The Work of the Humanities

I’ve been in grad school for seven years, and while my friends from undergrad were out getting work experience, I was sitting in seminars and visiting archives. I have no work experience. How am I supposed to compete for a job?

—Anonymous University of California, Los Angeles, history PhD

Deflated, depressed, and undervalued, many humanities graduates finish their degrees with little confidence that they will have anything to offer employers outside the university. When students have the space to engage such frank feelings of frustration and disappointment, they identify lack of work experience as one of the most challenging barriers to employment beyond the academy. Humanities graduate students labor for five, six, seven plus years on course work, conference presentations, comprehensive exams, archival research, fieldwork, language study, and dissertations. Because of variable degree requirements and funding packages, most students also teach, organize conferences, write grants, navigate a myriad of campus resources, and incorporate rapidly changing technologies into their classroom pedagogy and individual research or information management systems.1 Yet conversations with humanities graduate students about professionalization often elicit comments, like the one above, that fail to recognize students’ own active contributions to the university as a result of their labor. Many students do not know how to articulate their time in graduate school as work experience. And what’s worse, academic mentors, administrators, and institutional pressures discourage them from translating their academic activities into a language that attests to the rigorous and varied work they perform while pursuing advanced degrees.

An increasing number of critical works call for the reevaluation and professionalization of doctoral program requirements and pedagogies, with some arguing that both must be radically altered to cut down on time to degree and equip graduate students with more desirable work skills upon graduation.2 To be sure, national humanities funding bodies such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation have made resources available to professional associations like the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association and subsequently distributed grants to universities for professionalization programs within specific departments and institutes.3 It is worthwhile to note, however, that a number of these initiatives are programmed by faculty members who, by and large, have never had to navigate the current market or translate their intellectual work to potential nonuniversity employers. Many of the resulting events do not incorporate the experiences of current graduate students and fail to recognize the variety of skilled work they already performed throughout their degrees. Surely, while the majority of the UCLA graduate student’s undergraduate cohort have been “at work,” she has been engaged in an intense and specialized kind of work that has value and potential for application beyond the university. When it comes to acknowledging and articulating the value and volume of contemporary graduate students’ humanistic labor, doctoral humanities programs have a serious public relations problem on their hands. This is a problem that underestimates the need to support specialized administrators and advisers at the graduate level, does a disservice to the general conception of the role of the humanities in contemporary society, and plagues recent grads as they seek gainful employment outside the university.

As one of three partner organizations involved in the MLA’s Connected Academics Project,4 Humanists@Work (Humwork) is an initiative organized by the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) that includes current and recent graduate students in the development of programming that makes career paths and training opportunities accessible to humanities MAs and PhDs. Humwork hosts an online publishing and resources platform (, provides paid summer internships for graduate students, supports a paid graduate advisory committee, tracks the employment placement of those with PhDs from literature and language departments across the University of California, and runs biannual statewide workshops. Humwork programming encourages students to voice common misunderstandings and frustrations with current articulations of graduate education, labor, and professionalization. The resulting dialogues have raised serious concerns around the visibility of humanistic labor and have urged us to critically reconsider the institutional project of professionalization as collaborative and intellectual, expanding far beyond the job placement of graduate students.

There are a few specific strategies that the Humwork initiative uses to identify and target the concerns and goals of humanities graduate students. To facilitate conversations between individuals who work inside the academy and those who do not, the workshops purposefully inhabit nonuniversity public spaces, like museums and libraries. The conversational format of the daylong events encourage students to challenge speakers and generate broader questions about barriers to translating their studies into gainful employment. Humwork also keeps channels of communication open with past and present participants and fosters a community of increasingly empowered voices that has already demonstrated its capacity as a valuable professional network. As members of the advisory committee, graduate students are involved in every stage of programming for Humwork events and also serve as critical reviewers of each workshop. The benefit of including graduate student input during the planning stages is that Humwork’s sense of professionalization programming changes based on what students identify as their needs, interests, and goals. Current graduate students have knowingly entered graduate school saddled with debt in an uncertain market, and they think about the words professionalization and labor in ways that are distinct from their advisers and administrators. The debt, work, and life experiences that these students bring into their programs contribute greatly to their academic goals and expectations. Responsible programming benefits from investigations into what motivates these students to pursue doctorates in the first place. What are they hoping to do or are already doing with their time in the humanities doctoral program? As we at Humwork have become better at listening to graduate student participants, the answers to such questions have been surprising and have informed our progress with dynamic programming around professionalization.5

Such strategies have generated a space where enlightening moments can occur in conversation with invited experts from outside the university. Although our local career centers offer related assistance to graduate students, we work with Jared Redick, an expert in crafting résumés for clients seeking midlevel career changes in a variety of nonacademic and academic settings. At all the Humwork events, Redick provides a practical set of tools, concepts, and document formats that inform students how to translate their graduate school activities into a legible language for employers who may not view extra schooling as work experience. But our engagement with his expertise has changed dynamically over the past three events. The first résumé workshop with Redick was designed to be a pragmatic tutorial. During the workshop students were trying to figure out how much of what they had achieved in graduate school counted as work experience, and the tension in the room rose whenever Redick articulated potential translations of activities related to the dissertation and teaching. At one moment, participants realized that certain details about the dissertation, such as page length or the nature of literary and historical research, are misunderstood and often irrelevant to employers. The room filled with a collective and somewhat disdainful groan. An identical moment occurred at the workshop held six months later, and, instead of quashing the outburst in favor of practical lessons in résumé writing, we paused to discuss what was going on in the room.

Graduate students claimed this moment to explain their feelings and engage in meaningful debate about if, how, and why the dissertation should be featured on the résumé at all. As we listened to students talk out their feelings, we realized that this repeated outburst is not meant to be whiney or hostile. Students are expressing frustration as they face a reality in which the dissertation, the very ticket to a PhD, is not currently presented as the result of humanistic labor on job application documents. While Redick asks participants to articulate all their other (mostly voluntary and service-related) graduate work experience besides teaching, the dissertation becomes an optional add-on to the résumé and is transformed into an unintelligible or decorative fact. By groaning or laughing out loud, students acknowledge that the transition out of graduate school highlights paradoxical absences in the expression of their work history. Getting upset about that is a valuable exercise as long as it doesn’t happen during a job interview. What we’ve learned from these moments is that graduate students have limited space to unpack truly upsetting feelings that arise whenever they negotiate aspects of their deemphasized graduate school labor. When students challenge the decorative appearance of the dissertation on the résumé, they generate complex questions worth answering for anyone who works in the humanities. Is the dissertation truly destined be an addendum to the professional résumé? Indeed, why hasn’t humanistic work at the doctoral level and beyond been adequately described to audiences outside our community?

By inviting experts like Redick to collaborate with us, we’ve forced students and administrators to reckon with the fact that university-oriented work is often viewed as substantively different from other kinds of work. This limited viewpoint reinscribes a condition of mutually exclusive worlds, adding to the difficulties already inherent in humanities PhDs’ struggle to communicate the value of their training to potential employers. The issue at hand here is understanding the ways in which the university capitalizes on, and benefits from, invisible labor that is couched in terms of passion or service, which for graduate students is largely unpaid, and labor that disconnects the work of students, junior scholars, and even professors from the world of work and workers more generally. Redick’s résumé workshops have made clear the degree to which graduate students must actively labor to articulate the value of a humanities PhD for an audience beyond the academy—as well as for themselves. If our students are unclear about how to translate their degrees into nonteaching careers, we cannot expect hiring organizations to understand the experiences recent graduates will bring to nonuniversity roles. Nor should university institutions expect graduate students (or perhaps even faculty members) to perform this kind of publicity on our behalf. Though tracking data shows that humanities PhDs have been successfully transitioning into a variety of careers for decades, more must be done to describe the experiences, accomplishments, and labor performed by graduate students to those outside academia.

The acknowledgment and articulation of labor performed within the current structures of the university must be at the forefront of our national professionalization efforts. As part of our ongoing reevaluation of the professionalization of the humanities, we must actively forge channels through which to communicate the existing labor and accomplishments of those who are granted PhDs from our institutions. We must do this for our students but also for the sake of our own posterity in a society that too often dismisses the humanities as a pursuit that doesn’t lead to a job. Although some Mellon-funded partners are already collaborating with one another, there is a need for more sustained collaboration with graduate students and their prospective employers, especially as it pertains to developing professionalization best practices. The university’s existing reach into a variety of sectors and relationships would be a place to start, though we need look no further than the American Council of Learned Societies’ Public Fellows Program to understand that substantive one-on-one work experiences can communicate the value of an advanced humanities degree. Of course, this marked turn to collaborating with organizations outside the university asks us not only to go beyond ourselves but also to invite different forms of knowledge into the university. To do this well, and to keep the individual and collective concerns of our students at the center, we must be thoughtful about who we choose as guardians of these dialogues. This past year, the National Endowment for the Humanities made its first round of Next Generation grants,6 and a new cohort of departments and institutes have begun planning and programming around these issues. The ongoing activities and dialogues of the past few years have generated energy and hope around opening up the university to a variety of career outcomes for our PhDs. Our graduate students have chosen to pursue degrees despite the obvious lack of tenure-track jobs. They can be light on their feet, and many of them are excited to bring their university experience with collaborative mentorship, multimedia research, and project management into new professional environments. We hope that as additional public funds flow into departments and programs around the nation, we can empower our students to value the work they have already contributed to the university and share their innovative and thoughtful accomplishments with various communities.


Over the past three years Humwork has strategically engaged in dialogues that have empowered students across the University of California system, and the impacts of our programming can be felt broadly, if unevenly, on all ten campuses with whom we collaborate. The graduate students who participate in our workshops have emphasized their gratitude for the sustainable sense of community that they have built by attending our events. Every year student voices have become stronger and more articulate, and we have seen graduate communities throughout California help one another navigate opportunities through collaboration, dialogue, and newfound confidence. For those of you building professionalization programs with similar goals at your campuses, we offer some basic principles that engaged graduate students in critical dialogues that are responsive to the voices and experiences at our campuses.

1. Thoughtfully Involve Graduate Students as Collaborators

Your current graduate students are invaluable cocreators and vital ambassadors. The incorporation of graduate students as valued contributors will be essential for building trust across the entire community. From the moment you begin to evaluate your campus resources, assess the concerns of your graduate community, and identify learning objectives for programming, always include graduate students as collaborators and critics. Since your students already juggle a number of roles and navigate multiple supervisors across campus, they may be wary of taking on additional engagements with administrative superiors. As part of your mission statement, be sure to articulate collaborative opportunities for graduate students in institutionally supported program development roles. We strongly suggest that you determine best practices for scheduling around existing graduate requirements and set aside adequate funds to compensate your student collaborators for their time and commitment.

2. Evaluate, Acknowledge, and Communicate the Work of Your Students

Outside the university, perceptions of work are constantly changing. It is widely acknowledged that the daily tasks of employees adjust rapidly in the light of new administrative, social, and analytic technologies. We encourage you to generate programs that evaluate and express the strengths of your students for a new set of audiences, as well as for one another. Though the language used to describe graduate student work responsibilities has not changed, the very nature of teaching and research has been dramatically reframed by nonacademic methods of labor. To conduct their daily work and reach the expectations set by the university, graduate students often navigate a myriad of administrative bureaucracies, funding opportunities, and communication or research softwares made available to them through campus contracts with third parties. Before you identify learning outcomes for your professionalization programming, get to know how your students already manage their daily work routines. What are the defining features of the research, teaching, and service roles that they take on while pursuing their degrees? Perhaps your students use tools and systems in ways that mimic existing practices in the private sector. During your evaluation of current graduate work, you may identify the potential to develop programming around existing technologies on campus in a way that will simultaneously enrich students’ doctoral responsibilities and translate into jobs outside the university. Make sure that members of your graduate community, as well as potential audiences inside and outside academia, understand the value of contributions made to the university as the result of graduate students’ labor in various campus roles.

3. Think Capaciously about the Audiences and Outcomes of Professionalization

We are certainly among those who aren’t sure what distinguishes “professionalization” from already available continued education opportunities on our campuses and more generally. In the context of national conversations about higher education and the humanities, the project of professionalization has many audiences and potential outcomes. Though there is a range of content that might seem fundamental to any programming related to professionalization for humanities PhDs, we suggest that you determine and describe exactly who your events serve and what you’d like to accomplish in your community. Considering our intended audience, which we have designated as graduate students in the humanities and social sciences at the University of California, for example, we define professionalization in response to student articulations of perceived gaps in training. As a result, workshops have included sessions that address mental health, debt, mentorship, values-based career exploration, alumni networking, and specific sectors of employment. Alongside these variations, every year we consistently program around basic concepts of community building, and that is what has set us apart from other opportunities that students have on their individual campuses. By generating a sense of belonging, our workshops empower students to express their individual needs, accomplishments, and desired outcomes as a group of people who are collectively learning to identify and articulate their own capacities in order to secure gainful employment.

4. Actively Include Your PhD Alumni as Part of Your Community

Inviting your PhD alumni and their expertise back into the university will be critical for developing professionalization activities that translate to the working world. These alumni can speak to the emerging trends in the workforce and offer access to the diverse contexts in which humanities work currently takes place. As you begin to reach out to your alumni, however, it will be important to remember that the relationship between the institution and alumni is often quite complicated. These are students who may never have been recognized by their departments or the university as successful PhDs. When you request doctoral alumni to commit time and expertise to the university, you are also asking them to confront a series of feelings that they have already overcome. You risk offense and additional resentment if you introduce these individuals in university-centric terms such as “non-tenure-track,” “alternative academic,” or “those who pursued plan B.” It is worthwhile to think carefully about the message that you wish to communicate to them and be respectful in both your interpersonal approach and the way that you allow them to communicate their own value to the university. How can you invite these experts back into the community in a way that acknowledges and values the choices that they have made as contributions to the university itself? What might the university offer alumni for their time and expertise? If your alumni are asked to enhance the network of graduate students within the institution, can the university contribute to the continued professional development and success of these PhDs as well?

5. Identify New Partners

If you are not an expert in all areas of additional training requested by your target audience, that is perfectly OK. In fact, the process of identifying new partners and bringing diverse areas of expertise to your campus is key to effective programming. Whether across departments, centers, and services on campus or beyond the university into local employment markets, active engagement with new partners will expand the community of people who understand and value the potential contributions of those with doctoral training. By partnering with career counselors, résumé experts, recruiters, PhD alumni, and representatives from employers and industries already known to value the PhD, you will invite different forms of knowledge onto your campuses. Some of these individuals may serve as guest speakers, but others may become instrumental as collaborative partners in the development of event programming itself. Including new partners will serve as a point of communication that goes two ways. On the one hand, students will become aware of a network of individuals from whom they can gain advice and request informational interviews. On the other hand, by including others in ongoing dialogues about professionalization, as in-progress as they might be, the university will have a chance to shape the way outsiders view it.

6. Make Spaces for Reflection and Critique

Although some professionalization workshops will be geared toward tangible results, reflection and critique are both forms of humanities work that warrant inclusion in your programming. Instead of depending solely on postevent evaluations for this work, you might consider building reflective moments into the events themselves. As you realize your programming, make sure that your staff and workshop presenters are flexible and ready to pause an exercise or use the premise of the activity to switch gears when the audience desires. The conversations that come about when you slow down and listen to what happens in the room can release unvoiced tensions and build a more inclusive language as a community. We’ve found that graduate students and members of the faculty and staff vibrantly engage in collaborative work when we include programmed spaces for the interrogation of activities that are meant to fill in the perceived gaps of academic training. By listening closely during these moments, we’ve found that what is often perceived as unproductive for one audience turns out to be incredibly productive for others, and our programming has changed dynamically in response to these shared realizations.

7. Analyze Your Work and Share It Widely

Universities, departments, and associations across the nation are trying to figure out how to navigate the changing dynamics of labor and training in higher education. Providing discipline-specific and meaningful professionalization programming for humanities PhDs in this context is not easy. As we engage in different practices, we need to continually ask if and how they are effective and what’s left to do. Whether you’ve identified a discipline-specific group or a multicampus community of students as your audience, we encourage you to share the results of your programming and any received feedback as widely as possible among participants, administrators, faculty members, and members of other communities who are engaged in similar conversations. We think that sharing results and feedback is a smart and low-stakes way to provide accountability on your campus and contribute to ongoing responses to changes in the way that universities are run. We are all attempting to answer difficult questions regarding higher education in order to better support the people who receive master’s- and doctoral-level training from our institutions. Despite our specificities, we can share collective steps toward a clearer articulation of doctoral students’ value as effective members of contemporary society and important contributors to the workforce.


  1. One of the most common concerns articulated by graduate students, administrators, and potential employers is that doctoral students of the humanities do not have substantial enough digital literacy to transition into the workforce outside the university. Given the number of technologies that the university utilizes, develops, and purchases as an administrative entity, in addition to graduate students’ often supplementing available resources with their own knowledge of applications, this assumption is astonishing. Graduate students frequently navigate digital technologies inside and outside the university to engage more effectively with their students and each other and to manage their progress through the dissertation, a research project that has become inseparable from information management. Here is an incomplete list of the kinds of technologies that graduates utilize throughout the completion of their degrees: classroom pedagogy and interaction management (WordPress, Tumblr, Moodle, Blackboard, e-mail communication platforms, Web site development, Slack), bibliographic and archival reference (Zotero, Endnote, Archivists’ Toolkit), document classification and organization (Dropbox, Box, Google Docs), and process-oriented writing or collaborative project management systems (Pomodoro, Scrivner, Asana, Trello, Google Docs, ProWriting Aid). Clearly, if students are applying these applications to achieve a variety of outcomes in their university work, they are more than ready to use similar digital and organizational technologies to meet the goals of their next employers.
  2. In particular, we’re drawing on Leonard Cassuto’s The Graduate School Mess. For reference to works that articulate the impact of the corporate university more broadly, consider Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works, Jeffrey Williams’s How to Be an Intellectual, the collaborative scholarship in Imagining America’s journal Public, and Chris Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University, among others.
  3. Whereas the AHA has partnered with three history departments across the nation, the MLA has partnered with two language and literature departments and a system-wide humanities research institute.
  4. The MLA’s Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers is a project of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
  5. In response to student feedback, our panels have included a dinner-based networking event, a life values inventory exercise, mindfulness sessions, and panels that allow for the expression of personal journeys with debt, family planning, and so on.
  6. The National Endowment for the Humanities released a call for Next Generation Humanities PhD grants in October 2015 to award planning and implementation grants that inspire “innovative methods of doctoral education in the humanities that incorporate broader career preparation for PhD candidates” (“NEH”).

Works Cited

Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. New York UP, 2008.

Cassuto, Leonard. The Graduate School Mess: What Caused It and How We Can Fix It. Harvard UP, 2015.

“NEH Announces New Next Generation Humanities PhD Grant Program.” National Endowment for the Humanities, 21 Oct. 2015,

Newfield, Christopher. Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class. Harvard UP, 2008.

Williams, Jeffrey. How to Be an Intellectual: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University. Fordham UP, 2014.

Kelly Anne Brown received her PhD in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she worked on British and Italian interwar art and performance. Before pursuing doctoral studies, she worked in public policy and administration for children and family programs at the city, county, and state levels of California government. She is currently assistant director at the University of California Humanities Research Institute, where, working as a “hybrid” academic since 2012, Kelly leads several UC-wide research programs, including the Andrew W. Mellon–funded Humanists@Work, a project of the MLA’s Connected Academics.

Rebecca A. Lippman received an MPhil in Latin American studies from the University of Cambridge. She is pursuing a PhD in comparative literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on twentieth-century Brazilian and Latin American literature. In addition to working as a teaching assistant at UCLA, she has funded her studies as an archivist at UCLA Special Collections and a student affairs adviser at the Scholarship Resource Center. She has been awarded research grants from the Cambridge Trusts, the United States Department of Education, the UCLA Graduate Division, and the Fulbright Program.

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