Preparing for a Future in the Humanities as an English PhD

By Shannon Lujan


Recently, I sat down with Dawn Opel, a postdoc at Arizona State University, to ask her about postdocs, the job market, and what the future in general looks like for someone pursuing a PhD in the humanities, especially in English.

Dawn is a postdoc research fellow with the Nexus Lab and Computational Innovation Group at the Institute for Humanities Research. Before earning her PhD in rhetoric and composition, Dawn received a JD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and was a federal law clerk and a lawyer for a not-for-profit organization. She doesn’t feel that it was a stretch to go from United States Bankruptcy Court to studying new media and technical communication; in fact, the more time she spent in the humanities, the more Dawn saw her past professional and current scholarly interests merging. This is one of the ways that she believes graduate students in the humanities must learn to consider their scholarship and career paths, as “overlapping layers of interest” that seem to “naturally borrow from one another.”

Dawn insists that instead of the either-or mentality that traditionally exists in the academy, we need to adapt a both-and mind-set where we can move fluidly between professional and academic trajectories.

Although this approach will not catch on overnight and may be a hard sell for some, this is one of the better futures for those pursing a PhD in English. Dawn explained that she did not set out to explore the alt-ac path and still does not necessarily consider herself to be doing so but that she did set out to gain a useful skill set that would transition into a job that she envisions for herself. This at once open-minded and deliberate approach is what allowed her to finish her degree in less than five years and secure a postdoc immediately upon completion.

Dawn encourages PhDs to consider a variety of postdocs outside their comfort zones. She suggested that if you’re well versed in teaching, you should look for something more research or administrative based and vice versa. She recommends that you find something that aligns with your interests as well as with your previous experiences but also challenges you to move in alternative directions. “One thing to keep in mind,” stated Dawn, “is how any position will look on your CV to a potential search committee. You want to ask yourself, What does the postdoc add in my favor?”

When discussing what she found attractive about pursuing a postdoc, Dawn explained that it affords her more “exclusivity in applying for only desired positions” within the academy. “Let’s be honest,” she said, “time is not on your side” when finishing the dissertation and simultaneously going on the job market. She wishes we were more honest about this in the humanities but expressed a satisfaction that the MLA and the Connected Academics project encourage critical conversations about time to degree and the job market. Dawn and other English and foreign language PhDs will present at the 2016 MLA convention, at the session “Connected Academics: Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur,” where they will discuss how they’ve crafted scholarly identities beyond the traditional academic setting by reimagining their skill sets, boundaries, and potential career paths.

Dawn believes that as humanists, we must be willing to be more transdisciplinary and consider the most effective way to maximize our career options. She stressed that ultimately the completion of a degree is about “career preparedness,” not just for the expectations of the field, but also for what it means to actively function within that field. At ASU there is a growing emphasis on entrepreneurship, and I wondered if Dawn saw herself as an entrepreneur. She laughed when asked, sharing that she once looked up the definition of entrepreneur. The definition reads something like this: an entrepreneur is someone who organizes and operates a business at greater-than-normal financial risks. As she recited the definition, we both nodded our heads in understanding about its application to the PhD.

“But there’s more,” said Dawn, borrowing from language outside the academy, not typically used within the humanities, “you must think about how you want to ‘brand’ yourself.” In other words, you should constantly consider “how you can uniquely identify yourself and your project to benefit your career as a scholar-practitioner.” Ask yourself questions like, “What can I take from this to make something that is mine?”

Ultimately, what I learned from our conversation is that you drive your own career and invent your own opportunities, so make the risk worth the investment. For example, Dawn recently presented at Phoenix Comicon about digital media, leisure reading practices, and literary fandom. She believes that it may have been one of the best presentations of her academic career because it allowed her to talk about the intersection of subjects she loves and opened unexpected doors for “future public intellectual conversations.” Through this experience Dawn was able to brand or uniquely identify her work in ways that have “transformed” her scholarship.

Dawn’s best advice? “Treat the PhD as a professional project”: adhere to strict deadlines, “implement procedural and productive managerial skills,” find a way to make your scholarship unique and about something you love, and adapt a fluid mind-set.

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