Helping Humanities Scholars Find Careers Beyond Academia

This summer, CNDLS was excited to partner with Connected Academics at TLISI 2017 to offer a session to graduate students in the humanities who might be interested in a career outside of academia. The session, “Connected Academics: Roundtable Discussion on Humanities Degrees and Employment Beyond Academia”, offered a variety of perspectives and narratives on what it means to have a career outside academia and how students can best communicate the skills from their graduate education to land these jobs. The roundtable included both faculty and staff at Georgetown, including Maggie Debelius (English; Director of Faculty Initiatives at CNDLS); Ricardo Ortiz (English); Beth Harlan (Associate Director of Career Education and Counseling); Nick Moschovakis (Communications Development); and Steve Olsen (Associate Director of Research and Manager of Digital Services at the Modern Language Association). This was the first time we have partnered with an organization to provide graduate-student centered programming at TLISI, and the result was a resounding success.

The beginning of the roundtable included introductions from each of the contributing participants who shared their journeys from PhD work to professional career and also offered advice to PhD candidates who might be considering jobs outside of academia. Opening the discussion, Debelius traced her career trajectory back to the beginning of her dissertation. Knowing that she could write a good dissertation about a Victorian novel, Debelius emphasized that what she had truly wanted to work on was how to teach a Victorian novel. Although this did not become a large piece of her dissertation, it did prompt her to think more broadly about what it would mean to grapple with these questions related (but tangential) to academia. Her interest in the narrative and power of doctoral students pursuing different career trajectories – such as teachers, editors, and archivists, to name only a few – developed into the book she co-authored with Susan Basalla titled, So What Are You Going to Do with That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia. The book uses stories of real doctoral students who have transitioned outside academia to underscore that although people might pursue academic interests in different ways, almost all still “live the life of the mind.”

Moschovakis’ comments emerged as a footnote to the narratives of doctoral students in Debelius’ book as he likewise considered how his career trajectory landed him in a truly non-academic job. After finishing his PhD in 1997, he taught for ten years at colleges and universities, with his first job being a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college; however, he ultimately opted to leave because of its geographical isolation, instead taking a number of one-to-two year teaching positions. After meeting his partner and wanting a position that was more geographically stable, Moschovakis began his current job in communications development. He edits reports often written by PhDs that are intended for a broader audience and runs workshops for these doctoral students or PhD holders to develop these reports. Moschovakis emphasized that as someone deciding to leave academia, his ability to find a job with work he enjoyed came down to two components: having good connections and a PhD from a respectable institution.

Harlan built on Moschovakis’ discussion of connections as she encouraged students to utilize campus resources, suggesting in particular that students attend the Career Center’s workshops for PhD students on Alternative-Academic (alt-ac) jobs or others not specifically marked for PhDs on relevant topics. Outside of thinking about transferable skills at these workshops, she cited the simple act of gathering like-minded students in one room as having cognitive and affective benefits. As the conversation seemed to draw out what it meant simply to think about one’s experience as a PhD student, Harlan emphasized the importance of doctoral students consciously understanding their identity to shift from “I am a PhD” to “I am someone with a PhD,” or in Harlan’s words: “You have the thing. You are not the thing.”

In his discussion of the MLA’s NYC proseminar, Olsen touched on several pieces of advice that emerged from the program, but also resounded with the other roundtable participants’ commentary: contact alums from your own programs who have left academia, be open to the ways you can use your knowledge and experience, and, most importantly, try to think of yourself broadly as a humanist, not just within the confines of your very specific dissertation or research interests.

Finally, Ortiz encouraged further thought about how we might better shape graduate programs to fit the needs of students seeking careers outside of academia. He noted that as a component of Connected Academics, faculty at Georgetown are currently drafting a proposal for a Public Humanities PhD program to produce PhD students who were equipped with the skills to work outside of academia. He emphasized the importance of providing students with skills that could apply to a variety of careers and allowing their work to culminate in a research project rather than a dissertation. While this project could take the shape of a dissertation, it would also have more flexibility to adapt to the needs of particular students, such as when Debelius wanted to think about how to teach in a dissertation process that was more narrowly focused on the content of the novels being taught.

The questions that followed the roundtable elicited several pieces of advice universal to most students. The answers were produced collectively as the roundtable participants added to one another’s responses:

  • The person who wants to make a hire either has a challenge or problem they’re looking to solve; spinning your experience to show them how you can fit into this would be helpful. If you just apply to a job with a PhD and hope it will substitute for a lack of outside experience, it will be hard to tell this narrative. As such, even a little bit of experience plus a PhD can help you to demonstrate your fit for a position.
  • Informational interviews are a great way to connect with someone in a less formal, lower stakes way. They can help brand you and tell a narrative that’s authentic and relevant to the institution without the pressure of a formal interview. Additionally, using the informational interview to develop a professional relationship allows people to vouch on your behalf.
  • Within your ability, encourage your graduate program to think differently about how they want to admit doctoral students. This is the main way graduate students will get skills they need to transition outside the academy.
  • If you’re worried about trying to market and sell yourself to employers as an introvert – where this process might feel uncomfortable – think about it as an opportunity to brand yourself as a researcher. Consider networking as a way to research through people, learning about their positions and institutions. Know that it is fine to focus on quality over quantity, as it might be more comfortable for you to have one engaging twenty-minute conversation rather than four five-minute chats. At the same time, do not be afraid to talk to several people, as a connection might not emerge in your first attempt to network.

Following the roundtable, Connected Academics hosted a Humanities Job Fair, which brought in employers from numerous sectors outside academia who had interest in hiring students with humanities experience. Students had the opportunity to network with employers including: ARCH, DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, Distinctive College Consulting, The FrameWorks Institute, Freedom Marketing, FRESHFARM’s FoodPrints, Georgetown University – Office of Advancement, Green Buzz Agency, The Peace Corps, Pedago, SPARK Business Academy, TitanHouse, and the U.S. Department of Justice Community Relations Service. The diversity of companies that attended just emphasizes that there are roles out there for academics outside of academia. It was a pleasure to partner with Connected Academics at TLISI this summer, and we look forward to continuing to support graduate students in their journeys.


If you missed the 2017 Teaching, Learning and Innovation Summer Institute (TLISI) or would like to revisit a TLISI topic, follow along with us as as we feature various sessions on the Prospect blog over the course of the 2017-18 academic year. We’ll be sharing posts on the following themes: Teaching in the Jesuit Tradition, Incorporating Difficult and Timely Topics, Innovative Teaching Practices, Technology Enhanced Learning, Evidence-based Teaching and Learning, Inclusive Pedagogies, and Cross-Institutional & Cross-Departmental Collaborations. Many of the sessions were recorded and are viewable on Digital Georgetown (accessible by anyone with a Georgetown NetID). You can also find a links to all of our recorded sessions on the TLISI Resources page. Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for our newsletter to stay updated on posts and more!