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Humanities Graduates Find New Avenues for Careers

Graduate students work hard. Not only do they immerse themselves in the demands of course work, conferences, and independent research, but they also teach, mentor students, run reading groups, and organize events within their departments. It is no wonder that many graduate students, faced with diminishing prospects for attaining a sustainable, long-term university job and only a vague sense of the alternatives, express a sense of confusion, frustration, and even depression as they near the end of their degree programs.

Universities and departments have increasingly acknowledged these career challenges, but few have found ways to prepare their students for the new realities of their profession. However, as a recent article in the MLA publication Profession argues, there is no need for despair. Kelley Anne Brown and Rebecca A. Lippman, both of whom have found success bridging their humanities training and nontraditional career paths, claim that, while the situation may be daunting, there are abundant opportunities for humanities PhDs to enhance their résumés.

One major step, they argue, is for students to take stock of the many valuable skills they develop while pursuing their degrees. Many humanities grads feel unqualified for work outside the university, but Brown and Lippman argue that this is not the case. “Many students do not know how to articulate their time in graduate school as work experience,” they write, but this doesn’t mean that the students haven’t accrued a valuable set of marketable skills that many employers are looking for.

It doesn’t help that this perception is often reinforced by humanities departments, which may discourage graduate students from professionalizing outside the university. Moreover, employers may not recognize the potential of applicants from humanities programs, especially if the applicants’ work is seen as insular or irrelevant outside a university setting. As Brown and Lippman put it, “When it comes to acknowledging and articulating the value and volume of contemporary graduate students’ humanistic labor, [graduate] humanities programs have a serious public relations problem on their hands.”

Fortunately, many organizations and university departments are now actively developing tools and strategies to shape humanities education to fit with a new professional environment and to teach graduate students to translate their experience into terms that can appeal to nonuniversity employers. One such initiative is Humanists@Work, a University of California project headed by Brown, which offers programming to make “career paths and training opportunities accessible to humanities MAs and PhDs.”

Humanists@Work is a partner of the MLA’s Connected Academics project, which likewise seeks to make mentorship and career development resources available to graduate students seeking meaningful employment outside the university. As a valuable counterpart to these programs, the Graduate Career Consortium has launched ImaginePhD, an online career exploration planning tool for graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.

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