Leonard Cassuto

Professor at Fordham Univ

Can You Train Your Ph.D.s for Diverse Careers When You Don’t Have One?

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Image: Kevin Van Aelst 

The one thing all professors have in common, whatever our subject, is expertise. People expect us to know our stuff. Students pay for that expertise, and our peers value it, too, when we write articles and give talks. Graduate students aspire to expertise, and the credentials we award them — especially the Ph.D. — signal that they’ve achieved it.

As important, professors demand expertise of ourselves. We wear our specialized knowledge as part of our professional armor. We might be novices at rock climbing or bridge, but our work? That’s another story. We want, even need, mastery of our intellectual domains.

So what happens when we find ourselves in a professional setting where we don’t feel like experts? Talking about a subject we don’t know very well? Fear of that scenario is precisely why so many professors worry about teaching graduate students about diverse career options for Ph.D.s.

The reality of too many Ph.D.s for too few tenure-track jobs has led to the "career diversity" movement. Most Ph.D.s aren’t going to become professors, but we train them as though they will. Career diversity is simply the understanding that graduate students will go into any number of different fields, including but not limited to academe.

The pressure is on departments to train graduate students for multiple career paths, but how can we teach about something we don’t know? We’re comfortable teaching doctoral students about how to become professors — rather too comfortable. We know how to do it because we already did it ourselves. But we’re not experts at getting other types of jobs.

I’ve given dozens of talks on graduate education at universities around the country, and when the subject of career diversity comes up, one of the FAQs goes something like this: "Being a professor is the only job I ever tried to get. How can I teach my students about something I don’t know?"

Teaching career diversity in graduate school yanks professors out of our comfort zones, and our familiar curricular precincts. That can be nerve-racking for people who identify so strongly with mastery of a particular subject.

But exploring new territory can also be exciting. A recent professional development seminar at the University of Michigan shows that unexpected rewards await those willing to descend from the expert’s lectern and wade into the uncertain pool of collaborative, improvisational pedagogy.

When David Porter, a professor of English at Michigan, decided to teach a graduate seminar on "Professional Humanities Careers" this past spring, he wasn’t sure what to expect. He knew he wanted to expose students to "the evolving nature of humanities professionalization." But he acknowledged that he lacked the same exposure himself.

With the aid of a small Mellon Foundation grant via Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School, Porter designed a course that would, he hoped, pair "serious conversation about the state of the humanities" with "pragmatic and professional" questions of jobs and work. He offered the course to advanced graduate students across a range of humanities departments.

It "was hard and uncomfortable," said Porter, "to contend on a daily basis with my ignorance" of the course material. The feeling was "the opposite of what you usually bring to a graduate seminar" — that is, professorial mastery. Reflecting on the experience, Porter realized that "I had to embrace a vulnerability of my own."

The students were similarly disoriented. After all, they were out of their comfort zones, too. Just as professors expect to be specialist experts, graduate students expect to learn from specialist experts. "I thought the course would be composed of guest lectures," said Grace Mahoney, a third-year student in Slavic languages and literature, in an email. "Instead, it was more of a discussion among ourselves, informed by texts and course assignments, which required active participation."

Porter developed the course in collaboration with Stacy Hartman, project manager of the Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics Program, which is exploring ways to prepare doctoral students in the humanities for a variety of careers. (Hartman attended class discussions by Skype.) The two integrated readings and discussion with site visits to different workplaces, like a public radio station and a technical consulting firm.

Assignments were likewise unconventional. In addition to preparing sample job packets, students had to profile several nonprofit organizations and conduct informational interviews with Ph.D.s working "in full-time positions doing anything except college or university teaching."

Elizabeth Tacke, a fifth-year student in Michigan’s joint program in English and education, praised these "great hands-on assignments" in an email. She valued them not only because the work proved "immediately applicable to navigating the nonacademic job market," but also because it changed her professional perspective. The class "helped me see" that the academic and nonacademic worlds are connected in "real, concrete ways," she said.

There’s an ethical imperative intertwined with these practical issues. Mika Kennedy, a fifth-year graduate student in English, said in an email that the course "framed the job search" as more than just employment. Kennedy "never assumed" she would become a professor (though she hopes to). But now she’s thinking about "how people can be genuinely of use to the world." She said, "I want the time I’ve spent getting this Ph.D. to genuinely matter."

Porter was "surprised" by the students’ flexibility and "profound" commitment to teaching as a vocation. There were no "sour grapes arguments" about "getting stuck" with a nonfaculty job, he said. Instead, he watched his students imagine lives that "put aside" their dissertation specializations. He saw them thinking in "open, capacious ways" about how to use their research skills in the service of social justice. In fact, two students in the seminar immediately got internships at the Detroit Justice Center (which aims to break the school-to-prison pipeline that traps some members of disadvantaged populations).

In the process, Porter learned from the work of his students, and reconsidered the meaning of expertise for himself. "I thought about the use of my dissertation in my career," he said, "and I realized that for me, too, it was about the methods, about learning how."

Porter watched his students learn about possible careers, and he learned from their "willingness to break out of expectations." His experience teaching the course was "eye-opening and encouraging," he said, but also "humbling" and "inspiring."

And, Porter noted, "it was so different from what my colleagues, and I, represent and embrace."

After taking the course, Grace Mahoney said that she wished it could be "more integrated in the Ph.D. process. That would "save students a lot of grief and work." It might also show professors that, even when we don’t know it all to start, we can still teach.

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