Expanding the Humanities PhD Market

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article Susan Welch and I wrote about the data the College has collected since 1996 on the placement of our graduate students in the social sciences and the humanities. In it we focus on how the 2008 recession affected placements for our humanities PhDs.

The short story, as mentioned in the article, is that “the impact of the 2008 recession was far more severe on our humanities PhDs than it was on their counterparts in the social sciences.”

We said that the trend away from tenure-line positions toward more non-tenure line positions is “worrisome,” but it is of course not surprising. Major colleges and universities, including ours, increasingly rely on fixed-term lecturers to provide high quality and dedicated teaching for our undergraduates. In the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State, we have sought to ensure that our lecturers receive good benefits, are integrated into the academic life of the College, and have fair, renewable contracts.

Still, the deeper question in relation to the placement of Humanities PhDs is how to respond to a situation in which the market of tenure-line positions for which we train students continues to be anemic. We didn’t have space to address this in the article, nor would it have been appropriate in that context.

However, there are a number of strategies we have adopted in the College to give our Humanities PhDs experiences that can help expand the markets in which they might more effectively compete.

First, we have developed the Humanities in a Digital Age initiative in collaboration with the University Libraries. Here is how we articulate its purpose and value:

The HDA initiative was created to enhance the research and public profiles of humanities faculty in the College and the University Libraries, open new opportunities for high caliber graduate placements in the humanities, and enrich the undergraduate experience by providing undergraduate students access to and support for cutting-edge humanities research.

By combining digital literacies with advanced humanities degrees, we hope to open new markets for our Humanities PhDs. These students bring advanced communication, analytic and critical capacities to their digital work and learn how to effectively use technology to build community, work collaboratively and engage a wider public beyond the academy.

Second, we have created a Graduate Internship Program for our social science and humanities PhD students. The program is designed to provide PhD students with an opportunity to learn more about the work of the wider university and to develop a wider range of marketable skills. This is how we put it on the website:

Recognizing that graduate students in the humanities and social sciences have highly sought-after writing, communication, and quantitative skills that can enrich the operations of units across the university, the Liberal Arts Graduate Internship Program (GRIP) is designed to connect graduate students in the liberal arts with those university units that can most benefit from their expertise.

We are working with units across the university to create a variety of these internship experiences. The hope is that such experiences will enable Humanities PhDs who obtain a tenure-line appointment to become more effective young faculty because they will have a better sense of how a university operates. But we also want to open new opportunities to those students who, by choice or necessary, pursue a career off the tenure-track.

Third, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State has recently become a member of the Humanities Without Walls consortium. One of the main initiatives of the consortium is to help pre-doctoral students in the humanities pursue meaningful careers outside the academy.

Finally, speaking of alternative academic careers in the humanities, the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) is hosting a symposium this spring on #Alt-Ac careers on March 3rd, 2014. I am looking forward to presenting on a panel about #Alt-Ac careers in the Liberal Arts.

All of these initiatives, however, are designed to augment and support our ongoing attempt to educate creative, incisive, and visionary scholars in the humanities.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Chris, Good planning and implementation. I wonder if the issue is a symptom of the increasing emphasis on the purpose of college education being vocational so academic tracks are narrowing. It seems to me, as a non-expert, that’s a major challenge to the humanities as such. Hope I’m wrong. Teed

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