How humanities and social sciences PhD programmes can adapt to a challenging job landscape

Postgraduate studies in humanities and social sciences help graduates build skills that are applicable across multiple sectors and career paths. Ray Haberski Jr explains how to shape relevant and adaptable PhD programmes in these disciplines

Raymond Haberski Jr's avatar
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)
9 May 2022
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Universities constantly hear that they must respond to the market for the sake of their students. My experience suggests we respond to our students first; they will build the market.

Rather than redefine what we mean by “alternative academic” or “alt-ac”, which describes the application of skills and knowledge to areas outside academia, let’s ask students to join doctoral programmes that give them the space and freedom to build “all-ac” careers. Doctoral programmes in the humanities and social sciences train graduates for work well beyond the professoriate – we need to embrace that fact.

Graduate programmes in the liberal arts need to leverage the talent all around them – in their students, faculty, and communities – to create opportunities for work outside universities from the beginning of their programmes, not in desperation as they move closer to the end.

In 2015, I worked through the approval process for a new doctoral programme in American Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Along the way, I developed a pithy way to describe the programme – where traditional PhD programmes in American Studies trained students to be academics, the IUPUI programme would train them to be everything else. But what did that mean?

Recruit the whole student, not merely the part that has an interest in a departmental specialisation. The first cohort who entered the IUPUI programme included a student with extensive non-profit work experience, another with significant training in the visual arts, and a third with a business background who had also taught successfully online. Rather than assign each student to one specific research area, we aligned their past experiences and current academic interests with multiple internship and research experiences. That led the first student to work with our Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and, eventually, for the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce on economic development for marginalised residents. The second student moved from coordinating a series on ethics and public art to coordinating discussions among urban planners to finally writing a dissertation that is being used by local organisations on the ethics of how communities see and understand development. The third student drafted fundraising plans for a small humanities centre and created multiple ways to deliver public programmes for the centre in digital environments. That work became especially significant when the pandemic hit.

Let students use the whole campus. Taking courses across disciplines, fields, and schools should not be the exception but the rule. Our doctoral programme requires only two courses in American Studies and encourages students to look for classes in methods and theories from the social sciences and humanities, philanthropic studies and bioethics. That might mean taking courses on race and education when developing new approaches to diversity training, or courses in visual communication design when developing a way to map the power relationships among non-profits in a city. 

Students need flexible schedules. One of the greatest innovations of our programme might also be one of the most obvious to our students – we discovered that students want to do PhDs part-time. Rather than consider full-time students as the core cohort, recruit a diverse group of students who have outside jobs but who also have the will and the way to develop. Many arrive in the programme already connected to a dynamic network and want university training to develop beyond their current job and create new opportunities.

Be creative and persistent when seeking funding. Given the financial austerity under which many universities exist, graduate programmes need to be pluralistic when considering potential funders. Programmes should look beyond the usual suspects of cultural institutions and consider how doctoral internships can operate as idea labs for a wide variety of institutions, from municipal agencies to private companies. For example, we asked a municipal healthcare agency to fund research into urban nutrition; we proposed that the chamber of commerce create a research assistantship in economic development; and we found that corporations without obvious humanities profiles are very interested in the skills and perspectives that our students bring.

Our students have helped build a new kind of humanities PhD. They have been collaborators in the scope and goals of their programme and have built bridges to communities that the programme can work with. Our students are nimble and creative, doctoral programmes should draw upon and develop their varied talents.

Raymond Haberski Jr is professor of history and director of American studies at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

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