Revising the Ph.D. Student, or “Managing Oneself”

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom

Managing Oneself

Last week I presented on VH@Duke at an MLA-sponsored professional development seminar for English department chairs. The program theme was “Humanistic Studies and Careers.”

Activities included a poster session on innovations to humanities Ph.D. programs, with the goal of preparing students for a broader range of careers. Such innovations ranged from dedicated courses on humanities careers, to new graduate certificates, to Ph.D. programs in the public humanities.

Toward the end of the seminar, someone asked me how important I thought it was to revise humanities Ph.D. programs. I found myself blurting out, “Not as important as revising the humanities Ph.D. student.”

I was surprised by my own comment, not only because VH@Duke supports Ph.D. program revision, but also because this spontaneous reply could have been misconstrued to imply some fault or blame with graduate students themselves.

Here’s what I meant to say. As important as Ph.D. program revision is, changes in university curriculum tend to be slow and incremental. For individual Ph.D. students—especially those who have only one or two years left in their programs—the most valuable innovations will be changes they make themselves, in areas they have control over. Strike both the academic curriculum and the academic (and nonacademic) job market. I’m talking about a student’s individual perspective, outlook, and behaviors—a set of attitudes and dispositions that at Duke we have identified under the umbrella “Versatile Humanist.”

Re-examining Assumptions

To borrow a concept from Peter Drucker (often described as “the father of modern management”), Ph.D. students are increasingly called upon to manage themselves. In his 2008 landmark essay, Managing Oneself, Drucker pointed out that modern knowledge workers (that is, people in professional occupations across industries) could no longer take two long-held assumptions for granted:

  1. That organizations outlive workers
  2. That most people stay put (in both careers and in organizations)

If we are reading the news and paying even a modicum of attention to the work experiences of friends and family outside of academia, we know that Drucker is right. As the dot-com bubble, tech startups, and the gig economy illustrate most vividly, organizations have often become transient and fragile things. Frequent restructuring, layoffs, and mergers exacerbate feelings of instability for 21st-century workers. The average American employee currently holds 10 different jobs before age 40.

But this doesn’t apply to academics, right? Many graduate faculty and Ph.D. students still cling to two assumptions, even as they hold true for a shrinking number of people:

  1. Universities and colleges aren’t going anywhere
  2. Faculty who get tenure can stay—and may want to stay—at the same organization for a lifetime

These two assumptions are related to a third assumption that (according to Drucker) characterized the postwar American workplace: that organizations would manage the careers of their knowledge workers. And if we examine the traditional model of Ph.D. student training and formation, we see this assumption very much at play.

New Models of Professional Development

At humanities Ph.D. programs across the country, doctoral students receive most or all of their professional mentoring from faculty within their Ph.D. programs, who still often presume that Ph.D. students will have careers that resemble those of their faculty advisers, in tenured positions that provide lifetime job security. For students to gain these coveted positions, they must adhere to guidelines and expectations laid out by faculty advisers—from how to design a dissertation topic, to when to submit papers for publication, to how to write a job market cover letter.

This model worked just fine when there were more faculty positions to go around. But aside from neglecting the needs of students who don’t wish to become tenured professors, it places graduate students in a passive position in respect to their professional development. Professional development, in this model, was something that doctoral students at most universities could expect senior faculty members to provide.

Not only is this now a model of inadequate professional development, it is also a recipe for anxiety, pessimism, and a victim mentality.

While I’m not suggesting that graduate students worry less (worrying seems to come with the territory), I am suggesting that we ditch the postwar assumptions that Drucker and others rejected at least a decade ago. Will universities and colleges still be around for the duration of your career? Definitely not all of them, and those that remain will look very different by the time you retire. If you get tenure, can you stay in place for your entire career? Maybe, but will you want to?

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges that Drucker identifies for the modern knowledge worker is staying productive and engaged over an increasingly long lifespan.

If we acknowledge that universities have begun to resemble other modern organizations (another trend beyond individual or immediate control), we need to adopt a more contemporary understanding of self-management. Simply stated, self-management is about taking control of, and responsibility for, your own professional growth.

Happily, many Duke Ph.D. students are doing this already. I see them making tremendous progress in their programs while taking advantage of a wide range of academic and professional development resources at Duke and beyond. These students have productive relationships with their graduate faculty, but also seek out multiple mentors with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

New Perspective for Humanities Ph.D. Students

Other strategies critical to self-management, according to Drucker, include the following:

  • Knowledge of self. “Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.”
  • Knowledge of others. “Most people work with others and are effective with other people. … Managing yourself requires taking responsibility for relationships.”

This advice might seem like common sense, but when we contextualize it within a Ph.D. program, it implies a paradigm shift in our definition of a professional scholar. To take the concept of “managing oneself” seriously and put it into practice, we can’t spend all our time cultivating ideas and scrutinizing texts.

Might cultivating your relationships be just as important as cultivating your ideas in a seminar paper or dissertation?

Might strengths and work habits—both your own and those of others—be as compelling a subject of reflection alongside the last scholarly book or trove of archival materials you analyzed?

Humanities graduate students need to pose and answer these questions for themselves, but not in isolation. Reach out to a trusted mentor or form new ones as you find a community in which to explore new ideas and develop strategies for your professional growth. Or schedule an advising appointment: I would love to hear what you come up with.