Broadening Career Opportunities and Training for PhDs: A Discussion at ASEEES

By: Melissa Bokovoy, University of New Mexico

Editor’s note: This issue of NewsNet is dedicated to helping SEEES specialists explore careers beyond the professoriate and offering examples of career development strategies for making themselves marketable in multiple fields. With the guidance of the ASEEES Committee on NonAcademic Careers, we have assembled a variety of articles that address this issue from multiple angles, beginning with Melissa Bokovoy’s article reporting on the efforts of the MLA, AHA, NEH, and Mellon Foundation to prepare humanities PhDs for diverse career paths. Then, we feature three Member Spotlights of ASEEES members who have successfully shifted their careers from the university to nonacademic or academic-adjacent fields. Taking a different perspective, Jonathan Larson’s piece looks back at a 2015 ASEEES roundtable that discussed ways in which regional studies training, especially analytical skills of anthropologists and sociologists of Central Europe, might be transferred to “the global” and to careers in and out of the academy.

To further assist our members, ASEEES announces a new program, Exploring Career Diversity, a service that matches professionals employed beyond the professoriate, with PhD students and recent PhDs who are interested in broadening their career horizons The 2017 convention will again offer a roundtable on careers beyond academia.

Over the last five years, there have been numerous discussions and initiatives that seek to broaden the career horizons of humanities and social sciences doctorates. Scholarly organizations such as the Modern Languages Association, the American Historical Association, the Council of Graduate Schools, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) posit that the public and private sectors benefit from the expertise and values derived from advanced education in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. As the SSHRC’s White Paper notes, a humanities PhD has not only mastered a body of knowledge and written a dissertation but they have engaged in “original, critical thinking, effective communication, creativity, empathy, innovation, problem solving, project management, and leadership.” Thus, graduate programs in the humanities and humanistic social sciences need to sharpen these existing skills and add additional competencies to reflect how intellectual work is being conducted in the 21st century.

The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has responded to these initiatives by establishing the Committee on Non-Academic Careers, sponsoring panels and roundtables that explore careers beyond the professoriate, and setting up a network of mentors who work outside of the academy. The intent of the ASEEES initiatives is to provide forums and opportunities for graduate students and recent PhDs to speak to and learn from professionals in different nonacademic fields such as government, finance, consultancy, think tanks, global education offices, publishing, academic administration, and non-profits; to provide career information and online resources about career diversity; and to advise those interested in such career options.

Attendance at the career panels over the last few years demonstrates that graduate students want practical advice about how to transfer their skills, disciplinary knowledge, and degree to non-academic work. What often becomes clear in these discussions is that few PhD programs have focused on preparing their students to earn a living beyond the academy or contribute to public culture in other ways. Thus, the issue of how to broaden PhD training emerges as one of the central challenges of graduate training in the twenty-first century. This challenge was addressed at the 2016 ASEEES Convention by the roundtable, “Lessons Learned: Initiatives on Careers Beyond the Professoriate.”

Representatives from the AHA and MLA and their pilot programs discussed their Andrew Mellon Foundation sponsored programs that are examining how to broaden career opportunities and training for PhDs in the Humanities. The roundtable participants were: James Grossman, Executive director of the American Historical Association; Emily Swafford, Manager of Academic Affairs of the American Historical Association; Stacy Hartman, Project Coordinator for Connected Academics, Modern Languages Association; Lindsey Martin, Mellon Career Development Officer for the Department of History at the University of Chicago; and Melissa Bokovoy, Chair and Professor, Department of History at the University of New Mexico. The latter two panelists are also members of ASEEES and represented two of the four pilot programs of the American Historical Association-Mellon Foundation initiative on Careers beyond the Professoriate.

The roundtable was an opportunity to report on the work that is being done in the MLA’s Connected Academics project and the AHA’s Career Diversity program, and engage ASEEES members in the ongoing discussion of how to broaden graduate training and provide support to PhDs who wish to pursue careers beyond the professoriate.

James Grossman summarized what the AHA has learned from its focus groups, pilot programs, and interdisciplinary collaborations. He explained that the AHA’s work thus far has shown that, while individuals have very different definitions of the problems in humanities doctoral education, the solutions proposed by people situated in different places in the ecosystem demonstrate a remarkable level of consensus. Graduate curricula in the humanities need to evolve in following way and based on essential skills:

  • Students must be required to practice communicating their knowledge and research to a wide range of audiences across a range of media, including a basic familiarity with digital tools and platforms;

  • Students must develop intellectual self-confidence, which is the ability to work beyond subject matter expertise, to be nimble and imaginative in projects and plans;

  • Curricula must provide intellectually relevant opportunities for students to work collaboratively toward common goals with others, both within and beyond their discipline. Our consultants beyond the academy emphasized the imperative to include internship opportunities whether on campus or off;

  • Graduates who lack a very basic threshold of quantitative literacy are disadvantaged in careers both within and beyond the academy.

In all cases, the AHA has observed, these key elements of curricular emphasis will enhance the professionalization of students who go into faculty positions, too.

Lindsey Martin and Melissa Bokovoy discussed the programmatic and curricular innovations and initiatives piloted by each of their programs to systematically incorporate these essential skills into graduate training, from beginning to end. Each emphasized what changes might be of interest to graduate students, scholars, directors, and administrators in area studies.

  • Seminars. Seminars are at the heart of graduate education. In them, students begin to master fields of study, learn research strategies, grapple with methodology, and imbibe professional norms.

    • Enhancing the Seminar. To enhance the value of these seminars in and beyond the academy requires that instructors devote more space and time to addressing different skills embedded within traditional assignments (book reviews, literature reviews, research papers). Instructors can also innovate new assignments within a traditional seminar. Assignments can be as varied as a five-minute TEDx talk, a one-page policy brief, or an op-ed piece based on the reading or a student’s research. This first approach can be seen as enhancement; the second approach (below) requires more faculty, departmental, and interdisciplinary input and resource allocation.

    • “Design and Develop” Seminars. This approach is ideally suited for interdisciplinary and area studies seminars since many are often built around themes. These seminars can be less regimented, with fewer preset reading and writing assignments and an explicit focus on having students conceptualize and pursue projects. An instructor can style the class as a practicum and focus several class meetings on thinking about public engagement or policy application. An instructor can also opt for either a traditional or untraditional final project. This approach can pair well with public policy or digital projects and encourages students to direct their own careers. These types of seminar can also make use of alumni networks or internships.

    • A combination of these two approaches may best serve most graduate programs. The first approach introduces students to existing professional conventions while prompting them to think about how these build valuable skills. Design-and develop seminars build intellectual self-confidence and grant students more room to pursue their intellectual and professional goals.

  • Internships. Internships can provide the sites in which graduate students broaden their experiences, tailor their knowledge, expertise, and skills to a different set of work expectations, and to learn and practice more deeply the skills of cross-cultural communication, speaking to and with the populations they write about, and build relationships outside of university. A robust internship program can make community engagement integral to graduate education as well as make better use of alumni who are working in non-academic careers. These alumni can mentor current PhD students and address the stigma of nonacademic careers in PhD training. Beyond altering cultures within departments, funding and resource allocation for such graduate assignments entered the conversation. Working with programs and graduate schools to convert assistantships into internships is necessary for most programs, given resource constraints.

  • Training beyond the Classroom. Career diversity conversations often turn to using the whole university, as faculty are concerned that they do not have the expertise, time, or desire to focus on professional development beyond their disciplines. Universities have long acknowledged the necessity of training graduate students to teach at the university level by developing university-wide workshops, academies, and certificates. Building on this model of training, departments and graduate students can utilize executive and administrative training available to staff employees to give students instruction in collaboration, communication, project and time management, and other workplace skills. These programs, like the teaching academy or future faculty training, are done outside of traditional graduate training and are offered as a short series of workshops, classes, and online modules. These opportunities can be offered to students when they embark on an internship or become program, editorial, and research assistants.

  • Engaging Alumni. Bring alumni who are employed outside the academy back to campus. The purpose is to showcase how alumni apply skills acquired during graduate training in public, private, and non-profit positions. As pointed out by Stacy Hartman of the Modern Languages Association at our roundtable as well as in the MLA’s faculty tool kit, engaging alumni serves several purposes.

    • First, it helps you gather data about where and how your graduates are working and how they are using their humanities expertise.

    • Second, it broadens the imaginations of current students and provides greater transparency about the outcomes of your program. If the only graduates who are visible to your program are the ones with tenure-track or tenured positions, then those are likely to be the only occupational outcomes current students will imagine for themselves.

    • Finally, engaging your alumni maintains and strengthens the relationships between departments and the alumni themselves. In addition to allowing for fundraising and development opportunities, this builds a professional network that current students can draw on, while also signaling that a variety of outcomes to the program are valued.

  • Addressing the Stigma of Non-Academic Careers. It is real and omnipresent in discussions with nonacademic PhDs about their chosen career paths. Many students feel nonacademic careers carry a stigma, said Maggie Debelius co-author with Susan Basalla May of So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. “Debelius, who interviewed hundreds of PhDs for her book found that students who acknowledged applying for both academic and nonacademic positions feared that ‘advisers would be less likely to write a glowing recommendation or make that extra phone call if they feel the student is not devoted to the profession.’”Such fears and trepidation are difficult to quantify, but building a network of trusted faculty, administrators, and alumni across the university who are supportive of career diversity might mitigate them and help redefine what a successful career outcome looks like.

The roundtable concluded with the observation that there are simply not enough jobs within the academy for all PhDs, regardless of whether they are humanists. Departments and graduate schools must work to redefine what a successful career outcome is, develop connections with alumni who could mentor doctoral students, broaden graduate training, and create formal and informal opportunities for discussing and providing information about careers beyond the professoriate.

Career Diversity Initiatives:

ASEEES Career Resources:

AHA Career Diversity:

ASEEES Committee on Non-Academic Careers:

SSHRC White Paper on the Future of the PhD In the Humanities:

University of Michigan Career Center. PhD transferable skills:

MLA Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers.

Columbia University: Non-Academic Career Options for PhDs in the Humanities and Social Sciences


Melissa Bokovoy is Professor of History at the University of New Mexico, where she serves as department chair. She holds a PhD from Indiana University in East European history. She is the author of Peasants and Communists: Politics and Ideology in the Yugoslav Countryside, 1941-1953, which won the Barbara Jelavich Prize in 1999. She is the Co-PI of the AHA/Mellon Career Diversity Pilot program at the University of New Mexico and PI for the NEH’s NEXT GEN PhD planning grant.