Fall 2019

Humanities Rx

Holding Open a Space for the Millennial Humanities Doctoral Student

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what student-centered graduate education would look like. But before we can figure that out, we need to ask, Who are those students?

Let’s Talk about Students

When we talk about graduate education, we’re not always talking about graduate students. We may be talking about our careers and legacies as faculty members, the health and reputations of our PhD programs, or the future of our respective disciplines. When we do reference graduate students as an aggregate, there’s often an underlying assumption that the motives, values, and desires of our doctoral students have remained stable over time. As the tenure-track job market has eroded in the last decade-plus, something more worrisome is creeping in: a greater tendency to view these students not merely as static but also as victimized and powerless.

At this moment, the most important and necessary thing to do is to support our graduate students in becoming agents of their own academic and professional trajectories. At institutions across the country, dedicated faculty members, members of staff, and senior administrators have worked diligently to develop resources that empower graduate students. As a result, doctoral students now can tap a slew of resources on campus and beyond their institutions (especially online). These resources have made a discernible impact on the quality of training for many students. And, yet, change has proved incremental and uneven. Too many of these enhancements—let’s call them the “more and better”—sit at the periphery of doctoral training, beyond the core formation that happens within PhD programs themselves.

At this moment, the most important and necessary thing to do is to support our graduate students in becoming agents of their own academic and professional trajectories.

My position at Duke University—for which a key responsibility is advising humanities doctoral students as a complementary PhD adviser—is an important innovation toward career diversity in the humanities. (A critical point: my definition of career diversity includes a greater diversity of faculty positions beyond the research-intensive jobs for which too many doctoral students are exclusively trained.)

Well before students begin looking for jobs, in my role as the director of graduate student advising and engagement I also provide academic and professional mentoring for students who seek academically informed perspectives (in my case, the perspective of a scholar, former humanities center director, and former tenured faculty member) throughout their PhD training. I have helped many students with both academic and nonacademic job searches; but I also work with students who are still completing coursework, to help them identify and leverage appropriate extradepartmental opportunities at Duke and beyond.

Since starting my position in 2016, I have realized that I’d been carrying around certain assumptions and stereotypes about doctoral students—specifically, that my advisees were mostly in their twenties, that academia was all most of them knew, and that I’d find a high proportion of bookish introverts (in other words, graduate student versions of myself). Growing into my role as an adviser has required me to be, among other things, more attentive to the broad range of students within our PhD program cohorts.

Even in a demographic noted for its relative lack of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity, the diversity among humanities students is staggering. I’ve interacted regularly with approximately two hundred humanities doctoral students over three years (out of a population of just over four hundred), and they are remarkably diverse. They range in age from twenty-two to beyond forty and include mothers and fathers, international students, first-generation students, people of color, LGBTQ students, veterans, the disabled, the formerly undocumented, Marxists, atheists, Buddhists, and evangelical Christians. Many are just scraping by, some are getting financial help from parents and partners, and a few are independently wealthy. Many speak three or more languages (fluently). A few are working on a second PhD; others picked up degrees in law or engineering or medicine on their way to advanced humanities study. Our students include former middle and secondary school teachers, and others have significant prior career experience outside the academy.

If there’s any generalization helpful in understanding the current population of humanities doctoral students, it’s that most of them are millennials. Technology plays a large role in their lives, and many are keen to deploy technology in ways that serve their scholarship, teaching, and other professional interests. They enjoy and benefit from collaborative work (when provided the encouragement and opportunity to engage in that work). And in general, the advisees I work with care greatly for work-life balance and seem far less willing to place everything on the altar of an academic career. I’ve worked with many students who chose not to go on the academic job market at all, because of ties to partners, families, and geography or because of aspirations that led them elsewhere.

What’s standing in the way of this brilliant and diverse group of students? Whether their current professional goals lie within the academy or beyond it, many of these supremely talented individuals show up for advising sessions with a considerable degree of anxiety. The research positions that many have been groomed for simply aren’t showing up in the job postings, and they may be ill-equipped to navigate the market for teaching-intensive jobs. Or they may yearn for something other than an academic career, but six or seven years of doctoral training may have insulated them from broader professional networks—and examples of other ways to occupy meaningful, intellectually engaged professional roles.

Yes, the academic job market is shrinking, and many of the tenured positions that remain look rather different than the ones many doctoral students sought out even a decade ago. Despite this reality, I see some doctoral students leveraging available resources to land comfortably—both within and outside the academy—in ways that make sense for their unique interests and goals. Here are a few real-life examples:

For recent PhDs Mary Caton Lingold (English) and Giulia Riccò (romance studies), digital research and pedagogy programs (the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge and the Bass Digital Education Fellowship, respectively) were critical in supporting scholarship and teaching that secured them assistant professorships at Virginia Commonwealth University (for Lingold) and the University of Michigan (for Riccò).

Stephanie Reist (romance studies and public policy) found that her role as a project manager on a multiyear interdisciplinary research team that incorporated faculty members and undergraduates (see “The Cost of Opportunity”) not only helped her refine a dissertation topic but also led to her current position as a postdoctoral researcher in higher education policy at the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro.

Ashley Rose Young (history) created her own internship opportunity with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, funded by the NEH-supported Versatile Humanists at Duke internship program (see Young). She is now a full-time food historian at the museum—a position for which she declined a tenure-track job offer.

Scott Muir (religion) sought out Versatile Humanists at Duke advising to support his exploration of nonfaculty career options. He checked in with me at regular intervals as he applied for and settled into a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Humanities Alliance, and again as he transitioned into a Mellon-funded role with NHA as the project director for Study the Humanities, an initiative that provides humanities faculty members, administrators, and advocates with evidence-based resources and strategies to make the case for studying the humanities as an undergraduate (see “Study the Humanities”).

Although it’s often difficult to establish cause and effect with something as complex as someone’s career path, all the students I list above clearly benefited from access to a wider range of academic and professional development opportunities. And they are not the only doctoral students at Duke leveraging extradepartmental resources to enrich their training. But then I look around and see a parallel graduate subculture at Duke inhabiting a condition similar to mine, as I wrapped up my PhD program in English in 1999: hyperfocused on the independent, specialized research projects on which academics still build their careers, carrying a torch for the sorts of R1 positions their faculty advisers occupy, and largely tuned out to perspectives and resources that emanate from beyond their PhD programs.

This is a blunt characterization and possibly a reductive one, but I am not faulting these students. The basic norms, practices and assumptions of humanities PhD programs remain largely unchanged from twenty years ago. Those programs still primarily admit students with a narrowly articulated set of career goals (jobs as tenure-track professors), and their faculty members often presume that their students possess an even narrower set of career goals (R1 tenure-track jobs). Judging by the number of students who seek out one-on-one advising with me as they engage with academic job markets (over the past three years, that’s nearly as many as those seeking guidance on nonacademic job searches), many PhD programs could do better in preparing students for traditional faculty searches (especially those involving intensive teaching).

For a significant number of brilliant and highly committed doctoral students, more and better only contribute to the noise and distractions they struggle with daily. Advanced scholarship in the humanities continues to require deep, focused attention. Despite having more professional development opportunities than we Gen X grad students ever did, millennials must confront unprecedented levels of both professional tension and distraction. Although the job market in Victorian literature was notoriously bad even in the 1990s, I don’t recall having to filter out the hysterical rhetoric I now come across regularly in the Chronicle of Higher Education, articles with titles like “Fanning the Flames While the Humanities Burn” and “Academe’s Extinction Event,” and I certainly did not have to negotiate all of today’s social media platforms, which offer conflicting options and advice on every topic imaginable.

When students hunker down, who can blame them? A resource-rich environment can also become a distraction. There’s a whole constellation of extradepartmental units and programs (both academic and extracurricular) vying for students’ time, energy, and attention. Events and opportunities proliferate exponentially (as well as related newsletters, e-mails, and social media updates), but the overall number  of doctoral students remains the same. Some stop reading e-mail. Nobody on campus can figure out how to get through to all the students. We risk doing more and doing better to our detriment.

The Fallacy of Doubling Down

If the students erect monastic bubbles around themselves, too many directors of graduate study and other faculty members tend to reinforce them. Faculty members (who take a lot of flack in graduate education reform circles) usually do this with the best of intentions. Most know of no other way to serve their students than to get them through PhD programs in a timely fashion and to render them as competitive as possible on the academic job market (which generally takes the form of encouraging students to double down on dissertation research and writing).

But as many of us already know, this system of training is broken. I see it whenever a sixth- or seventh-year student (often one I’ve not yet met) screws up the courage to e-mail me for an advising appointment to discuss nonacademic job options. These students may ask to meet in private, for fear of running into their committee members or even peers. Often, these students have wanted to come sooner but have held off for any number of reasons. The tipping point occurs when the students finally experience the academic job market for the first time, or (almost as common) someone they admire greatly (the star of their cohort) goes out a year before and comes up empty-handed.

But as I quickly discover as I scan their CVs (the résumé as yet a distant goal), more and better work best when they happen early and often. Typically, the CVs dazzle in every way, except they often convey only traditional research and teaching, complicating the task of envisioning a nonacademic résumé. No internships or other nonacademic work experiences. No research experiences other than single-authored papers and conference presentations. Teaching may be limited to a couple of teaching assistant positions or a single semester as an instructor of record for a course on a narrow topic related to the student’s research interests. Little or no community engagement, or other activities that would contribute to the presentation of a well-rounded job candidate.

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult to become a versatile graduate student in year six or seven. And while even these students can (and likely will) go on to do impressive things beyond the academy, a certain degree of floundering is almost inevitable in such circumstances.

I’ve grown much more practical since the 1990s, but I’m still idealistic enough to believe that doctoral training in the humanities should be about more than ushering people into jobs (whether in or beyond the academy). While articulating the ultimate purpose of humanities doctoral training falls beyond the scope of this essay, I think we can all agree that no brilliant, committed humanities PhD student deserves to flounder.

And floundering happens. Often, I don’t see it firsthand, because students who fall into this category are often the least likely to follow up with me for a second appointment (despite my strong urging to do so). The conceptual and actual work required to reframe an entire career trajectory may be too daunting (at least for now). Some drop out of touch. I fear they will move on to a series of plan B fixes that have become all too common: adjunct positions, one-year lectureships with heavy teaching loads, low-paid nonfaculty positions (both on and off campus) with no clear path for professional advancement.

In these cases, I can only hope that floundering will be temporary (my advising door remains open), and that at least some of these students will travel the same road as those featured on the alumni directory Web page for Versatile Humanists at Duke (see “Duke Humanities”)—many of them former Gen X grad students who eventually navigated their way into fulfilling nonacademic careers, all without the help of career counselors, academic advisers, or even ImaginePhD.

Mentoring and Advising

None of the foregoing suggests that we don’t need to engage in more graduate education innovation. More and better are great, and extradepartmental resources do enrich the training of many of the doctoral students with whom I work. But the innovation students most need hasn’t yet occurred. A national conversation around reforming doctoral education (not just in the humanities) has also been ongoing since the 1990s, and despite a series of comprehensive reports funded by Carnegie, Mellon, the Council on Graduate Schools, the American Association of University Professors, the MLA, and others, the basic structure, assumptions, and practices of doctoral training remain largely unchanged. Yet everything else has: an increasingly diverse, millennial generation of doctoral students, a rapidly shrinking market for tenure-track faculty positions, more complex institutions of higher education facing unprecedented challenges, new opportunities to partner with scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, and increasingly less linear, predictable, and stable career trajectories outside academia.

The holy grail of graduate education reform (as I hear at every conference I attend on this topic) is moving the needle on PhD program subcultures so that a critical mass of faculty members across disciplines (the gatekeepers of graduate education) will take a hard look at how they train doctoral students, where those students end up, and what changes (especially curricular ones) make sense. We see faculty attitudes changing at Duke, including some exciting new courses that explore public humanities or encourage collaborative research. At present, however, it’s still easier for a faculty member to send a graduate student to me for advising than it is for the faculty member to get departmental buy-in for more far-reaching pedagogical innovations and then usher them through a curriculum committee.

So until the day when doctoral training catches up to the twenty-first century, the first, most critical intervention we can make is through highly individualized and attentive mentoring and advising of students. In and of itself, there’s nothing new about advising and mentoring. It’s a critical part of the traditional graduate education model, but as everyone knows, academics get no formal training in how to do it. Consequently, many doctoral students have phenomenal faculty mentors and advisers, but too many students have experiences that are at best mediocre or at worst abusive and traumatic.

The innovations in advising and mentoring, as we explore them at my institution (and as others do elsewhere), are happening on two fronts: where the advising comes from, and how we go about it.

At the end of the day, the most critical ingredient for graduate students’ success (academically, if not professionally) is the quality of advising and mentoring they receive from their primary faculty advisers. This is not likely to change. But the new landscape of more and better also means more and better advising and mentoring from beyond PhD programs. Faculty members, who wear many hats already, cannot always be expected to know about every extradepartmental resource and opportunity available to their doctoral students. And although there’s been discussion in graduate education reform circles about training faculty to advise students for nonfaculty careers, this is a heavy charge for scholars who may have spent their entire adult lives in research universities. No single complementary PhD adviser (or even corps of advisers) can handle every need, of course. Much of the time, I function as a connector and conduit, sending students to other people and units who might be helpful: faculty members outside their PhD programs, more advanced doctoral students, other professionals working both within and beyond the academy, and career services.

And What about Coaching?

A huge potential for complementary, full-time advising members of staff is the opportunity to work closely with faculty members, and by so doing to promote a culture of skilled advising and mentoring. Even faculty members who are great at advising and mentoring can get better at advising and mentoring. And at some point early in my advising work, I realized (despite consistently positive feedback from my advisees) that I could get better at these things as well. No longer comfortable with getting by on my life experience, career history, and good people skills, I sought out some training on business coaching through an ICF-approved continuing education program.

While I’m certainly not suggesting that everyone who works with grad students must get credentialed as a professional coach, the program has helped me refine skills that are critical (but under-deployed) in graduate student mentoring and advising. These skills include actively listening (I mean, really listening), supporting students in framing multiple possible solutions to a problem, developing greater self-awareness, setting realistic goals, and being accountable for making progress. These last points about goal setting and accountability for progress toward those goals deserves particular emphasis, because they have such a significant impact on success for scholars, whether based within or outside the academy.

Perhaps most critical to note is what coaching is not. Contrary to popular perception, it’s not about talking at someone, or telling people what to do. Coaches often describe their work as “holding open a space” for people to make their own discoveries, solve their own problems, move toward their own goals. Coaching places people at the center of their own professional growth. And that’s what too often does not receive enough attention in traditional academic advising structures. While I don’t envision a future where students direct their own dissertations, there’s a case to be made for creating more space for student agency in this process. And when it comes to career goals, we are long past the point where a one-size-fits-all model of academic success will do. Increasingly, no two careers look alike, even in the academy.

The Bigger Picture

When I sat down to write these reflections, I resolved not to dwell too much on specific best practices. Although advising and mentoring (and coaching) have immediate practical value for students, I’m not suggesting that dedicated supplemental advisers or mentors are the right solution for every institution or set of humanities PhD programs. There are many possible avenues for creating stronger, more impactful cultures of graduate student advising and mentoring. What I do hope readers take away, however, is a larger point about the kinds of more and better for which we should be striving in graduate education reform. An inherent danger of more and better is an assumption that more is always better, and that all interventions hold equal value.

There are many possible avenues for creating stronger, more impactful cultures of graduate student advising and mentoring.

For example, so many well-intentioned interventions—workshops, boot camps, webinars, career panels, online assessments—seem driven by an anxiety to fill deficits with more and better kinds of information. These resources have their place, but they can quickly multiply into cacophony for students. And why do they multiply so quickly? Fill-the-deficit interventions proliferate because they are relatively easy. They involve identifying some lacuna, providing a good deal of content, and allowing students to engage on their own schedule, entirely by themselves, and for a very limited time (perhaps just once, as in the case of a workshop, webinar, or panel). These interventions usually do not require leaders to rethink curricular structures, challenge entrenched organizational cultures, or identify new and creative strategies for funding or sustainability.

I am not criticizing these kinds of interventions, many of which would have done me a lot of good back in the 1990s. (I’m also complicit in content-driven fixes myself, as anyone who reads the VH@Duke blog can see.) What I am cautioning against in this case, however, is not taking more and better far enough. At worst, harvesting only the low-hanging fruit can lend itself to a we’ve-got-that-covered organizational mentality, shutting down deeper inquiries or conversations about what graduate students really need.

And what do our humanities graduate students really need?

Hand in hand with curricular innovation, the greatest transformations occur through opportunities that provide students space to learn, grow, and explore on their own. This is, after all, how adults learn. Transformation may result from series of powerful coaching conversations, but it can also come about through an off-campus internship, a project management role on a collaborative research team, curricular channels that allow students to tackle new and unfamiliar modes of scholarship, or funding structures that permit students to teach beyond the walls of an elite university.

These interventions are challenging, both for organizations and students. Such interventions often require changes in institutional cultures, structures, and the deployment of resources. What else do internships, project management roles, new courses or scholarly projects, or teaching fellowships have in common? They all require substantial investments in students’ time, and engage students in the work of relationship building. Professional learning and growth best happen over time, and in community and conversation with others: new colleagues in an off-campus organization, other members of an on-campus research team, an entirely new demographic of students at a community college.

There’s probably neuroscience to support this last claim. But to be ruthlessly practical, the proof of the pudding may be in the hiring. What types of experiences and more sustained training do we now see working for humanities doctoral students in both academic and nonacademic job markets? What lines on graduate student CVs and résumés especially stand out and drive the sorts of interview questions that allow individuals to shine?

As I was mulling over the success stories of Mary Caton, Giulia, Stephanie, Ashley, and Scott, I got a farewell visit from Lauren Bunch, a newly hooded Duke PhD in philosophy whose research focuses on medical ethics. Lauren’s CV was relatively versatile; she’d gotten lots of teaching experience, had served on various university committees, and had served as a project manager on a Duke interdisciplinary collaborative research team (see “Transforming Alzheimer’s”).

Lauren initially sought me out last summer, to understand steps for seeking a nonacademic job. Although we ended up meeting semiregularly, we didn’t spend much time on the mechanics of the résumé, or how to network. Lauren most needed space and time to process all of her varied graduate school experiences, and to identify what she most wanted and valued. Just as critically (as Lauren pointed out when we last spoke), she needed a framework from which to understand the value of her many extradepartmental experiences, in an academic culture that tends to devalue such experiences as diversions or distractions from deep focus on dissertation research.

Starting this fall, Lauren will be a postdoctoral fellow in clinical ethics at Albany Medical College, where she will be working directly with medical professionals, and patients and their families. What made her a strong candidate for the position? According to Lauren, her expertise in moral philosophy remained a core expectation, but the sum of her experiences beyond her PhD program allowed her to distinguish herself. The range of her service work and her engagements with different populations on campus convinced the hiring committee that she could work well with people beyond academia, demonstrate empathy, and translate her research expertise in ways that would be impactful.

What would it look like if PhD programs responded to this emerging reality that the most valuable professional development experiences for a substantial percentage of graduates (even those remaining in academia) are increasingly extradepartmental and sometimes extracurricular? How might this recognition transform the intellectual worlds and experiences that PhD programs curate for their own students, and help bring about a truly student-centered culture of doctoral education?

Works Cited

“The Cost of Opportunity? Higher Education in the Baixada Fluminense (2017–2018).” Duke University / Bass Connections, bassconnections.duke.edu/project-teams/cost-opportunity-higher-education-baixada-fluminense-2017-2018.

“Duke Humanities Ph.D. Alumni Directory.” Duke / Versatile Humanists, versatilehumanists.duke.edu/alumni-directory/.

“Study the Humanities: Make the Case.” National Humanities Alliance, www.studythehumanities.org/.

“Transforming Alzheimer’s Disease Care through Integrating Caregivers (2018–2019).” Duke University / Bass Connections, bassconnections.duke.edu/project-teams/transforming-alzheimers-disease-care-through-integrating-caregivers-2018-2019.

Young, Ashley Rose. “Serving Up Food History at the Smithsonian.” Duke University / Versatile Humanists, 5 Sept. 2017, versatilehumanists.duke.edu/2017/09/05/serving-up-food-history-at-the-smithsonian/.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Maria LaMonaca Wisdom is director of graduate student advising and engagement for humanities doctoral students at Duke University. She directed Duke’s NEH NextGen PhD implementation grant (2016–19), working closely with the PI Edward Balleisen. In her work with doctoral students, Wisdom draws on her career history as an associate professor of English at Columbia College, SC, a scholar of Victorian literature and the author of Masked Atheism: Catholicism and the Secular Victorian Home (Ohio State UP, 2008), and the executive director of a hybrid humanities center and faculty development institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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