The Humanities Ph.D. at Work

Brian Taylor

February 20, 2013

Which skills and attributes gained through doctoral training aid humanities Ph.D.'s in the "real world"—and which don't?

I have thought about that question a lot. Having started my career in the foundation sector, I am now back in that world after finishing my doctorate in history last year at Columbia University. Since I have re-entered the workplace, I have observed that humanities training does indeed furnish candidates with distinct advantages. But immersion in academe also presents recent Ph.D.'s with significant challenges to overcome.

I have found an ideal setting in which to reflect on those advantages and disadvantages as a participant in the Public Fellows Program sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies. Supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the program aims "to expand the role of doctoral education in the U.S. by demonstrating that the capacities developed in the advanced study of the humanities have wide application, both within and beyond the academy."

The program offers a laboratory to consider two questions that are the subject of much debate now in academe: How do we reconcile the overproduction of Ph.D.'s with the meager number of tenure-track openings? And how do we respond to the crisis facing the liberal arts more broadly, about the relevance of the humanities within the wider culture?

The path from a Ph.D. to a nonacademic career is well-trod, a reality I observed before I began my doctoral program. I worked for three nonprofit organizations, all led by presidents or chief executives with Ph.D.'s in the humanities. From my perspective as a junior staffer, my former bosses shared a constellation of characteristics I admired: a razor-sharp knowledge base, an entrepreneurial fearlessness about new ventures, a collaborative and confident leadership style, and elegant communication skills.

All those attributes appeared linked to one formative experience they shared: advanced training in the humanities. Having enjoyed the enormous privilege of being subsidized to read and reflect early on in their careers seemed the likely common denominator in the thoughtful and creative coalition-building at which each of them excelled.

Knowing how vital and engaging a nonacademic career could be, I was unperturbed by tales of the horrors of the academic job market as I moved through graduate school. I could always re-enter the nonprofit sector, I figured. As I watched more and more of my graduate-school friends choose nonacademic careers and thrive—becoming schoolteachers, museum curators, speechwriters, management consultants, advertising executives, and small-business owners—returning to a nonacademic setting seemed increasingly appealing.

Now that I am a program officer for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which aims to further trans-Atlantic cooperation and understanding, I've come face to face with the pros and cons of graduate training for careers outside of academe.

Advantage: knowledge. Debate about the applicability of the humanities to a variety of work sectors tends to pivot narrowly on skills, too often overlooking the importance of content. Working for the German Marshall Fund, I regularly use my graduate training in modern history.

For example, for more than 30 years, the foundation has developed experiential learning programs that send early and midcareer professionals from the United States and Europe across the Atlantic for immersive study exchanges. When our fellows converge on Washington, I deliver lectures that outline the historical and cultural framework that will enable them to interpret the differences in customs and policies that have shaped the countries they will visit.

My historical knowledge also allows me to frame encounters that our fellows will have with high-level officials, whether a congressman in Washington, a Eurocrat critical of American foreign policy in Brussels, or New York City's planning commissioner. I've been able to impart information learned in graduate school—be it about the Protestant work ethic, 19th-century state formation, or the storied career of Robert Moses—and use pedagogical methods honed in the classroom to help fellows navigate foreign contexts.

Advantage: writing and analysis. Doctoral training transforms candidates into versatile writers. By the end of the Ph.D., candidates have written in myriad voices and in multiple formats. I wrote a 400-page dissertation, academic articles, grant applications, seminar papers, and conference talks. I also wrote reams of pointed-yet-kind comments on student essays, blogged in multiple outlets, and drafted countless analytical memos about my research for my advisers and colleagues.

That skill has proved crucial almost daily on the job. From the pithy pitch needed to frame a grant application to project proposals to the narrative style needed to compile stories for our Web site, I can write with ease. Doctoral training in the humanities is expository boot camp. It hones candidates' analytical thinking and critical writing skills through sheer repetition.

Advantage: presentation skills. There is nothing like standing before a group of bright, curious, and somewhat skeptical 19-year-olds to encourage a comfort with public speaking. Graduate school made me fearless about talking in front of crowds of people, about presenting in meetings, and about expressing my opinion in team settings.

The result? I've spoken comfortably off the cuff to my organization's fellows in places as different as Washington and Warsaw; presented at staff meetings; been entrusted to meet on my own with consuls general and other high-ranking officials; and been able to rise to the occasion when offering remarks at special events on behalf of my organization.

Most seasoned professionals learn those skills on the job over time. But graduate training in the humanities allows you to distinguish yourself on that front from Day 1.

Disadvantage: lack of teamwork. Graduate school was a lot of work. Every morning, I woke up, padded over to my computer with a cup of coffee, and immediately began typing. I read Kant while walking to the subway. I graded historiographic essays while standing in line at the grocery store. I brought W.E.B. Du Bois to bed with me. I inevitably packed books ("just some light background reading!") into my holiday suitcase.

But all of that work was solitary. That is what work meant in graduate school: Turn off phone, insert earplugs, and look up nine hours later to realize 40 student essays had blocked out thoughts of dinner.

Hard work means something different in the world outside of academe. It's highly social and collaborative. Phone, e-mail, and countless meetings make it almost impossible to focus single-mindedly on a task. My first couple weeks on the job left me frustrated by what I experienced as excessive chitchat, which I kept trying politely to summarize and synthesize so that I could burrow away and conquer the mounting piles of work. Until it clicked: Those conversations were work, too.

Since then, some of the most insightful ideas and projects I've had the privilege to be part of have unfolded through collaboration and conversation. The transition from the silence of academe to the clamor of the modern workplace, however, was jarring.

Disadvantage: suspicion of market-driven values and products. My first day on the job, I noticed I was the only person at the team meeting with a pen and paper notepad instead of an iPad. In a university context, multihour lectures remain the norm, whereas people I meet now are more likely to plug into 20-minute TED talks—a genre my academic friends mock mercilessly. I don't feel comfortable giving bulleted PowerPoint presentations, and prefer to speak in narrative style without technological aids. Yet all of those tools are central to the modern workplace, and rightly so. They're elegant, functional, and enable effective communication.

Academic circles within the liberal arts tend not to have kept pace with the technological and cultural changes that have swept most workplaces. Moreover, academic culture nurtures a distaste for any form of innovation that appears to be driven primarily by the marketplace. Academically oriented tools like Blackboard and JSTOR aside, liberal-arts circles tend to encourage an oppositional stance not only to technological change, but to mass culture and the commercial ethos.

Not all academics share that perspective, to be sure, and the self-promotion required in intellectual circles has transformed many scholars into avid users of social media. But it's fair to assert that membership in a liberal-arts subculture encourages distain for even a whiff of faddishness. That leaves job candidates seeking to move out of academe with a weakened capacity to understand the perspectives of their new peers, and a tendency to dismiss new ideas or tools too quickly.

Any humanities Ph.D. worth the degree knows to always test the opposing perspective. With that in mind, the two disadvantages cited here might be recast as strengths. Taken together, the capacity for independent work and the instinct to appraise trends critically before adopting them encourages a deliberate and focused approach that might be difficult to attain without years of stamina-building immersion in an academic setting.

Indeed, the thoughtful and collaborative leadership styles I observed in my former bosses with humanities Ph.D.'s seemed to pivot on discernment and discipline. They shared a sharp critical capacity buttressed by a comfort with independent thinking. They could identify which questions, issues, and interpersonal dynamics that arose in the workplace required deep engagement and which could be left behind.

More than one of those bosses spoke to me of their desire to impart to their organizations an appreciation of that most precious of all commodities in academe: sufficient time for reflection that allows creativity and innovation to thrive. If the many humanities Ph.D.'s crossing over from the ivory tower to the office tower could help infuse that one value into the modern workplace, the debate about the relevance of the liberal arts might recede once and for all.

Megan Doherty is a program officer at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.