Creating Community in Your Department
Lessons Learned from Career Diversity
The AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians initiative is leading a national conversation to better align the purpose of doctoral education with the varying skills, values, and interests of graduate students and the changing professional opportunities for historians within and beyond the academy. In the spring of 2018, 20 PhD-granting history departments were awarded Career Diversity implementation grants to support a team of faculty and a graduate student fellow to collaboratively build sustainable cultural and structural change in their doctoral programs. After two years of work at our partner institutions, we asked the fellows to discuss what they’ve learned and share some of the innovative ways they are creating student-centered doctoral programs that prepare history PhDs for a range of careers.
In this post, the first of a six-part series, Career Diversity fellows Brian Campbell (Univ. of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Vanessa Madrigal-Lauchland (Univ. of California, Davis), and Derek Kane O’Leary (Univ. of California, Berkeley) discuss how building community among faculty, students, and alumni enables departments to create inclusive cultures and support the agency of students in shaping their paths through graduate school.
Why is creating community important to the work of Career Diversity?
VML: Creating community is integral to our work for Career Diversity because it shaped how we advocated for a student-centered educational experience in two phases. First, we worked to understand the needs, expectations, and experiences of our students. We held listening sessions and focus groups, had no-holds-barred conversations on the realities that alumni and students experience, and worked to address the adversity that students face within and outside the academy. Second, we worked to increase mentorship, transparency, and access to resources. The foundation to our model for multiple mentors underscored that students are best understood in our complex and interconnecting communities: professional, kinship, neighborhood, friendship.
BC: For graduate students and faculty to have open and honest conversations about career outcomes diversity, we must create spaces for collective knowledge-building and learning. We also learned that alumni need to be an active part of our community. Establishing alumni networks provides opportunities for graduate students to receive advice and guidance about navigating the nonacademic job markets.
Community became foundational to our work to empower students to think broadly and creatively about their future careers.
DKO: The PhD experience is often fragmented (i.e., course work and qualifying exams, qualifying exams and research, research and writing), which can also fragment the community of students who might inform and support each other. A fifth-year student should know what exciting new research question the first-year student is asking, and the first-student should know about the career development resources the fifth-year student benefited from. The caricature of the graduate student laboring in isolation is truly ill-suited to success and to student wellness, which Berkeley’s Erin Leigh Inama, Sarah Stoller, and James Vernon have written about for Perspectives.
What techniques has your department used to create community among students and faculty?
BC: We’ve organized several events at UIUC that bring together faculty, graduate students, and alumni. In March 2019, we hosted a working dinner with graduate students and faculty, where we discussed how departments could better support the professional aspirations of their students. In the 2019–20 school year, we began a series of “coffee conversations” where the department chair and director of graduate studies met with graduate students twice a semester to discuss matters related to career diversity and the job market. We’ve also held panel discussions that connect current students to graduate alumni working in library science, academic advising, and higher education administration.
VML: Community became foundational to our work to empower students to think broadly and creatively about their future careers. Over the last two years, we organized monthly and quarterly events that sparked a drastic change in our graduate student culture. With topics including “Demystifying the Qualifying Exam” and “How to Conduct Summer Research,” as well as sessions on mental health, community support, and union updates, these meetings provided a space for peer mentorship. The department provided crucial support for these meetings by providing food and making sure that discussion sections were not scheduled during the designated meeting time, so that TAs could attend. To institutionalize this progress, students have created a formal History Graduate Student Association (HGSA) with elected officers, and are mapping out a formal peer-mentorship and accountability program for the future.
DKO: Berkeley faculty members have been wonderful partners in this work. As at Illinois and Davis, getting faculty and students in the same room to discuss specific career development skills has been very positive. In these workshops, faculty can reflect on their own experiences, which makes career development more tangible for students. We’re also excited to promote contact between current students and alumni working outside universities; our “networking lite” event brought together 75 current students, graduate alumni, and faculty in February.
Getting faculty and students in the same room to discuss specific career development skills has been very positive.
What benefits have you experienced from building community?
BC: We’ve noticed a change in how graduate students and faculty talk about career diversity. Over two years, we’ve helped shift the language away from “alt-ac” to “career diversity.” This shift is crucial because it establishes the fact that graduate students do not view their professional lives as an either/or choice. Instead, most of us come into graduate school wanting training that prepares us for multiple career pathways.
VML: Building community at Davis has resulted in three key advancements: first, the students have a self-sustaining structure in place to foster peer mentorship in the form of the HGSA. Second, building a cross-campus community resulted in increased attendance at workshops, events, and other programs. Third, students, faculty, and administration are working together to create the department’s first GradMap, a one-page guide with information previously assumed implicit to the academic experience, such as how to access mentorship networks and funding or cultivate professionalism.
DKO: Having a language to describe one’s career development, tools to work on it, and a community that endorses, validates, and sustains these choices is essential. I see this reflected in the frequency and openness with which people talk actively about their career development, which didn’t seem to exist during my earlier years at Berkeley.
Brian Campbell is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studies the history of sport, race, and media in the United States.
Vanessa Madrigal-Lauchland is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis, where she researches the urban crisis in Latinx and Black communities in the United States.
Derek Kane O’Leary is completing his PhD in summer 2020 on the history of archives in the early United States at the University of California, Berkeley, after which he will join the faculty at Bard High School Early College in Washington, DC.
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