties’ shared interests while protecting their unique principles.  Or if you love researching and analyzing issues, trends, and best practices, and writing papers about what you learn, you might want to work in a research and/or policy position in an organization.

If you’re interested in exploring this for yourself, you’re in for a treat!  You’re likely to discover many striking perks (if you pick the right job) – from living where you want, to getting your weekends and evenings back, along with much better pay, to entering a magical new world in which your emails are often answered within the hour rather than within the month.  But what dwarfs all of these side benefits is the opportunity to spend your remaining time contributing to whatever matters most to you, in whatever role and setting makes you the happiest.  Enjoy!

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