How to Re-frame your Humanities PhD for the Non-Academic Job Market

As I navigate the channels of professionalization as a humanities PhD student, I sometimes find that outside of the ivory tower, people hold a negative perception of our disciplines. Those who  currently tread these waters will know what I mean: brand strength, engagement rate, conversion rate, employability. These are just some of the terms in vogue at professional conferences in higher education. Administrators are often surprised (and relieved) that I know how to use these terms, and more so when I use them to explain and legitimize the humanities.

However, I sometimes find myself asking if the humanities are in need of an image overhaul, or as Jacquelyn Gill states in her blog The Contemplative Mammothan attitude adjustment.

Through the various presentations I have attended on my professional journey, I have learned that the perception of your organization matters. Whether it’s higher education, non-profit work, or private consulting, the classic diagnostic tool for this is the word cloud, where clients submit their feedback on the first words that come to mind when thinking about an entity.

What follows are the top three phrases I have encountered throughout my interactions in professional settings. I also include potential responses for those on the alt-ac or post-ac track in PhD programs.

So, what do people think about the humanities?

1. “The humanities haven’t made many friends.”
The basis of this statement is more ideological than anything else. It assumes that a humanities PhD is undesirable in the workplace because he / she is unlikely to be a team player. It is true that as traditional scholars, those of us in the humanities tend to be socially-minded. In reality, we might be more suited for human rights work, provided a modicum of training in international law.

Your response to this must show that while the critical perspective of the humanities is important to society, your orientation as a researcher is not anti-capitalist, anti-growth, or anti-establishment. Remember that in professional settings, you will be expected to deliver and document results, a process which is no different than what you do in a dissertation, but which, within the ivory tower, is often tainted as “neoliberalism.”

To land a job, you must show you are not at odds with society at large, that you don’t have problems with how the world works. As Stephen J. Mexal explains in his article in Pacific Standard, “You may think you are uninterested in capitalism, but capitalism is interested in you.”

2. “We’re not looking for bookworms, but people who are both interested and action-minded.”
Remember that before Miguel de Cervantes and Joseph Conrad became the intellectuals they are today, they were men of action. Conrad was a merchant mariner, Cervantes a naval infantryman. You are no different.

Here it is helpful to have internship experience so you can discuss the tasks you know how to perform. However, even without internship experience, there are ways you can demonstrate that your interest in the business (whatever it may be) motivates you to add to value.

First, use your research ability to learn about the industry in question. Chances are you will find the dynamic between its stakeholders to be intellectually stimulating. The influence an organization projects in society may motivate you to be a part of its team. Emphasize the fact that constantly changing projects within the workplace are something that keeps you engaged, and that this is something you don’t get enough of in academia.

Tell your potential employer that in effect, you are not at your most efficient level in academia because many of your skills are going to waste. Your analytical skills are appreciated only by an audience you can count on your fingers; your presentation skills, by students who may only be interested in boosting their GPA by taking a “soft” course.

In contrast, you are “hard.” Explain how you have invested your own money to attend professional conferences and workshops. Employers appreciate a self-starting worker, and by training outside the confines of your program’s strictly academic requirements, you are demonstrating just that.

Perhaps mention that you would like an opportunity to develop some quantitative skills. One of my colleagues from a recent internship, for instance, just landed a job with an investment firm that provides a three-month intensive training in equity research. She studied political science, not finance. Is there any real connection there?

Finally, leverage your experience with information. As a PhD, you are an expert content generator, which is what every organization needs in order to promote itself and reach out to clients. With a little training in the right software platforms (Photoshop, InDesign, WordPress), you should be able to discuss not only your ability to work with high volumes of information, but also your ability to distill it to general audiences. These activities are indispensable to any kind of business.

3. “We believe that the position is not up to the level of your advanced skills.”

This is a common misperception you will deal with again and again. Many employers believe that a PhD is a sort of “rocket scientist” who will become bored with the routine nine to five lifestyle and its bureaucratic humdrum.

What I mean to say here is that while PhDs are qualified, the breadth of the skills we develop is limited. Communicate to your potential employer that you want to work for them to develop your skill set. Take the statement and recast it: the skills required for that particular job are not actually taught to us, so we must take our own initiative in developing as future employees. Due to the high turnover rate in many industries from young workers, firms tend to appreciate employees who invest in them as signals of loyalty.

Changes need to be made to the branding of the humanities as a whole, but what I’ve learned is that this change begins with your own professional image. This “counter-brand,” as it were, will distinguish you from the typical PhD candidate. Think of it as a “contrarian investment style” where you play against the prevailing market forces in anticipation of a turnaround.

The phrases I have encountered in my post-ac journey act as confirmation of this impending reversal. All across the country, humanities departments are quite literally being sold off in exchange for other, more marketable fields. In five to ten years, the most successful humanities departments will have professional development as a requirement in their curricula. This is what will save them from the changing economy.

You are the pathfinders for that change, but in order to effect it, you must identify your field of interest, its stakeholders, and then tailor a convincing brand for their consumption.

Pierre Bourdieu’s “field” just took on a radical new dimension. And guess what? By working in the professional world, you will perhaps gain a stronger appreciation for your academic training than while you were actually in the academy.

Let’s make reading fun again.


Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and American foreign policy.

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