To a Revolutionary Degree

Power to the PhDs

Dear PhDs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences,

The catastrophic state of early career employment in faculty roles for PhDs is nothing less than a moral issue that must be addressed with some major changes that we, as PhDs, must work to effect. These changes must prepare PhDs for work broadly conceived, rather than hewing to the current narrow idea of what constitutes a job appropriate for a PhD.

What I have in mind is the way PhDs can cultivate the humanities through a wide variety of work lives. To set the stage for this outcome, we will need to make an effort to change our rhetoric and thereby our thinking about this topic; to act with intentionality; and to build community around our diverse humanistic goals. This will result in gainful and satisfying work for humanities PhDs and a flourishing of humanistic approaches in a variety of fields of work.

The humanities have taught us that the way we talk about things matters. We must be alert to the language we use that reinforces a limited view of the work lives of PhDs. For example, we must strive to eliminate from our vocabulary ideas and language that label certain livelihoods of humanities PhDs as aberrant. This includes the language of “alt-ac,” “other careers,” “leaving the field,” and, of course, the use of “job” only to mean a tenurable faculty post. This language, revealing an element of narrowness of thinking in our PhD culture, diminishes the strength of the humanities. It must be replaced by empowering, community-building language.

How to do this? To start: refer to any career that a PhD holds as a PhD career. Period. That solves a lot of problems. People with PhDs in Anthropology or Classics who work at banks must say without second thought: “We are anthropologists” or ”We are classicists.” No more “I used to be an anthropologist, but now I work outside the field.”

You can start to see the ramifications of this inclusivity. This expansive thinking is a way to reimagine the relationship of academic fields to the world and will lead to the growth of the humanities rather than the contraction and austerity we are seeing now within the university. Taking visible and continual steps to reconnect PhDs to a world from which they feel alienated is something that is being done right now by some, but something we all need to do.

Let me introduce a couple of terms that we might use when talking about PhD careers.

The first is intentionality. It is the essence of what PhD education has beaten out of its subjects. In the business world — and sometimes in the world of the academy — the intentionality I describe is called entrepreneurialism. PhDs are full of initiative. Each PhD went to graduate school and finished the degree because they were on a mission with one dissertation-length final objective. The broader vision behind that mission is often lost during graduate training if it is aimed monoscopically at the goal of the professoriate rather than the unique goals of each person. And here I am not preaching solipsism. I mean goals for a larger good. Someone other than the PhD must benefit as well.

This is what I ask every humanities PhD to consider. What issue matters most to you? What do you care about? Whom do you want to help? Who are your people? What do you want to do for people?

These questions and other follow-up questions I ask are paraphrases of something I heard Shashi Buluswar, a PhD and CEO of the Institute of Transformative Technology, say at a Beyond Academia conference here in Berkeley: You all are PhDs, this is a privilege. Really. You should not be thinking, what job can I get? You should be thinking,what can I do to change the world for the better?

When I have asked humanities PhDs why they went to graduate school, very few have said they did so with the professoriate as their goal. This understanding has given me great hope for the PhD going forward, but has also made me realize how many ways we are training students to suppress the personal intentions they had entering graduate school.

Figuring out your goals and how they align with near-term and long-term gainful work is the first step on the way to satisfying work over an entire lifetime. This work must not only take place within the confines of the campus. It must happen outside the campus with an eye to leveling the walls that too often divide the academic world from the rest of the world.

The second concept we need is community building. This is networking motivated by the intentionality I mentioned above. Networking is how the vast majority of jobs are found and how the vast majority of new PhD jobs will be created. As networking is the sine qua non of employment, so community building is the sine qua non of humanities work in the world.

Now it is time to practice intentionality and community building.

You can talk to PhDs like me about what the next step is. I will tell you that you need to get in touch with the reasons you did all of this in the first place and the vision that you have, what your skills and competencies are, and how you read to others. Yes, some people see you as “being a college professor.” This just means they think you are awfully smart. We’ll have to push past that into a realm of greater clarity.

Next, you must find that community to which you want to connect. When you have asked who your people are, you need to find those people. You can ask friends and family to connect you to someone they know in a particular field of work. Even better, just send that person an email and ask for a brief chat, for advice. I know it is hard for many people to send an email to someone they don’t know, but you will actually be doing something nice for them. In my experience, the vast majority of people like to help and give advice.

As you move forward down this path, please realize that jobs must be viewed not as ends but as means to accomplish what you are intent on doing. Right now, you can start pursuing your goals, gaining skills and experiences wherever someone will let you within your current institution and outside of it. View every opportunity that falls into your lap with an eye to having it help you get where you are going.

While we are on the topic of working, a few words about adjuncting: Do all of the above with an eye to kicking the unhealthy habit of biding your time waiting for a secure faculty job to materialize. This habit runs contrary to every form of empowerment.

In the same way that each PhD has a way forward that is uniquely their own, each campus is going to need to come up with its own solution that works with its culture to help PhDs. That solution must involve the same elements: replacing limiting and othering language with community-building language; identification of vision and competency beyond content areas; professional development in the form of connecting PhDs to broad professional communities; and relevant externship, internship, and fellowship experience during graduate school.

This is all doable, and more than that it is morally incumbent upon us to do it for our PhD community. The best part is that not one element of this is too hard to do. We need only to take action and make these changes. This is how we will look out for ourselves and one another going forward. We need to cultivate PhD careers in the not-for-profit sector, public sector, and private sector. This is how the PhD will become a degree for the future rather than merely an artifact of days gone by.

With best wishes always,

John Paulas, PhD

John Paulas works at UC Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities and is a member of the advisory board of Beyond Academia, a Berkeley student-led not-for-profit that empowers PhDs to explore careers. He organizes and participates in activities based on the principles above.

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