Career exploration is like the assembly of a showstopper on The Great British Baking Show: the earlier you start, the better.
Don’t fret, though: there’s no five-hour time limit. And if you’re already enrolled in a doctoral program (or have already finished one), your search and your career have already begun. Because although you’re “in school,” time spent in a PhD program should always be conceived of as work. Universities, especially those that offer doctoral programs, are vast, complex, mission-driven work environments. In the day-to-day execution of their research, teaching, and service, and their contributions to the institution’s intellectual life and administrative functioning, graduate students navigate a dizzying array of physical and conceptual spaces within the university and engage a large and variegated swath of its stakeholders. Get used to thinking of your experience as a doctoral student in this way and to what it means for your trajectory in particular: it will prove crucial for everything from defining what matters most to you to articulating your skills on a résumé.
Let’s back up a step. Whether you worked for fifteen years before starting graduate studies or enrolled in your program four months after finishing your bachelor’s degree, it’s always worth asking: why the PhD? Reflecting on what drove you to pursue graduate study will provide you with important insight and a concrete starting place for career exploration. ImaginePhD, a free, powerful tool developed by experts in the field of graduate career exploration, is one of the best ways to embark on this process of reflection and to frame your skills, interests, and values.
Beginning your search in this way will set you up for success because it will help you map out potential career pathways based on who you are as a person and a professional, and not on anyone else’s expectations for what you should be doing. A PhD in the humanities does not necessarily have to lead immediately, directly, or even ever to a tenure-track position; even within the tenure track, positions vary widely in their nature and thus in their fit for you. Career paths are also almost always circular and iterative rather than linear and step-by-step. Rather than a strict binary of the professoriat and “everything else,” keep your eyes on the (very real) continuum of exciting and fulfilling career paths available to humanities PhDs, which spans a great variety of roles within and well beyond the university.
The MLA Annual Convention provides an ideal setting for exploring this continuum. Sessions on the job search, panels on the intersection of the humanities and industry, the showcase of career diversity, and the MLA Career Fair all display this range of possibilities. Workshops like those on résumés, networking, and LinkedIn will help you build the set of tools you’ll need along the way. You can see an extensive list of the professional development sessions on offer at MLA 2020 at www.mla.org/Professional-Development-2020. These sessions, and the people you meet, will show you that, while other work experience can be very helpful, you’re already prepared for a wide range of careers: it’s just a matter of translating the skills and competencies you’ve developed as a doctoral student into the broader world of work.
For more suggestions on the career search, and ways departments and faculty members can help, check out the wealth of resources available from the MLA’s Connected Academics project; the Doctoral Student Career Planning Guide is an excellent place to start. Good luck, and see you in Seattle!
This post was originally published in the Winter 2019 MLA Newsletter.