Gains and Losses
Evaluating What Matters Most When It Comes to Career
I checked into the AHA annual meeting this past January feeling apprehensive. For me and countless other graduate students, the annual meeting can be stressful and overwhelming, even if we’re simply there as observers. Adding to this trepidation was the fact that I had been selected by the AHA to attend the Modern Language Association’s Career Development Boot Camp.[i] The boot camp promised to build graduate students’ professional skills, expand our networks, and introduce us to humanities careers outside the professoriate. I was excited by these promises, but I was also hesitant. The prospect of attending a five-day “boot camp” brought to mind images of marathon résumé reviews, interview prep sessions, and LinkedIn workshops. Needless to say, the images did little to calm my nerves.
When I arrived at the first MLA career development session, though, I felt an immediate flood of relief. I found myself surrounded by 24 peers who were equally apprehensive. For the most part, we had come from different institutions, and we represented a wide range of fields in the humanities. Yet we all came to the boot camp with open minds and were ready to have sustained, difficult conversations about the perils of the tenure-track job market and our fears of going “alt-ac.” Initially, these conversations centered on loss:
Am I giving up or selling out if I pursue a career outside the academy?
Am I letting my adviser down if I look at other types of jobs? Or worse, am I letting my family down?
Am I really qualified for jobs outside of academia?
Very quickly, though, the boot camp’s leaders asked us to shift the conversation from one focused on what’s lost to one focused on what’s gained by going “alt-ac.” They reminded us how the term “alt-ac” has hierarchal connotations. The term implies that a tenure-track academic career is the norm while anything else is an unwelcome deviation from that norm. The term also works to isolate academics from the thousands of other humanists working beyond the academy. Put simply, the term obscures the myriad connections between humanists working inside academia and those working outside of it. After all, postsecondary faculty don’t hold a monopoly on research, writing, teaching, and public engagement.
The MLA career development boot camp opened up a space for humanities grad students and PhDs to talk about career diversity in broad terms. Many career development workshops focus narrowly on skill identification and development. Certainly, the MLA boot camp helped attendees pinpoint our core skills, as well as those that need further development. We spent equal time, however, talking and thinking about how our values and interests relate to career development. Prior to the boot camp, I thought that any job, anywhere outside of academia with a set schedule, a living wage, and healthcare was the ultimate benefit of a non-tenure-track career. The MLA boot camp helped me to confront this assumption head on and to engage difficult questions about how topics like job fulfillment and satisfaction fit into conversations about career diversity in academia.
We began with a values inventory exercise developed by Stanford University that had us rank certain values as high, medium, or low priority. Values were grouped together into three main categories: work environment, personal values, and work motivators. Very quickly, I discovered that I cherish work motivators and personal values such as work/life balance, health, and family. Prestige, distinction, and being on the cutting edge fell low on my list.
A follow-up exercise asked fellows to come up with a two- or three-word title to describe ourselves, but the words could not be related directly to graduate school. Everyone in the room struggled immensely with this exercise. Many students’ research interests align closely with their identities and experiences outside of academia; separating research and identity, then, is an impossible task. Personally, I was paralyzed because I have treated graduate school like an 80-hours-a-week job where I’m always on call. And spending that much time working on a dissertation doesn’t leave a lot of time for interests and hobbies like sustainable gardening and cooking.
It’s no secret that graduate school is challenging both academically and mentally. Attaining success often requires us to chip away little pieces of ourselves as we try to squeeze into the molds that our advisers, departments, and membership organizations set for us. Coursework requires full days and weeks of reading and notetaking; preliminary exams require whole months of work. It’s not surprising that by year four or five, many of us struggle to remember that we have lives, interests, and hobbies outside of coursework, prelims, and research.
I haven’t come up with a two- or three-word title for myself since leaving the MLA workshop, nor have I settled on a career path. I have, however, stopped approaching ads for jobs outside the academy with anxieties about my qualifications, and I am less fearful of letting go of the tenure-track dream. Instead, I have started asking a new set of questions:
Does this job align with my core values?
What about this job excites or inspires me?
What kinds of contributions to the world could I make if I accept this position?
The MLA boot camp opened my eyes to some of the personal gains that can arise from career exploration. For me and many other history PhDs, career development workshops can be draining and leave us feeling overwhelmed, as we add “skill development” to our ever-growing lists of things to do. By having us pause and reflect on our lives outside of our research, however, the MLA boot camp demonstrated that career development is as much about discovering our values and interests as it is about pinpointing our skills. Conversations about career development outside the tenure track can and should include workshops on résumé building, skill development, and networking. They should also make room to reflect broadly on how our core values and interests might guide future job searches.
Olivia Hagedorn is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she studies women, gender, and the African diaspora in the Midwest. Her dissertation is titled “Call Me African: Black Women and Diasporic Cultural Feminism in Chicago, 1930–1980.” It examines the internationalist politics of Chicago’s black women cultural workers.
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