Alternate career paths for humanities students

By

Kristen LaRue

With a shrinking job market in tenure-track faculty positions, doctoral students in the humanities often must compete for alternative academic — known as “alt-ac” — careers, or even search for jobs outside of academia.

What professional skills and experience will best expand career options and earning potential for doctoral students?

Arizona State University is one of three institutions (the others are Georgetown and the University of California system) awarded funding from the Modern Language Association and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the innovative project “Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers.” Participating in the program are the Department of English, the School of International Letters and Cultures and Graduate Education.

Now in its second year and with 84 fellows (52 English, 32 SILC), the Connected Academics program provides alternative options to traditional graduate training in languages and literature, including enhanced curricula and mentoring. Students complete internships, enroll in certificate programs, and engage in digital humanities and professional development workshops.

Internships are an especially valuable part of the program, said Ruby Macksoud, director of internships in the Department of English.

“It helps to give an ‘insider’ edge over other applicants when on the job market,” Macksoud said. “Many job postings ask for two to three years of work experience, and so internships are a useful way to gain that work experience as a graduate student.”

Macksoud has had great success placing students in internships with publishers, government and federal agencies, non-profit organizations like Refugee Focus, and private organizations like the Phoenix Suns.

“At the moment, the focus is on helping Connected Academics fellows reimagine what they as humanists can do to shape the world around them,” Macksoud said. “So, we are working with tech companies, startup companies, government agencies and multinational companies to create internship opportunities that reach beyond academia. How might someone with a PhD in English literature impact how a company designs its products for human communication? Or how might someone with a doctorate in East Asian languages and civilization impact how a government delivers a fair-trade proposal?”

“Academia sometimes moves at a slower pace than the rest of the world, but that is not the case with Connected Academics,” said Kalissa Hendrickson, a member of the Connected Academics administrative team.

After receiving her PhD in English literature from ASU last year, Hendrickson began working as a research advancement administrator for ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research. While not involved in the program as a student, Hendrickson’s career path is an example of alt-ac success; she has been able to use her research training and professional skills in this role as she helps faculty apply for external funding, creates grant budgets and manages the submission process.

Once admitted to their PhD programs, students are paired with mentors — their “go-to faculty champions” — not only for advice on classes, research and academic life, but also help with career development and entrepreneurial mentoring, such as is available through the Edson Project.

“It’s rewarding to be a faculty mentor in the Connected Academics program because you get to know your own advisees better and differently, as well as to meet talented students from across our humanities units,” said Devoney Looser, a professor of English and Connected Academics mentor. “The benefit of Connected Academics, for students and faculty alike, is its facilitating conversations about a variety of academic and professional future paths beyond the degree.”  

The MLA-Mellon grant also funds a research fellow who takes leadership over a range of activities related to the grant and is part of the Connected Academics team. The team works to improve options for Connected Academics fellows and to achieve and even go beyond the grant’s goal to enrich doctoral education. Ultimately, the group’s work aims to reimagine a wide array of possible skills that can be incorporated into humanities graduate training and into careers where students can become scholar-citizens, making an impact in their communities.

PhD student Shannon Lujan (English literature) served as a Connected Academics research fellow last year. One of her major projects was a digital portfolio to help organize and showcase students’ accomplishments and time to degree.

“My experience as the 2015/16 fellow helped me feel confident about voicing my decision to pursue an alt-ac career, and ultimately lead me to securing a program manager position in Graduate Education at ASU,” Lujan said. “One of the things that we, as students, often overlook is the multiplicity of skills we acquire as graduate students. Connected Academics helps us recognize our skills, learn to talk to others about our skills, and feel more positive as we enter diverse job markets.”

Highlights during Connected Academics’ first year were Friday Conversations, a k a  “Professional Fridays,” which are monthly meetings to discuss topics related to academic, innovative, entrepreneurial and professional success.

José Gómez, a PhD student in Spanish and the 2016/17 Connected Academics Research Fellow, is working to bring to campus three outstanding faculty in the humanities to offer a variety of workshops.

“Connected Academics envisions a versatile PhD, and in this mentality we want to provide events that tap into our full potential of being 21st-century scholars," said Gómez. “Connected Academics allows a space for this kind of expansive thinking.”

The Modern Language Association/Mellon Foundation grant was authored at ASU by co-principal investigators Eric Wertheimer, associate vice provost of Graduate Education; George Justice, professor and dean of Humanities; and Pamela Garrett, senior manager of Graduate Programs. Other co-PIs are Mark Lussier, professor in the Department of English, and Joe Cutter, professor in the School of International Letters and Cultures (SILC). Both English and SILC are academic units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Written by Sheila Luna