After the Academy: Changing the Culture of Humanities PhD Programs

March, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

As many of us struggle to define our professional identities after graduate school, it is clear that we could do more to aid this goal before we finish our degrees. But we cannot do it alone. Several comments from my last “After the Academy” post brought up important issues in this regard. We need departmental support for options beyond the academy. We also need to foster a culture that values these options. How should we train and support graduate students to take the fullest advantage of non-academic and non-tenure track opportunities while remaining committed to a rigorous program of study that prepares them for university careers as well?

Fellow History Compass blogger Jana Remy had one suggestion. She wished to see as much enthusiasm for announcing non-tenure track appointments on her department’s mailing list as tenure track jobs. This is really a simple practice to change, but it could powerfully impact the culture of a department. Announcing hirings of graduates in government, business, journalism, and public history positions (among the many, many other possibilities out there) treats those positions and career paths as genuine choices, possibilities, and even successes. When departments, faculty, and graduate students fail to celebrate these successes, those silences say something. We need to transform the culture of our departments to recognize and celebrate opportunity, rather than shielding us from options.

Even fields within history, however, do not always get there due. Commenter Lizzie added that greater respect for public history could open doors as well. My alma mater, UC Santa Barbara, is home to the oldest public history program in the country and the journal The Public Historian. It offers one the leading programs in public history available, but beyond students enrolled in the public history program little attention is given to career opportunities in this direction. As Lizzie suggests, promotion of public history programs and internships could go a long way.

I see an opportunity here to add “skills” requirements and certifications to history PhDs. The UNC Chapel Hill Department of History has already begun a similar project, replacing multiple language requirements with training in a research skill or theoretical perspective for students whose research does not require multiple language proficiencies. A university like UCSB, with strengths in public and oral history, could go even further, offering certificates in public history or oral history training to students who have completed sufficient coursework and/or fieldwork. If I can complete a Doctoral Emphasis in Feminist Studies (and I did), I should have the option of similar accreditation for public history or oral history from a department with those strengths. This could provide a model for other departments with other strengths to offer graduate students skills in a manner easily recognized outside the academy.

Wider access to public history skills could forge networks and links to be mined upon graduation. Oral history certificates could offer credibility for journalism, government, and social justice work. Internships in any of these would offer that elusive “real world” experience in addition to the academic credentials we already have.  A culture within history departments that publicizes, values, and celebrates these options would make it easier for us all to access them and take advantage of greater career opportunities. Are there other “skills” we could seek or policies we could promote in our departments to support and encourage a range of graduate career options?

Also see:

National Council on Public History

Doing Public History: A UK site that explores use and concerns of public history from Royal Holloway, University of London.

Public History IndeX: A UC Santa Barbara blog that examines issues concerning practitioners of public history.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
11 March 2010.


After the Academy: Whither next?

February, 2010 · By Justin Bengry

Whether it’s Stockholm Syndrome, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or Survivor’s Guilt, those of us considering a career outside academia find it nearly impossible to imagine just what life after the academy might actually look like. Part of this is because we find it hard to envision a career path beyond the university. We spend at least a decade sheltered in our departments, surrounded by and receiving our career socialization from other scholars. At the same time, academic departments are rarely the most supportive environments for discussions of non-academic career paths. Having just completed fourteen years of university in the middle of a major recession, I nonetheless see this as a time of opportunity rather than desperation. But I still ask myself, whither next?

I would love an academic job. I’m also a realist, and realistically it’s lean times. Most of us with PhDs will ultimately find employment outside the academy. Graduate school trained me to use proper Chicago citation style, how to manage a classroom, and the intricacies of navigating foreign archives, but I had little preparation for life beyond the university walls—until now. I’m suddenly tallying my “transferable skills,” creating professional networks in multiple arenas, and forging an online presence to promote myself as a scholar? a writer? a researcher? a photographer? It’s daunting and exciting. And there’s a wealth of online support.

Interviewed for Sabine Hikel’s “Leaving Academia” podcast, Krista Scott-Dixon relayed her own trajectory to a non-academic career. She discovered that it wasn’t a precise occupation she was searching for. Naming a job title didn’t resonate with her. Instead, she realized that seeking a path that allowed her to do the values that were important to her, rather than the tasks that she was trained for, would lead to her ideal future. She’s now a web/magazine editor and research director.

These sites like Hikel’s that have sprung up to support a generation of scholars who are moving beyond academia clearly speak to an important issue. Names of some, like “Sellout,” make clear the associations and fears they seek to dismantle. As soon as we start talking about leaving the academy, there’s a sense of failure, or of accepting failure by discussing possibility. This needs to be overcome! And advice like Scott-Dixon’s makes it easier to speak openly about PhD grads’ possibilities, whether inside or outside academe.

I found Scott-Dixon’s advice especially resonant. Beyond the generic “professor,” many of us have not actively formulated a career goal, myself included. But I do know what I value: social justice, the power of language, desirable location, and challenge. Thinking in terms of values spoke to me more than most things I’ve read about possibilities beyond the Ivory Tower. But it’s not an answer, it’s just a signpost, and this series “After the Academy” will trace where the sign(s) point.

This blog was originally published at History Compass Exchanges on
25 February 2010.