What Do These Recent Humanities PhDs Have in Common?

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom


alumni luncheon

Luncheon for alumni and graduate students in the humanities and social sciences on April 5, 2018

What do you get when you put a museum historian, a professor of Victorian literature, and a nonprofit consultant in the same room?

Surprisingly, a great deal in common.

When we selected the Ph.D. alumni guests for the recent Graduate School Humanities Alumni Luncheon, our goal was to represent a variety of career paths. Anna Gibson (assistant professor of English, Duquesne University) was our sole faculty member. Ashley Rose Young (history) applies her historical research to curating exhibits and programming at the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian. Micah Gilmer (cultural anthropology, a “humanistic” social science) spends much of his time working with organizations and foundations to help bring about social change in meaningful and effective ways.

Beyond the fact that all three alumni received their Ph.D.s in humanities or humanistic social science disciplines and have incredibly cool-sounding jobs, it would be easy to assume that the similarities end there. But as each of our guests explained what a typical day on the job looks like and fielded questions from the students, certain shared preoccupations floated to the surface.

Work-life balance: Everyone reported putting a great deal of energy into figuring out an approach to this common dilemma. The challenge was especially acute for two of our guests, who have partners (and in one instance, children) living in different states. Wouldn’t work-life balance be a bit easier for Anna, who enjoys the more flexible schedule of a faculty member? Not so. A 9-to-5 position imposes a more rigid schedule, but Ashley reports that it helps her cordon off more personal time in the evenings and weekends. Anna, on the other hand, reported what graduate students discover early on—that the work of an academic, left unchecked, can seep into most waking moments.

Compensation and benefits: Too often, graduate students fixate on getting a stable (tenure-track) job, and compensation is almost an afterthought. Indeed, our conversation skirted the topic of money until a very practical career services counselor directly posed the question of salary. This part of the conversation yielded a number of insights:

  • Benefits (insurance, retirement) matter, but too many recent Ph.D.s overlook this part of compensation packages, which varies widely.
  • The actual salary number only has concrete meaning in the larger context of cost of living (all of our guests live and work in pricey urban areas).
  • We tend to forget that jobs “beyond the academy” usually come with 12-month contracts, whereas most faculty members have 9-month contracts. The relative freedom of an academic’s summer has a financial cost.

Balancing personal goals with organizational duties: Despite their different career paths, all of our guests expressed the aspiration of continuing to research, write, and publish. All of them also confront obstacles to that goal. Although some non-faculty jobs (e.g., foundations and think tanks) build in time for research, Ashley and Micah report that their “day jobs” are at once fully engaging and all consuming. Anna’s schedule (which includes a spring 2018 sabbatical) is more accommodating, but she said that graduate students likely underestimate the amount of time most faculty members spend on departmental and university service. Carving out research and writing time presents challenges for everyone.

I left the conversation grateful to Anna, Ashley, and Micah for their candor and generosity. I’m also still surprised—not only by the similar themes that emerged, but also how nearly everything we discussed transcends disciplinary differences and even career fields. Our attempt to conduct a session narrowly focused on humanities Ph.D.s at work generated discussion of difficult tradeoffs that could have emerged almost as easily from the context of a lunch with recent Ph.D.s in the social or natural sciences.

When imagining future careers, all of us have the tendency to fixate on some aspects of the job (for those focusing on academic positions, precise sub-field or the potential for earning tenure) and overlook others that may have a greater long-term effect on career satisfaction and happiness.

For example, I talk with many students about how to be competitive for both academic and nonacademic jobs, but I’ve yet to get an email from a student that reads, “Dr. Wisdom, I’ve love to sit down and chat with you about how to find a job within biking distance from my home!” While I admit this would strike me as odd, consider the frequently cited assertion (Dan Buettner: Thrive: Finding Happiness in the Blue Zones Way) that eliminating a daily commute equals a happiness spike of $40,000 additional income.

While I don’t expect students to be quite so pragmatic, I may be already preaching to the converted. Many humanities Ph.D. programs still encourage students to seize tenure-track jobs wherever they lurk–location, teaching load, and compensation be damned. From my vantage point as an adviser, however, I see a grassroots counterculture quietly emerging. Increasingly, the students I work with care deeply about the goals that brought them to Ph.D. study, but seek futures that make sense for the whole, complex, wonderful people they’ve already become.

In imagining future careers, we should be humbled by psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s assertion that human beings are terrible at predicting what will make them happy. But one of the many advantages of talking with mentors in careers you want to pursue is the benefit of vicarious hindsight. Anna, Ashley, and Micah all reported deep satisfaction with their work, yet also showed us that long-term happiness in any career is an ongoing, complex negotiation of multiple, shifting needs and priorities.