Designing Your Way Forward with a Humanities Ph.D.

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Director of Graduate Student Advising and Engagement in the Humanities


A well designed life is a life that is generative—it is constantly creative, productive, changing, evolving, and there is always the possibility of surprise.

— Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

In the course of my advising at work at Duke so far, the humanities Ph.D. students who’ve walked into my office are some of the most talented, impressive people I have ever met.

They are also keenly worried about the state of the academic job market: the diminishing number of attractive, tenure-track faculty jobs in their respective disciplines, and the possibility that five to eight years of highly focused, rigorous study may not lead to one of those coveted positions.

Faced with such harsh market realities, what’s a humanities Ph.D. student (and an adviser) to do? Naturally, for those (the majority) of students still committed to an academic job search, we strategize about how they can enrich their academic preparation while still at Duke, and how they can represent themselves on the market in the most compelling ways.

But good strategies probably won’t alleviate the job-market anxiety. So I encourage all my advisees, regardless of career path, to also consider the factors in their career discernment over which they have tremendous control: storytelling. People from all walks of life—in all disciplines and career paths—rely on stories to help them make meaning of their experiences, identify values, and align their goals accordingly. Much of the time this storytelling is so automatic, we barely register what’s going on.

Most humanities Ph.D. students have a particular affinity for stories and are exceptionally skilled at reading, analyzing, synthesizing, and creating them in their scholarship. Perhaps (who knows for sure?) they are more likely to fashion narratives as a way to make sense of professional choices that, to the world beyond academia, seem to fly in the face of common sense.

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When I gently ask, “What else are you exploring?” a previously gregarious and enthusiastic advisee may suddenly get very quiet.

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Because they identify so closely with their academic work and goals, many of the graduate students I encounter have difficulty imagining themselves in any other line of work. The vocational stories they bring with them to Duke are reinforced by other stories they encounter in their Ph.D. programs—stories about what kinds of scholarship are most valuable, what kinds of academic positions are worth having, and what constitutes success and failure in academia. They may also be inspired by professional stories modeled to them by faculty advisers and mentors.

Is there anything wrong with this scenario? Aren’t these stories important and useful … especially if they help people focus on ambitious professional goals, sustain them through years of work and sacrifice, and propel many of them into academic jobs?

Actually, they are useful. The problem is that too many people—and I’m not just talking about Ph.D. students now—are walking around with just one story. And that story has way too much power over people’s behavior, choices, and (especially) self-esteem.

design thinkingThe phrase “follow your passion” has become so overused, that it elicits a faint wave of nausea from even the most quixotic among us. Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, cofounders of Stanford’s Life Design Lab and authors of Designing Your Life, argue that people seeking any satisfying outcome in life (and who isn’t?) are best served by adopting basic principles of design theory. One of their tenets is “anti-passion.” They claim to “hate” the notion of passion as a basis for career discernment, partly because so many people have trouble clearly identifying what they are passionate about.

Humanities Ph.D. students—who have sacrificed tremendous amounts of time, money, and goodness-knows-what-else to pursue academic careers—don’t have a problem with identifying a driving passion. But the single, driving passion may itself pose a problem.

Because when I gently ask, “What else are you exploring?” a previously gregarious and enthusiastic advisee may suddenly get very quiet. The master story crowds out other possibilities.

Burnett and Evans rarely, if ever, use the language of storytelling, but what they proscribe as good life design (including career planning) is basically telling stories, and lots of them. “One of the most powerful ways to design your life,” they write, “is to design your lives.” Operating on the assumption that every person holds the potential to flourish in multiple ways, they encourage students to create “Odyssey Plans”—more specifically, “three different plans for the next five years of your life.”

They make it sound so easy, don’t they? I can hear a chorus of frustrated grad students at this juncture: “What, we need a PLAN C??”

I won’t propose that Ph.D. students sit down this very moment and craft three “Odyssey Plans” or three stories for your life that excite you and that you feel an investment in.

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While you continue to pursue the goals that drew you to graduate school, I suggest that you also begin cultivating experiences and relationships that may generate new, parallel stories for your future.

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What I do suggest, however, is that you begin sowing the ground for other stories to take root. It will take time and patience. For consider: How long did it take for you to develop the narratives that currently guide your academic career trajectory? The story that ends with you securing a fantastic tenure-track job? Or the narrative of the dissertation that might someday be the foundation of your first book?

Those stories didn’t come out of nowhere, but were shaped through multiple relationships and experiences. The many conversations with your undergraduate adviser. The mentoring you received from your favorite professor. The conversations with colleagues around the seminar table. The moment (you remember so clearly) when you came across an obscure footnote in the library at 11 p.m. that helped you reframe your entire scholarly project.

While you continue to pursue the goals that drew you to graduate school, I suggest that you also begin cultivating experiences and relationships that may generate new, parallel stories for your future. Consider taking a digital humanities class or joining a Bass Connections team. Volunteer for a cause you feel passionate about, or arrange an internship at an organization that intrigues you. Set up coffee or lunch with non-academic professionals who seem happy and engaged in their work. Ask questions. Notice stuff. Be open to discovery and surprise.

Finally, talk to your professors, but have a new conversation. Ask them what they wished they had done in in graduate school. I’ll wager it wasn’t study more or work harder on the dissertation. And drop me a line when you find out!