From PhD to Public Humanities

By Joe Cialdella, Program Officer at the Michigan Humanities Council. Dr. Cialdella received his PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 2015.

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t enter graduate school with the single goal of becoming a tenure track professor. It was not only the scarcity of academic jobs that led me to pursue a nonacademic position, but also a strong affinity for the public dimensions of scholarship and humanities work that led me to explore broader options almost from the beginning of my time as a graduate student in the Department of American Culture at UM.  I also had a desire to be involved with a wider variety of projects and tasks as a part of my work life, not only research and teaching. While it was sometimes difficult to be in spaces overwhelmingly focused on professional development for tenure-track academic positions, I participated in a variety of experiences in graduate school that helped me arrive in my current position as a program officer at the Michigan Humanities Council and in the field of public humanities. Going into my third year at MHC, I can say it has proved to be incredibly rewarding and meaningful because of the way the position uses skills and knowledge I developed as a humanities PhD student while also providing opportunities for learning and new experiences.

For those who may not know, every state and U.S. territory has a humanities council. The councils are nonprofit organizations funded primarily by the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as private donations and support. They typically make grants to cultural organizations and develop and run their own programming, as is the case in Michigan. Our professional and advocacy organization is the Federation of State Humanities Councils, which is a great resource for learning more about what the councils do.

Dr. Joe Cialdella

My primary responsibility at MHC is running the Heritage Grants Program, which awards funding to cultural organizations across Michigan for projects that explore topics at the intersection of race, ethnicity, and cultural identity from historical perspectives. These take the form of exhibits, oral histories, community dialogues, and youth programs, among other formats. I do everything from reviewing proposals and running grant review meetings to organizing workshops and writing blog posts, as well as other tasks. Because MHC partners with and funds organizations that range from grassroots groups to universities, it’s exciting to be involved with people who approach the humanities from a wide range of institutional contexts. In fact, I have found this really suits my personality because it allows me to look at the field broadly and keep a foot in multiple worlds – such as museums, higher education, and public history. It has also been rewarding to build partnerships and get to know individuals and organizations across the state that are passionate about the role history and the humanities can have in transforming and affirming communities that are often marginalized or have not been able to share their voices.  One of the most valuable insights I’ve gained from my time at MHC is how relevant the humanities are to people outside of the academy looking to engage with the social, cultural, and civic life of the places where they live. At the same time, it has also been humbling to understand how much work there is still to do to ensure more people have access to the resources and tools to understand and engage with the humanities.

The work I do at MHC builds on some of the skills and knowledge I learned by default in graduate school. For example, assisting applicants with developing their proposals uses the teaching and mentoring skills I learned as an instructor. Evaluating the content of proposals uses my general knowledge of history, but more often the research skills to efficiently come up to speed on a particular topic to know what the key issues are and where there may be gaps or areas that need improvement. One of my favorite parts of my job is that I get to read and learn about exciting new projects and topics on a regular basis.

During my doctoral education, I picked up other skills and experiences more voluntarily. Participating in a summer project through the Arts of Citizenship Program (now the Rackham Program in Public Scholarship) was instrumental providing me with project management experience (organizing multiple tasks on schedule, communicating with project partners, creating and administering budgets) and on the ground participation in a public history project with multiple constituents that I was then able to include on my resume and discuss in detail during my interview. Similarly, during my second year in graduate school, I enrolled in the Museum Studies Program which provided me with a deep level of engagement with organizations outside the academy where academic knowledge was valued and sought. Through course work, site visits, and an internship, I developed the ability to speak and write effectively about issues affecting cultural organizations in cover letters and interviews, and also gained invaluable knowledge and professional connections that I continue to use in my work on a regular basis today.

While a humanities PhD can be an advantage in working at a state humanities council, I also found it critically important in my nonacademic job search to have experiences outside my research and dissertation that I could point to that demonstrate my skills, experience, and commitment to the field outside of my own research interests. Had I relied on my PhD alone, I would have had a much more difficult time making the case that I was a strong fit for the responsibilities of my position with a PhD alone. The skills and rigor of doctoral education in the humanities can serve wider audiences and benefit the publics outside the academy, if we are willing to make time and space to adapt our skills and knowledge to new contexts outside the traditional graduate seminar.

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