A Humanities Careers Timeline for the PhD Student

By Matthew Woodbury, Research Assistant, The Humanities PhD Project

Among her opening remarks at the University of Michigan’s Career Connections Conference, Dr. Fatimah Williams Castro (Founder and CEO of Beyond the Tenure Track) emphasized the importance of preparation and planning to a successful job search. Instead of waiting for the last semester to consider post-graduation options, Dr. Castro encouraged graduate students to take a longer approach.

Universities, especially well-resourced institutions like the University of Michigan, provide a wealth of options for their students. At times, however, this abundance and the demands of the doctorate can feel overwhelming. Where might a humanities graduate student begin? How can one complete degree requirements in a timely manner while preparing for humanities careers inside and outside of the academy? While there is no uniform answer – each student arrives with their own financial, familial, and personal contexts – if I could go back in time and give my earlier self some advice, here is what I might say …


First Year

Adjusting to life in a PhD program, moving to a new city, and meeting colleagues is equal parts exhausting and exciting. A full docket of coursework, language exams, and getting to know the department culture leaves little extra time. This year, try to “double-dip” as much as possible. Enroll in courses that both fulfill requirements and develop skills beyond writing a 20-30 page review essays. Consider, for example, taking a class organized around a project or one that features collaborative work. Think about how cognate courses might establish connections outside of your home department and/or provide experience with new methodologies. See if your interests align with any of Rackham’s certificate programs as a way to document your expertise in a subfield. Since a lot of your time will be in class, Rackham workshops and events or those offered by the university’s career center – often only an hour or two each – are a good way to get started with the nuts and bolts of drafting resumes and CVs, identifying personal strengths, and navigate campus resources.

Questions to consider: What do I find most enjoyable about being in a humanities PhD program? What is most challenging?


Second Year

A lighter courseload can ease demands on your time, but teaching introduces a host of new responsibilities. This year, the challenge will be balancing your remaining seminars and teaching obligations with preparing for prelims. Be intentional about the experience you’re gaining in the classroom. Amidst what can feel like week-to-week survival, consider what elements of instruction (such as syllabus design, working one-on-one with students or in groups, editing student writing, fostering discussions or lecturing) you find energizing or frustrating. Becoming a confident and effective teacher takes time. Being at the front of the classroom, however, is valuable training in facilitation and public speaking while office hours and grading are opportunities to think about mentoring, counselling and advising, and evaluation.

Chairing meetings, organizing speakers, and following budgets are important features of many humanities careers both within and outside the academy. To build these skills during your second year consider joining a department or university committee or help convene a graduate student workshop.

Questions to consider: How do the thrills and challenges of research compare with the ups and downs of teaching? In what instructional situations can I see myself succeeding? What aspects of graduate education have I made the most progress in and which areas should I work on?


Third Year

Preliminary exams are often a source of anxiety. Developing aspects of your professional identity outside of prelims fields can help maintain a sense of personal and academic balance. Since you’re now familiar with the rituals and rhythms of life in the university, look outside the department to find different work environments. Consider how your academic training or personal interests allow you to make contributions in other contexts. Working with a community, campus, or online organization – by being on a board or committee, becoming a contributing writer or reviewer, or helping plan an event – could be a good way to gain experience in a new institutional setting and allow you to see a wider range of forms your interests might take. Prelims reading is also a solitary pursuit so being part of a team or group can be a source of support as you develop your collaborative, administrative, and writing skills.

Questions to consider: What avenues for deploying your expertise (research articles, blogging or op-ed writing, teaching, program management) are compelling? What kind of work structures (team-based, project-focused, organized around ideation or implementation) do you find most energizing?


Fourth Year

You can anticipate spending at least some time away from campus this year as you embark on dissertation fieldwork. Research can be a way to learn about a new place, practice a language, and/or learn from practitioners in your field (at cultural institutions, archives, or conferences) who work in settings different from your own. With coursework wrapped up you’ll still be busy but your time will likely be more flexible. Consider pursuing an opportunity like an internship or a short immersive to learn more about a career. Or, apply for a grant to explore publicly-engaged research. If you’re away from campus, consider attending a conference close to where you’re living as a way to deepen your knowledge of a field, space, or academic culture. Conferences can demand a lot of participants, but they have rewards by providing a wider perspective and an opportunity to meet a lot of people in a short amount of time.

Questions to consider: Now you’ve been in the classroom, advanced to candidacy, and spent time in the field, what are a few career trajectories you see as a good fit for your interests and style of work? What “environmental” elements might be important – do the lights of the big city burn brightly or does a smaller town appeal? How close to you want to be to friends and family?


Fifth Year

Writing demands self-discipline and in the humanities the dissertation is often an individual process. Now toward the tail end of your graduate career (where did the time go!?) it’s useful to revisit some of the questions from your first couple years in the program. What do you like about the PhD? What aspects of teaching, research, administration, and community engagement appeal to you? How do you approach work/life balance? What is a non-negotiable? Keep an eye out for opportunities that sound interesting and with deadlines you can predict. Many faculty jobs, for example, are due in the autumn of each year and programs like the ACLS Public Fellows Competition are usually due in the spring.  Consider ways of consolidating or adding to your existing skills by teaching a course of your own design, attending a digital humanities summer institute, or participating in events like the Institute for Social Change. Other possibilities could be working with students as a teaching consultant, organizing a graduate student conference or panel, or attending a workshop on preparing future faculty.

Questions to consider: What kind of career sounds appealing and why? How might you narrate your trajectory to academic, non-profit, government, or private sector employers? Are there skills or experiences you currently lack that are needed to add to align with your career goals?


Sixth Year

Balancing applications with finishing the dissertation is a hard process that toggles between the particulars of job-specific requirements and macro-level summaries contained in short cover letters or statements. Workshop your applications with a few friends or join a department’s job skills seminar. As painful as it can be other sets of eyes help identify the strengths, weaknesses, and assumptions in your materials. Develop some kind of system or calendar for finding and keeping track of opportunities – so many databases exist that it can get overwhelming – and help manage deadlines. Consider taking advantage of a professional development grant or doing a (free) online course through Lynda to establish or sharpen a skill set.

Funding can get tricky as you progress through the program so in your 6th and subsequent years keep an eye out for opportunities like a research assistantship (GSRA) or staff assistantship (GSSA) that provides a stipend, tuition waiver, and an opportunity to learn about a new type of work and/or field. Finally, be patient with yourself and others – the application process is drawn-out and can be alternately challenging, dispiriting, and surprising. Remember that the PhD provides you with a lot of skills and humanities doctorates go on to do a lot of interesting things!

Questions to consider: How can I present my skills in a way that is legible to employers? Can I tell a narrative about how my interests and experiences brought me to where I am now?


What advice do you have for doctoral students as they go through their programs? Have you heard some good advice or found a helpful way to think about career preparation during the degree?

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