What do Humanities Ph.D. Students Need? Part II

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


When Versatile Humanists at Duke launched its website and blog in January, I posed the question, “What do graduate students in the humanities need?” My goal in that reflection was not to focus on specific skills or competencies, but illustrate mindsets and habits of thought that could help Ph.D. students anywhere navigate uncertain job markets from a position of confidence, competence, and strength.

What, however, do Duke humanities Ph.D. students need? To help me get the lay of the land in these early months, I distributed a survey, which sixty Ph.D. students across ten humanities and interpretive social sciences completed. I am grateful to these students, who reinforced my growing sense that I am working with a group that is highly diverse in background, life experiences, professional goals and development needs.

The following survey takeaways demonstrate why there can be no “one-size-fits-all” approach to how VH@Duke supports students.

1. A variety of professional interests and goals

Of the students who completed the survey, the largest number (46 percent) are “focusing on tenure-track jobs but are intrigued by other options.” The next largest category (19 percent) indicated that while they are still planning on applying for tenure-track jobs, they are “leaning towards other kind of work.”

These numbers suggest that 65 percent of respondents are feeling a real tension between cherished academic pursuits that brought them to graduate school and other paths determined by competing interests, marketplace realities, or both.

As we address this tension, VH@Duke must neither become a purely “non-academic careers” program, nor assume that every Ph.D. student will find (or wishes to find) a satisfying and sustainable role in academia. Rather, we must encourage students to be curious, nimble, and adaptable—qualities that at times may seem to clash with the specialization and focus demanded in most Ph.D. programs. We must also encourage students to identify and discard harmful stereotypes about the kinds of work intellectuals can and should be doing. Faculty mentors and advisers can help, although only slightly more than half of the respondents (31 out of 60) said they felt comfortable discussing non-academic options with their professors.

graph 1


2. A variety of professional development needs

Initially, I was surprised to note that in some categories, respondents report more confidence about their readiness to apply for nonacademic positions than for academic ones. For example, over half of respondents report feeling “Well or somewhat well prepared” to write application materials (52 percent) and interview (58 percent) for nonacademic positions, but fewer than half of respondents report the same level of confidence in applying (47 percent) and interviewing (37 percent) for academic positions.

From this information I drew two conclusions. First: Ph.D. programs might need to provide even more mentorship and support for students entering academic markets than they currently do, especially in light of the extraordinarily competitive conditions within many of those markets. Second: We should not underestimate the amount and variety of professional experiences that some of our graduate students have had before (and receive during) their time at Duke. For example, when asked about their experiences with project management, student responses included professional management roles in software development, journalism, nonprofits, higher education administration, and the federal government. They also reported a range of related, extracurricular experiences at Duke, including roles on Bass Connections teams, in digital humanities labs, and organizing academic conferences.

Graph 3


3. A need for improved communication, translation, and information

Whether or not students can already include a varied list of experiences and skills on their CV or résumés, the survey—both in the numerical data and the comments—reveals considerable anxiety about translating these skills effectively to the job market (both academic and nonacademic). For instance, finding the right language and phrases to bridge the academic world and non-academic world can be challenging, even unsettling. While most of our respondents interpreted “project management” as the process of managing complex projects (regardless of field or context) with defined timelines, limited resources, and clear outcomes, a few comments voiced discomfort with such a “corporate” term. A few respondents also presumed that this term signified a relatively narrow career category, rather than a skill set or a type of experience with relevance for myriad academic and nonacademic work settings.

Clearly, a more robust conversation within the academy about complex, translatable skills is necessary, as well as a much greater awareness of the realms of professional life beyond it—and even within it. One respondent described roles in higher education administration as “mind-numbing,” and I found myself wondering whether this comment was generated by wide experience in the profession (possibly) or the lack of it (also likely).

Finally, it’s clear from the survey that more can be done (through VH@Duke and other campus outlets) to inform students about the information and resources already available to them, and how they might benefit. Despite the fact that 79 percent of students reported a more than passing interest in careers outside the academy, 69 percent of respondents have not participated in any Graduate School professional development offerings, such as the Careers Beyond Academia Series, mentoring programs, or the Emerging Leaders Institute.


Action items

Hopefully, these reflections on our survey results will be interesting—and perhaps in some way useful—to both Duke humanities Ph.D. students and to the faculty who work with them. For the purposes of VH@Duke, we will continue to acknowledge the diversity of students’ experiences and needs by offering a diverse range of programs and opportunities. Through one-on-one advising, we can offer customized support for individual students, and prepare them for whatever’s next, whether inside or beyond the academy. We hope to serve as a bridge-builder between academic departments and the many other organizations, centers, institutes, and schools that exist across campus. We hope to foster open, productive conversations between Ph.D. students, faculty, and administrators. Most importantly, we want graduate students to talk with and learn from each other. We see enormous promise in graduate peer networks. As with every interaction I’ve had with graduate students at Duke thus far, my engagement with this survey left me impressed with everything our Ph.D. students bring to the table and the amazing things they are already doing.