By Steffen Kaupp, Ph.D.
Graduate Student Affairs Administrative Intern, The Graduate School
Abbie Langston, Ph.D., received her degree from the Graduate Program in Literature in 2014. Named a 2015 ACLS Public Fellow, she is currently a senior associate at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity.
Why did you choose to go to graduate school and pursue your Ph.D.?
After graduating with my bachelor’s, I worked for several years before applying to grad school, but I also continued to pursue the research interests I had developed throughout college. When I finished college, I realized that I had only just begun to understand some of the questions I found most interesting and urgent in my chosen fields. So while I knew I wanted to take a break from the formal spaces of academia, I also still identified as a student. Independently and in a couple of self-organized groups, I was reading and thinking deeply about topics related to political philosophy, Marxism, critical race and ethnic studies, globalization, and social movements. After a few years of balancing that research with a full-time job, the idea of going to graduate school—and being able to devote most of my time to the reading, thinking, and writing I still wanted to do—seemed like an obvious choice.
What career plans did you have when you began your graduate studies? Did they shift while you were a graduate student, and if so, how and when did they begin to change?
To be honest, when I started grad school I didn’t have anything that could reasonably be called a career plan. I suppose I thought there was a possibility that I would earn my degree and end up in a faculty position, but I already had a fair understanding of the state of the academic job market, so I certainly didn’t go into it with the expectation that I would end up as a professor. I didn’t find the question of what I would do after grad school especially compelling; I was focused on the time I had ahead of me to study, the utter privilege of immersing myself in research and thought with almost total autonomy. I didn’t think of graduate school as a vocational endeavor, though in hindsight I definitely wish I had given more attention to professional development. I wasn’t focused on a specific career track, and the possibility that I might actually struggle to find a job seemed so remote that I didn’t really consider it.
Of course that all changed around the fifth year of my program, when I realized that my skills and experience might be basically illegible outside of academia, and that my interest in pursing an academic career really wasn’t strong enough to sustain me through a protracted (probably multi-year and quite possibly futile) application process. It was very late in the game that I started looking into other fields and career pathways to pursue meaningful research and develop a professional identity.
Tell us a little bit about your current job. What do you enjoy most about it.
I’m currently working at PolicyLink, a national research and action institute dedicated to advancing economic and social equity. I was placed at PolicyLink after being named a 2015 ACLS Public Fellow. (This fellowship program is designed specifically to help recent PhDs in the social sciences and humanities transition into non-academic public sector work, and provides two years of salary and insurance in addition to structured professional development support.) My job title is “Senior Associate,” but I am essentially a researcher on the Equitable Economy team. I love that my work gives me the opportunity to learn about and work with organizations and programs around the country that are developing innovative and self-directed solutions to the challenges facing their communities.
How did your graduate education at Duke prepare you for your current position?
Of course most new PhDs will experience a learning curve in transitioning to a non-academic sector, but there is actually a great deal of overlap between my life as a grad student and my work at PolicyLink. I’m doing research, writing, giving presentations, and I’m still constantly thinking about the same constellation of concepts and problems that I focused on as a student, though in a completely different framework. And there are a whole range of skills of that graduate school requires that can be leveraged in most any professional context: communication, time management and balancing competing priorities, giving and receiving feedback constructively, working collaboratively and independently, navigating difficult relationships, and so on. The experiences are transferable; the key is to make them legible outside of academia.
What was the best career advice you ever received? Or, what advice would you give to current graduate students – maybe something you wish you had been told but weren’t?
To current graduate students: Regardless of what your career goals are, and even if you don’t have specific career goals yet, I can’t recommend strongly enough that you take advantage of the extensive career and professional development resources available at Duke. Early and often.
Lastly, what is one of your favorite memories of Duke?
I spent 14 years at Duke—four as an undergrad, four as an employee in a couple of different departments, and six as a graduate student, so I have a lot of fond memories. But one of my favorite parts of my grad school experience was teaching an undergraduate class called “Race and the Idea of America.” It was a small, early-morning seminar with a group of incredibly smart, interesting, engaged students. Every day of it was a blast.
— Originally posted on The Graduate School’s Professional Development Blog