Expanding Scholarly Training and Career Horizons Through Public Scholarship

Molly McCarthy is the Associate Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute (DHI) with experience in the academy and the world of journalism. In October 2010, the New York Times Week in Review editors selected her essay, published by the digital history journal Commonplace, comparing the early American almanac to the iPhone as a “must-read” of the week. As the DHI’s chief communicator and grant writer, McCarthy seeks to continue to advocate broadly for the importance and relevance of humanities research. Follow her on Twitter @molmccar.

Graduate students often face two key challenges when they try to enhance their doctoral training through public scholarship: faculty support and time.

Neither issue is easy to solve. One involves a major cultural shift in departments dedicated to reproducing themselves. The other is made worse by current “reforms” that shrink time to degree so that students don’t have time to do anything but check off degree requirements in quick succession.

At UC Davis, we were able to address both of these challenges in our Mellon Public Scholars Program.

Mellon Public Scholars invites 10 graduate students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences to design and execute a community-engaged research project over the summer months. All of those students enroll in a spring seminar on public humanities scholarship taught by a faculty member who has experience doing this kind of work. They meet weekly to read and discuss the intellectual foundation of public scholarship as well as the skills needed to do this work.

On the first challenge of faculty support, we require Mellon Scholars to enlist a faculty partner who will serve as an advisor and consultant for their community project. Ideally, the faculty partner would be someone outside their own department or program, encouraging the widening of their mentorship network.

On the second issue of time, we purposely timed the community project in the summer months when graduate students have more flexibility. They are asked to devote 20 hours a week for two months to their community project. In truth, some extend that time, by choice, such as the Mellon Scholar who stayed on as a consultant to the California Department of Education to help them develop a statewide ethnic studies curriculum – the first of its kind in the nation.

Both of these decisions – aimed at combatting the issue of faculty support and time – have proved to be very effective. We now have a robust and diverse group of faculty, all of them champions of public scholarship, serving on our Mellon Public Scholars advisory board. Culturally, we’re beginning to see some movement in graduate programs such as our History Department, which has allowed the Mellon Public Scholars Program to count towards its degree requirements. The History Department also just successfully applied for an AHA Career Diversity Implementation Grant.

On the matter of time, we have had no shortage of students who want to be a Mellon Public Scholar. In each of the first three years of the program, we have seen applications of 60+ and interest is still growing. In other words, we have many willing candidates. We only wish we had more “seats” to fill.

And that brings me back to a question I was asked during my Beyond the Professoriate webinar: How can students explore the benefits of public scholarship if they don’t have access to a program like Mellon Public Scholars?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Apply to be a PAGE Fellow through Imagining America.
  • Reach out to local cultural/arts organizations to see if there’s a project you could help with.
  • Visit your state humanities council webpage. California Humanities, for instance, has a Humanities for All quick grants program that is ripe for public scholarship collaborations with cultural and community organizations.
  • Find out where public scholarship is happening on your campus and connect with faculty or project directors.

I realize not every university will have a program like ours. But students have begun to understand that they need to seek out more wide-ranging opportunities and get outside of their departments. Public scholarship is just one of many ways to do that.

Public scholarship will position you well no matter your career track. Very recently, we heard from a PhD candidate who was interviewed for a tenure-track position and all the hiring committee wanted to talk about was her community-engaged research project!



Molly McCarthy is the Associate Director of the UC Davis Humanities Institute (DHI) . As the DHI’s chief communicator and grant writer, McCarthy seeks to continue to advocate broadly for the importance and relevance of humanities research. 

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