What I Wish I Had Known When I Started

By William D. Goldsmith
Ph.D. Candidate in History

GoldsmithEven those of us without religion typically feel a calling to graduate school that is hard to explain through a standard self-interest model. We start Ph.D. programs not because we see a career but because we see a problem. We frame that problem with our particular disciplinary tools of biology, economics, or literature, but we are interested in taking the time to work out the puzzles without calculating too precisely what that will mean for us in the end.

Inevitably, though, there is an end, and with that end, we each must find a (gulp) job.

For those of you just starting graduate school, it is easy to think that the end is a mote on the horizon, and as an advanced graduate student heading into my seventh (and final!) year in the Duke history Ph.D. program, I can report from experience that often it feels like it will never come. But I can also report that in certain moments you will see graduation just around the corner, staring you unflinchingly in the face. For me at least, it was disorienting to come to graduate school to solve a puzzle that felt much bigger than my own narrow life and find on top of it this nagging but quotidian riddle of how to convert that dissertation research experience into bread and butter.

Adding up the pages read, lectures attended, classroom and coffee table discussions had, I’ve imbibed far more knowledge than I anticipated when I submitted my acceptance to graduate school. But entirely unexpected is how much I’ve learned about what is broadly called “professional development” or “career development.” For a sample of what I mean, look at the other posts in this blog. You’ll get hardboiled and savvy advice about networking and interviewing, finding mentors and internships, and vetting job opportunities inside and out of the academy. In addition to this space, check out The Graduate School’s Professional Development blog.

Thinking instrumentally about my skills doesn’t come naturally to me, an attribute I seem to share with many of us in Ph.D. programs. Yet, if you are a first- or second-year student, you will (or should) talk to the students who have been around the longest. (In my case, camp-out for men’s basketball tickets was a great way to meet such students when I was a first-year.) When I did, I was inundated by horror stories of the job market on the other side, which quickly stimulated keen anxieties about my employment prospects.

Whether when I started graduate school or now, as I prepare to leave, I am neither hardboiled nor savvy. But the horror stories did at least compel me to consider the job placement numbers: The Graduate School conveniently provides such statistics, and you should take a look at them for your own discipline if you haven’t already.

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You may want to be a tenure-track professor so badly that the numbers don’t matter, but even so, I would advise you to explore what it is that other people with Ph.D.s go off and do with the skills they’ve acquired.

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It is especially important that you do so early in graduate school because it can be far too easy to ignore the job question until the crisis of completion begins (or ends). We are often told that the most important thing that we do is our research, and that all the rest—teaching, networking, connecting with interdisciplinary work or general audiences—is secondary at best, a distraction at worst. Implicit in much of our graduate training is that the only future in front of us (or at least, the only future worth pursuing) is as tenure-track academics.

You may want to be a tenure-track professor so badly that the numbers don’t matter, but even so, I would advise you to explore what it is that other people with Ph.D.s go off and do with the skills they’ve acquired. Compared with most of my colleagues, I have been fortunate to have mentors who see that graduate training can do more than simply prepare us to write articles, present at conferences, grade papers, and serve on gridlocked committees. Through the years, in collaboration with other graduate students, I have helped organize several small conferences on how Ph.D. students might develop and market their “transferable skills.” I can now at least articulate the logic behind “networking,” even if it remains discomforting to practice. (My defense, in brief, is that what sounds and sometimes feels grubby can be a necessary and often pleasant process of finding people with like-minded interests, a way of building relationships that might never have congealed if left up to blind chance.)

Moreover, The Graduate School has gotten better at facilitating a more complete conversation about life post-graduation in the six years that I have been at Duke. Take advantage of all the seminars it offers to help us market our skills. Go talk to the informative and engaging speakers it brings in to discuss their experiences. Study the clear-eyed empirical data it provides about hiring. The blog that you are reading is a strong signal of Duke’s commitment to fostering a more robust conception of what graduate training is good for and how we can find fulfilling work, whether in or out of academe.

Such events have been great opportunities for me to meet people with Ph.D.s who do things other than work as research professors. Many of them did the tenure-track thing and found that they were far happier doing something else—whether working for think tanks or advocacy nonprofits, teaching at community colleges or high schools, serving in government posts or starting their own businesses.

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Thinking about what will happen to me after graduation is something that should and can be done in between deep draughts of Foucault and Braudel.

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Even with a cold look at the odds, I still want to be a tenure-track professor because I still love teaching and researching in such equal measure that I don’t want to give up one or the other. But developing yourself for academia is compatible with a broader notion of professional development. Honing your transferable skills in project management or data analysis, networking with people outside the university but in related fields, even interning for an organization for a summer (as I am doing now at RTI International thanks to a Versatile Humanists program). Figuring out how to relate your research to people engaged in different enterprises will only enhance your capacity to communicate effectively as a scholar, and it will strengthen the quality of the questions you ask in future research. If you start early, it will productively influence the questions you ask in your dissertation.

So what do I know now, after six years in graduate school? That thinking about what will happen to me after graduation is something that should and can be done in between deep draughts of Foucault and Braudel. That anxiety about tenure-track jobs is best leavened by connecting with people and organizations outside the academy who do the kinds of things and tackle the types of problems that interested me in graduate school in the first place. That the content that I will master is important but that the process by which I learn to do so will matter even more.