Humanities Departments After the Fall

By his second attempt to get a Ph.D., Alfredo Cumerma knew the kind of support he needed -- and that he recommends humanities departments put in place.

December 7, 2017

As I approached age 30 with a humanities degree, having suffered years of underemployment, depression and the need to live with my family, I promised myself that my next experience would not -- if I had anything to do with it -- be the same. My next shot at the Ph.D. (yes, I’ve started it twice) had to take on a radically different character.

And, in fact, in my second attempt as a humanist professional -- a breed that intentionally or by necessity is preparing for employment outside the academy -- I was lucky to have the support of a group of forward-thinking professors from the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University. I remember it clearly: over coffee at an off-campus spot, the institute’s director, William Egginton, and I discussed how earning a Ph.D. was in no way a nonrefundable ticket to solitary research. “We see literature more as life,” he told me.

It is thanks to professors like him that by now, in the fourth year of my program, I have been able to take roughly half of my course work in a separate division at the university, giving me a valuable subspecialty in foreign affairs that I have leveraged in the professional world. American Foreign Policy Since World War II, International Law, Theories of International Relations -- these are but a few of the courses I have completed at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

This cross-disciplinary approach has helped me land three internships to which I will soon add a fourth, as well as a conditional offer of employment, while enriching my research in ways I would have never thought possible had I not been exposed to those different modes of thinking. Like my professors, I have seen the humanities at work in various professional settings where doctoral training is an asset, not a liability.

Nevertheless, it has not been a smooth road. I came into my program knowing exactly what kind of professional outcome I wanted because I had learned the hard way. And I knew that institutionally, humanities departments as a whole have not often been wired for evolving market demands.

So I took ownership of the process. First, I chose the right advisers: people who get along with and support each other in a collegial, down-to-earth way. Let’s not forget that one of the main causes of psychiatric conditions like depression in Ph.D. students (one in three are at risk) is bullying supervisors.

Second, I thought of a plan by asking myself some basic questions: How could I develop my research in such a way that it created dialogue with the discipline most immediately connected to my target sector of foreign affairs? How could I achieve this without sacrificing the vital humanistic inquiry and analysis we are accustomed to? After all, the humanities are present all throughout society; they are, in many ways, a highly transcendental discipline. Or as Charles Hill, a Yale University professor and former diplomat, so aptly said in his Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs address, the humanities have the capacity to be “predisciplinary.” That is, they are the wheel within which all the other domains of knowledge are contained.

It’s important for those of us who are in Ph.D. programs as well as for the future of the humanities as a whole to innovate, not reform. Too many times have we seen humanities advocates take a defensive posture against change. While I am also such an advocate, I say our best defense is an offense. No jobs? Create your own. For me, that meant rebranding myself as a communications specialist with a background in foreign media analysis.

Third, I reached out to the dean’s office. As Ph.D. candidates immersed in our course work and teaching, it is easy to forget that the strategic-level decision makers at our own universities are often our best allies for innovation. They are the people responsible for growing programs, attracting greater numbers of students and supporting student success -- the latter of which is perhaps the most relevant, given the median program completion rate of just 42 percent among humanities Ph.D. students.

Thus, I informed those administrators of what I was doing, reported my success in securing internships and generally proved the worth and validity of my approach. The response was positive, since these senior officials are constantly seeking ways to render university programs more attractive, competitive and, yes, lucrative. As difficult as it may be for some of us to accept, departments and disciplines actually compete with each other for funds, talent and other forms of capital, just like any other organization.

That has been my full-circle turn, and during it, I have received the following types of support that I believe will come to characterize the humanities departments of the future. In fact, I recommend that other graduate students in the humanities urge their departments and institutions to put such support in place.

Stipends for internships. This is the most pressing and necessary component of future doctoral training in the humanities. Employers today don’t care so much what you studied; they look for the experience you’ve gained along the way. As a result, it is imperative for the future financial security of graduates that fellowship or assistantship funding be adjusted to allow for pay during internship semesters.

Integrated technology training. Some of the most in-demand skills I’ve noticed during my internships are those associated with specific technology platforms: WordPress, Excel, InDesign, Photoshop. In many content-driven industries, they are used for consulting reports, policy briefs, magazine articles and social media marketing, among others. We humanists are experts at generating content, yet our departments offer little assistance in developing such competencies. In my personal case, I have had to spend thousands of dollars (in loan money) to complete the necessary workshops. Those of us in the humanities should urge our departments to help provide us such training.

Dedicated advising personnel. A number of institutions have hired a career counselor specifically trained to advise doctoral students from all disciplines. This is an example to follow, as humanities Ph.D.s have distinct hurdles to overcome in selling themselves to employers, even for internships. One of them (from personal experience) is the overqualification hump, where you must prove that you are not too “high and mighty” for that internship staffed mostly by undergraduate students.

A second type of training involves crossing with the sciences. At Hopkins, for instance, the school of engineering offers one-credit professional development seminars for Ph.D.s from all areas, a definite strength of our program. Before I graduate, I will have taken courses such as Effective Professional Presentations, Project Management and Management Consulting.

I encourage more Ph.D. students to pursue this type of career counseling and job training -- and more institutions to offer them.

Room to maneuver. In many departments, the required course load in one’s primary field is so burdensome that students are reluctant to explore other areas. But at Hopkins, I have been able to find the humanities in other fields such as foreign policy or management consulting, all thanks to the flexibility of my program. Many of these fresh, innovative connections between our fields and those of specific industries are impossible to make without distancing oneself from the canon, yet they are indispensable for showing that the humanities have an impact on public life. Peter Drucker, for instance, the founder of American management consulting (and former professor of politics and philosophy), calls his field a “liberal art” and says that the humanities will regain their relevance when they return to the openness that makes them what they are. The key to becoming a better manager? “Learn to play the violin,” Drucker would say.

Employer education. The problem that many humanities Ph.D.s face in the professional job market has to do with perceptions. As such, it is important that departments invest time and money -- as they do for guest speakers or visiting candidates -- in educating human resources officers on the benefits of hiring a Ph.D.

Many times, employers simply do not know what a Ph.D. means or how it can contribute to their organization. Instead, they view it as an alien credential for those guys who should be working only at places like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or that really, really bookish kid with poor social skills whom you knew in college.

Hiring managers need to be invited to campus so they can see the kinds of skills and projects our humanist professionals are working on. This not only creates relationships for future employment, but it can also result in greater funding opportunities for humanities departments, with projects that show that we have something to offer the public and private sectors.

Businesses, think tanks, nonprofits, museums and government agencies need people who can rapidly analyze large volumes of information and turn them into comprehensible bytes. They need people who can make decisions when the “right” choice is unclear, when the information is incomplete and when conditions are volatile. Isn’t that what we do every day as we teach, assess outcomes and interpret large bodies of works? But someone needs to educate organizations about that fact.

To close, I might offer advice to graduate students seeking change within their departments. As cliché as it may be, there are three “I's” for improving your doctoral education in the humanities: innovate, inform and internship. You must begin by defining a project that sets you apart, an idea you can “brand” intellectually as your own but also pitch to employers. Once that is in place, you must inform stakeholders -- high-level administrators, professors from other divisions, networking contacts -- about your goals. Then you can leverage that support to obtain internships, the magic ingredient for jobs. After that, the only “I” left to satisfy is you.


Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and American foreign policy.


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