“So…what will you do with that?” New thoughts on PhDs and careers

“So…what will you do with that?”

It’s a question we’ve all heard.

It could be coming from your mother, your grandfather, your cousin’s fiancée, or the person sitting next to you on an airplane– if you’re a PhD student, you’ve no doubt you’ve faced this question on multiple occasions. Most of us, particularly those of us in the humanities or social sciences, have really just one answer for them: college professor.

The truth is, most of us know that there are other options besides the professoriate (or the traditional tenure-track), but we don’t know what they are. What’s more, we don’t know how to talk about our skill set outside of the university setting.

Thanks to the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) Pre-Doctoral Workshop, we now have a new set of answers (should we choose to use them). Funded by the Mellon Foundation, the workshop gives humanities PhDs the opportunity to meet people in a wide variety of careers (many of them with PhDs in humanities themselves) and even sometimes to visit them “in their natural environment” (at the workplace). At the same time, the workshop helps us to recognize the skills we bring to the broader non-academic workplace, as well as equip us with the know-how to use media and public forums to make that apparent.

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We went to foundations and design thinking firms, everywhere from museums to LinkedIn, to community organizations and marketing agencies. We heard from freelancers and storytellers, talked with career advisors and musicians, with consultants, writers, municipal and federal employees, curators and executive directors. It was phenomenal experience. I learned about places and jobs I didn’t know existed. We got real talk from freelancers and people who followed their passions to start their own organization or company. I highly recommend it. To give you just a little taste, here are the 6 biggest takeaways for me:


Even if you are a graduate student who has very little work experience outside of what’s built in to the PhD, you have skills. If you’ve ever TA’ed a class, you’ve managed people. If you’ve run a workshop or planned an event, you did project management and event planning. If you ever solicited feedback for ANYTHING (were you on a committee? a graduate student rep? did you design a survey?), you likely solicited and collected data and reported those findings.  And we were told time and time again during the HWW workshop that good writing is a skill in high demand, and less easy to find than you might expect.

2. Don’t undervalue your non-academic work experiences.

For a long time, I felt like my non-academic experiences, particularly the jobs that I did because I had to in order to support myself in my Master’s, were things I shouldn’t talk about. In academia, the grant, scholarship, or fellowship is how you prove your worth. Having an outside job seemed to me to be a red flag, a sign that potentially I wasn’t top tier (which, lets face it, matters in the academic world). So, I didn’t talk about my work experiences and as I collected more grants, I had almost forgotten I even had them. But the truth is, those experiences ARE valuable in the non-academic world.

Some of my random secret jobs:

Catering I needed money and sometimes got free food. But I also led and managed teams, organized and facilitated events. I learned how to please major university donors (one of our major client groups).

Photographer: I photographed weddings, bar mitzvahs, university events. I’ve always loved photography, so usually this didn’t feel like work. But it comes in handy and means I know how to use photoshop really well, can sort through and evaluate MASSIVE amounts of visual data, and again, am experienced in customer/client relations.

Newsletter Editor: for a small campus institute that employed grad assistants. Newsletter Editor was my official title, but it was really a catchall for a communications role that included a little bit of campus and alumni outreach (their was another grad assistant that dealt with the community). I planned newsletters and fliers, did cold-emailing for contributors, edited their submissions (made sure they submitted them on time), wrote for a general audience, compiled updates from institute affiliates, and even solicited donations.

But the truth is, all of these skills are relevant for a future faculty member too, who will undoubtedly plan a conference or event, deal with the larger university community, necessarily have to consider student satisfaction, and ideally can communicate in multiple registers. Just because the academic CV doesn’t value these roles doesn’t mean that a faculty member doesn’t need the skills that come from them.

3. Be honest with yourself about your career values.

On the first day a career advisor came and gave us a list of work values. It included things like location, salary, creativity, social impact, prestige (and much much more…it was four pages). You may think, “I don’t need a worksheet to know those things.” Taking the time to actually label “very important,” “somewhat important,” “neutral,” and so on, was truly enlightening. You might discover that there are academia doesn’t fulfill your most important career values. Or, it may be that you simply have to mold your career as an academic to prioritize certain values. If you haven’t sat down and identified specifically what’s at the top of your list, it’s easy in the bustle of life to forget to make those things a priority. I even realized that I often convince myself to prioritize things that were pretty low on my values list.

This should also help you to get out of the “I’ll take any job” mentality. PhD students are often so prepared for the dismal prospects of the job market that they overcompensate. Don’t sell yourself short. You might not have your dream job right away, but you should be looking for a job that’s right for you. But how do you know what that is? Well, identifying career values helps. But the next step is…


Try to meet people in arenas you might be interested in. Talking with them may help you decide that their job doesn’t align with your most important values. They will probably suggest other contacts for you. We heard time and time again that in the vast majority of circumstances, connections will lead you to the path to your next job. Volunteer, pick up side jobs (of course, within reasonable limits of your PhD demands- you can do these things in a PhD, just don’t underestimate convenience!). Expose yourself to the inner workings of new projects, institutions, and organizations.

You likely have networking skills already (those transferrable skills!). If you went to a conference or talked with a faculty member who gave a talk on campus, you’ve established a contact. Don’t be afraid to use them. If they don’t respond or they aren’t willing to talk, then just move on.

5. Recognize what you CAN and DO get from being in the academy.

Remember that EVERYONE is a potential contact. Often people feel that the non-academic job is so taboo in departments that they’re afraid to broach the subject. I’m extremely fortunate to be in a department spearheading new programs for History PhDs, in a discipline actively thinking about widening the range of “end goals” for PhDs, and at an institution more broadly thinking about what a wider array of career options for PhDs looks like. Even if you don’t have programs as robust as these, in all likelihood, there is some faculty member in your department who is sympathetic to the PhD looking for non-academic jobs. Find them. Tell them what you’re looking for. They are highly educated people who probably know people who aren’t academics– either because they have spouses, college friends, kid’s friend’s parents or some other contact with other industries.

You may have career officers on campus to specifically aid the MA and PhD job search. If not, there is a whole new industry of web-based post-PhD career advisors. Think positively and creatively about your PhD community as an asset rather than a barrier to your academic career. Consider your colleagues assets. Try to find out from senior PhDs in your program whether anyone from your program has left academia. Ask if they have friends you can meet. You are fortunate to be surrounded by educated people- take advantage of that to find out who they know.

There are lots of perks of being in an academic environment. The work environment is, to some degree, customizable. You may choose to try to make academia fit your personal and career needs. You may find you can live without some of those perks, or identifying those that you don’t want to live without may help you pinpoint where you would be happiest next. And if you decide academia IS for you, you’ll be a stronger faculty member for knowing how a humanities student (PhD or undergrad) can find a place into the non-academic world.

6. It’s never to late to start.


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I hope that this insider’s peak into the HWW work gives you a little bit of insight into what “beyond the academy” is all about. To me, it’s not about a bitter rejection of the academic pursuit, but thinking differently about academia does, could and should do. And these six takeaways are only the tip of the iceberg. The HWW workshop was an immensely rewarding experience for a host of other reasons. For one, it puts all those things I suggested in action for you. The programming was impeccable, the staff unbeatable. Two, it was empowering to hear the stories of so many other people who had come before us and succeeded, and comforting to hear that they overcame their struggles. Three, the view (can I say that?).  Four, amazing Chicago businesses, museums, and places for three straight weeks. Five…the stipend…


Not least, I had the opportunity to meet 29 other phenomenal PhDs from around the region, who were not only brilliant and interesting, but generally just super fun.

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(Karaoke, humanities PhD style)




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