Transition Q&A:
Scott Muir

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

Faculty job; also interviewed for religious life administration/chaplain jobs and career center jobs.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Social Science Research Fellow at the National Humanities Alliance. This is my current position.

How did you get this job?

I heard about the job through the Versatile Humanities program at Duke led by Maria Wisdom. It was immediately clear that it was a great fit, as I had both the survey design and quantitative analysis skills NHA was seeking and a strong commitment to the humanities. It only took about six weeks from when I first heard about the position to when I accepted a job offer — a refreshingly swift process after 2 years on the academic job market!

What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?

I design surveys to measure the impact of programs funded by the National Endowment for Humanities, work with NEH project directors to implement those surveys, and write blogposts and advocacy materials that present the data collected in conversation with broader conversations about related social issues, the value of the humanities, and the importance of federal support for them. I also get to support my colleagues’ research projects and lobbying efforts, sharing resources, editing their work (and benefiting from their editing), and discussing relevant issues together.

What most surprises you about your job?

Working on a team of great people within a healthy work culture means having a lot of good ol’ fashioned fun. We laugh a lot and eat ice cream together on each other’s birthdays. Here, having unadulterated fun together supports work that is driven by shared goals rather than personal interests, whereas my experience in academia was the work was somewhat fun and the collegial fun was somewhat workish, in part because the shared goals could be overshadowed by competition. Having fun laughing with coworkers about completely unrelated stuff is liberating.

What are your favourite parts of your job?

I love being part of a proactive and positive team-effort that feels highly relevant and important, especially at this particular political moment. And I love being in a position to encourage and affirm some unsung heroes, those who work to make invaluable public humanities projects come alive. I am also greatly enjoying the opportunity to work on writing more succinctly and accessibly while tackling big picture issues more boldly; in other words, de-academicizing my writing towards broader engagement.

What would you change about it if you could?

Fluorescent lighting and back-lit screens! I work in a cubicle 9-5 and spend more consecutive hours staring at a computer screen than I would like. Adjusting to conventional organizational structures (i. e., chain of command) has been a greater challenge than anticipated. I am a fairly independent person who guards my freedom jealously. I had the kind of PhD experience where I drove the ship, building a coalition committee to support my project rather than following a more vertical apprenticeship model, not to mention making my own hours. So it’s been an adjustment with aspects of it quite refreshing (real weekends are awesome!) and others fairly challenging.

What’s next for you, career-wise?

Good question! I think the hardest thing about the way my job search resolved was that I remain stuck in what I call post-doc purgatory. After being in grad school for 8 years (counting my master’s) and spending more than 2 years applying for jobs, I was really ready to have some clarity regarding my long-term career direction. Instead, I landed a two-year post-doc in the “alt-ac” borderlands, where I still have a toe in academia (I adjunct online at Western Carolina University) and another reaching out to worlds far beyond, with most of me in the middle for the time being, trying to figure out if there is a viable place for me in this alt-ac space long-term.

I’m also dreaming up how to turn my academic research into popular non-fiction, and this work offers some helpful experience in that general direction. So it’s also one of the best things about this position: I can pivot in several different directions now without having to make a huge leap. I appreciate that expansiveness at the same time that it’s dizzying and very hard to let go of the longing for a clear trajectory and just stick with this part of the journey.

What advice or thoughts do you have for PhDs in career transition now?

Oh geez hang in there! I thought I knew what I was getting into with the challenging job market and that I was comfortably playing a wide range of options and would be OK whatever happened. I was totally naive. It’s a brutal process and a brutal market. The gauntlet of rejection takes its toll, and the widespread despair about the state of our world and higher education certainly don’t help. It’s easy to think it won’t happen to you. And when it does it’s easy to be beaten down to the point of doubting what you have to offer and becoming alienated from your core capacities and sense of self.

What I learned is that you have to give yourself space to feel all that and respond to those feelings with compassion if you’re going to find your way through the thicket with your center intact. If you’re feeling less intelligent, confident, and capable than you did when you got into your PhD program (we all felt really smart then, right?), know that is normal and ironically a testimony to how much you have learned and grown through the process. You ARE actually stronger, smarter, and more capable, even if that’s not how you feel at the moment! And there are many, many ways you could share those strengths with the world. The question is, which is for you?

Scott Muir
Scott Muir earned his PhD at Duke University in Religious Studies. He’s now a Social Science Research Fellow at the National Humanities Alliance. He also teaches online at Western Carolina University. Find him online at nhalliance.org/staff.

Share this article

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn