On Graduating and the Loss of Identity

The months following graduation proved more challenging than expected. Not because of my first attempt to take on the bewildering, crushing academic job market. Also not because of the loss of purpose I once had while writing and editing my dissertation. Those experiences were certainly part of the challenges that awaited me after my mentor placed the doctoral hood around my neck and after my official diploma arrived in the mail.

I felt lost. Time passed, and the sense of feeling suspended between worlds persisted. It followed me as I took on the role of adjunct and lined up classes to teach at my (now) alma mater. It remained stuck at the edge of my mind as I scrolled through posts on social media. Spaces once filled with familiar topics about academia and teaching, carried on by familiar names and faces, became alien. My usual retorts or curious inquiries fell silent. I had no words to offer.

This shift confounded me. I felt a persistent sense of dread that I no longer knew who I was.

But that didn’t make sense. I accomplished so much (so I told myself). Friends and family passed along their congratulations and well wishes. Their kind words and excitement sat heavy like a rock deep in my core. I felt ashamed I didn’t share in that sense of pride for what I did. I earned a doctorate, and that alone is a challenging feat. Less than 2% of the population in the United States has done the same, and being a woman, I was part of the less-than one percent. Or so I was told.

I struggled to understand this sense of loss – to understand why, after finally achieving success, my world seemed so out of sorts. Nothing seemed clear until, months after the fact, I understood.

For seven and a half years, I was in two graduate programs, in two different schools, in two different states. Goal-oriented and motivated by some undefined source of willpower, I devoted a portion of my life to earning two graduate degrees. For what purpose, I still struggle to know, but graduate school was more than what I did – it became who I was. It got under my skin. It changed the way I spoke. It changed the way I dressed and how I carried myself. It utterly redefined my very being.

And then it ended.

Why else would graduation and achieving the one goal I’ve worked toward for the past several years have such a disconcerting effect? I didn’t simply graduate from a PhD program, I lost an essential part of my identity.

It took me three months to realize that.

For years I’ve introduced myself as a graduate student. Doing so can carry so many different meanings, which I found to be a convenient means of explaining or excusing myself (why I didn’t have a full-time job, why I often bemoaned my economic standing, why I never had time to do ______ or go to _____). I never completely understood how doing so, year after year, reshaped the way I thought of myself, or how I perceived of myself.

On social media outlets, especially Twitter, where I grew accustomed to conversing with an array of scholars – food and drink aficionados, and other intriguing, sharp-witted people – it was as though I forgot what to say. I followed conversations but seemed to lack the ability to join. Even in day-to-day conversations and encounters, I felt like part of my personality was gone, evaporated into the ether, and I was little more than a spiritless automaton.

I suppose that is the danger of making a temporary identity such a fundamental part of your being. It is now clear to me why the lack of success on the academic market is so emotionally destructive to so many. It isn’t about the job that didn’t pan out. I wonder now if it is ever about the job. People can research, write, and teach in many capacities outside of the academy. No – it is about coming to terms that you have to separate yourself from an all-encompassing identity. You have to acknowledge that your hope of turning your graduate student identity into the different, but still familiar assistant professor identity won’t happen. It is the realization you have to separate yourself from all that is recognizable and comfortable.

The realization that it is time not just to do something else, but to become someone else.

It took me three months to come to terms with this transition, and while there remains some creasing for the iron, I finally feel a sense of peace. I have new tasks and objectives now, offered in the form of full-time, “alternative-academic” employment. I see new ways to apply the knowledge and skills gained over the past decade. I also recognize that I am more than a grad student. I am more than my PhD. I am not my degree, and neither are you. Knowledge and education can shape us in powerful ways, but in the end it is up to us to chart our own paths and remain our own advocates.

Only time will tell what challenges come next.

A (re)turn to the humanities?

To say the humanities have taken a beating the past several years would be a glorious understatement.

Slashed funding, shrinking departments, and the constant public rhetoric on STEM, “employable” degrees… the anti-humanities cycle continues to spin. As a result, college students are actively encouraged to avoid pursuing liberal arts degrees and instead focus on the degrees that “make sense” – you know, the ones that will land college graduates a job. This approach is understandable, as Scott Jaschik recently pointed out in Inside Higer Ed, the number of liberal arts majors tend to decline in times of recession. While the trend makes sense, the public discourse surrounding university degrees in the humanities has been brutal. These stories aren’t new. Each new development (Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to raise tuition for liberal arts majors, recent attacks on the education system in Wisconsin, and even backhanded remarks from the sitting President of the United States) seems to deepen the ever present sense of dread that seems to follow humanities advocates. That is, until recently.

Heritage National Archives
“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future.” Heritage statue outside the National Archives of the United States.

There now seems to be a turn back toward the humanities. Perhaps a glut of STEM majors flooding select job markets caused people to realize the necessity of a diverse education. Perhaps people are starting to remember that higher education is not simply pre-job training. Still, the number of articles coming out in recent weeks is a refreshing change in the discourse. – Drew Gilpin Faust

Last week, Forbes published an article on the value of liberal arts degrees in the tech industry (That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket) that made waves across the Internet. Some responded to the article with surprise, but for those involved in the humanities, this news isn’t exactly… news. For for an industry dependent upon creative thought, appealing design, and finding new ways to make software and computer programs an intricate part of our daily lives, a humanistic touch is necessary.

Drew Gilpin Faust, an historian and President of Harvard, recently dropped a perfect summation on the societal value of the humanities.

The world needs scientifically sophisticated humanists and humanistically grounded scientists and engineers who can think beyond the immediate and instrumental to address the bigger picture and the longer term.
– Drew Gilpin Faust

The humanities are a indispensable component of higher education, and a foundational aspect of an educated populace capable of critical, creative thought. Every semester that I teach the introductory courses on the history of the United States, I face a challenge in which I must prove to a (usually substantial) portion of the class that the study of the past is essential. Students absorb the vitriol that surround public discussions about liberal arts degrees, causing some students to see taking courses unrelated to their STEM majors as frivolous. They perceive the study of history as disconnected from their lives, or their ability to engage in the world as an well-informed citizen, which could not be further from the truth. It is my hope that this recent turn in the nature of discussions about the humanities and the value of liberal arts degrees may alter students’ perceptions and increase enthusiasm for the critical knowledge and skills such degrees offer.

Alt-Ac Panel at UTA: Starting the Conversation

On February 17, the College of Liberal Arts at UTA held the first in a series of panel discussions and workshops on alternative-academic careers (commonly referred to as “alt-ac”) for PhD students. Much credit goes to Dr. Les Riding-In, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs, for organizing this panel and establishing the College’s interest in helping students find success post-graduation. The purpose of this first panel discussion was, in essence, to begin the conversation between COLA and PhD students about career opportunities that exist beyond the tenure-track. The panel consisted of three presenters: Dr. Brenda Davis, Student Development Specialist at the UTA Office of Graduate Studies; Dr. Eric Bolsterli, Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Liberal Arts; and myself, ABD doctoral candidate in the transatlantic history PhD program.

alt-ac panel UTA
From left to right: Dr. Bolsterli, Dr. Davis, and myself.

The panel discussed a wide spectrum of topics; I presented on the necessity of learning what career opportunities exist beyond tenure-track positions, Eric Bolsterli recounted his experience following the completion of his degree and how he managed to find work as an administrator, and Brenda Davis covered the different strategies PhD students can use to find and apply for non-faculty positions. As the panel presented, Les Riding-In gathered questions written by those in attendance regarding their biggest fears in facing the job market, or life after graduation.

In my presentation, I emphasized why it is necessary for PhD students to consider options beyond the traditional career objective of a full-time, tenure-track position. While students across disciplines, and especially in the liberal arts, continue to see TT jobs as the “golden ticket” in terms of employment, the state of the job market shows that such an outcome is no longer a possibility for most PhDs. Overwhelmingly, most teaching positions in universities do not go to full-time, tenure-track employees; rather, 76% of jobs go to part-time, contingent labor known as adjuncts. A 2012 survey released by the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found that, out of 20,000 adjunct respondents, 54% were under the age of 35, and 52% reported earning less than $35,000 per year. You can read the full report HERE.

This has made an already competitive academic job market even more daunting for new PhDs. Still, most who enter the job market have one goal in mind: secure a tenure-track position. This is what PhD students are trained to prepare for, because it is the career academic mentors know. This has made TT jobs the marker of success after graduation, and alternative career options appear, instead, as a form of failure.

This should not be the case!

It is important for PhD students to be aware of their options; the post-PhD road does not exclusively run toward a tenure-track position. A multitude of career options exist both within and without academia. While many PhD students pursue a higher-level degree because they love what they do, it is still possible to put that passion and inspiration toward other careers. Tenure-track jobs are not the be all and end all in academia.

I encouraged those attending to do research on what jobs exist within the university system that may appear to be a good fit. Once they find alt-ac positions that seem interesting, PhD students should talk to the people in those positions to see what the job requires. Ultimately, it is crucial for PhDs and PhD students to recognize they have transferable skills that they can use to secure a career that is feasible and sustainable.

Following my presentation, Dr. Eric Bolsterli gave an account of his experience after grad school and how he ended up in his current position in the university administration. In his presentation, Dr. Bolsterli emphasized a number of points: first, the ability to build a reputation as capable employee is fundamental. For him, this meant construction a reputation as a good teacher. This helped him develop connections among UTA faculty, which led to a job offer to work as an advisor for the History Department. After applying for jobs and receiving no response, Dr. Bolsterli decided to focus instead on work in the administration.

Dr. Bolsterli stressed the importance of networking. He networked across campus; he became involved in orientation and recruiting. Once a position opened in the College of Liberal Arts focused on working with undergraduates in University Affairs, Dr. Bolsterli recognized that, based on his past experience and his reputation, it was not a stretch for him to move into this position.

Key points from Eric Bolsterli’s presentation:
– Networking is incredibly important.
– If you wish to stay in an academic environment, you have to be able to work effectively with students.
– Learn as much as you can about on-campus opportunities, and – again – network as much as you can.
– Don’t pigeon-hole yourself as “just” a PhD student.
– Communicate with professionals and students of all ages.

The final presentation came from Dr. Brenda Davis, who stated she followed the alt-ac path “in its totality.” After she obtained her PhD from TCU, she found that so few jobs were available, she had no choice but to explore other options. She worked with local museums and the administration office at TCU, in addition to teaching. She kept her eye out for jobs, but she acknowledged that she did not know at the time how to market herself or sell her skills. Eventually, she saw the job opening at UTA’s Office of Graduate Studies, and she described landing on her feet out of “dumb luck.”

Based on her experience after graduation, she now seeks to help PhD students pursue alt-ac, not just fall into it. She stressed the skills PhD students acquire and hone throughout grad school. She said PhD students develop skills that are much more advanced than the undergrads who are applying for the same non-academic jobs. Job candidates with undergraduate degrees simply have an upper hand in knowing how to market themselves. Dr. Davis stated that, as grad students, we too easily dissect what we can and cannot do; yet, that should not interfere with our ability to find steady work.

Even though Dr. Davis did not land the supposed “golden ticket” job, she said that she loves her career. She still gets to teach, challenge her skills (which she does through web development), and work with people.

Key points from Brenda Davis’s presentation:
– Figure out what you want to do, and find the corresponding skills.
– You should do something you love, just keep in mind that it may be in a different career.
– Think about why you love academia.
– Determine what skills you have and focus on that. If you have a hard time determining what skills you have, talk to someone and see what they notice about your skills and what you are passionate about.
– It is important for PhD students to know that alt-ac careers are becoming the norm.

Dr. Davis concluded by giving a tutorial on using Versatile PhD. This is an incredible resource for those looking to broaden their career options. If you have access to Versatile PhD, do not hesitate to make use of it.

During the Q&A session that followed, in which Dr. Riding-In read the questions written by the attendees, the following points came up:

– Career choices are not limited to choosing between community colleges and tenure track jobs. It is important to keep options open.
– Finishing a project on the magnitude of a dissertation forces the development of very transferable skills. Writing a dissertation requires massive organizational skills, the ability to research, and integrate that research in a cohesive, readable way. Underlining all of these is the fine-tuning of critical thinking skills, as well as the ability to handle criticism. It also forces one to adapt to problems and persevere. These skills are highly desired in positions outside of academia.
– One cannot pursue a doctoral degree because they expect to get a job as a professor. You have to love what you do; you have to want to do it.
– It is possible that a TT job is not the right job for you. Be prepared to shift your path as needed.
– Finally, it is important to take the first step – start thinking about and researching alternative career options now. Recognize that you have skills most people do not have.

Pending student interest, this series will continue with workshops to help students become familiar with the resources available through Versatile PhD, learn how to turn a CV into a resume, in addition to other professional development training for alt-ac and post-ac careers.

HIST 4388: Alcohol in the Atlantic World

Classes begin next week at UTA, which means the past few days have been full of course prep. I will say, having the chance to visit the local homebrew store to buy materials for class… well, it was a nice treat.

My kind of school supplies.

A few seats remain. To any UTA students out there, jump in and join the fun!

To everyone else not at UTA, but who may be interested in the class (a number of you have contacted me over the past few weeks), I hope to post regular updates related to the course throughout the semester. You can also follow course discussions on Twitter via the hashtag: #H4388.

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The course syllabus is now available. You can find it online here.