Brandeis overhauls Ph.D. training in the humanities

Most Ph.D. students won’t end up getting a tenure-track faculty job due to there being many more would-be assistant professors than available positions. Brandeis University is among a growing number of institutions to face that reality head-on. It has encouraged graduate students, faculty members and academic programs in the humanities and social sciences to complement the traditional Ph.D. training with skills development and experiences that don’t center faculty work. Some departments also have embraced significant curricular reforms.

Much of this work has been part of Brandeis’s Connected Ph.D. initiative, now three years old. The program was launched with a four-year, $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For students, the program funds professional development experiences, including fellowships (something like paid internships) on campus or at external locations identified by the candidate. Past fellowships—some of which have led to permanent jobs or other lasting connections for the student—include those at Brandeis’s Center for Teaching and Learning, Brandeis University Press, Brandeis’s Educational Justice Initiative, the International Institute of New England, the Society for Cultural Anthropology , the National Women’s Law Center and Boston Public Schools.

Anthony Lipscomb, a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern and Judaic studies and one of two students who received Connected Ph.D. funding to work with Brandeis University Press, is now the press’s full-time coordinatornot coordinator of something? -sj***Right it’s small so I guess he’s coordinator of everything–CF—a job he was offered following his fellowship. He said he was initially interested in a press fellowship due to his prior experience as a research assistant on faculty publishing projects, and a general desire to diversify his “prospects” in light of the difficult faculty job market.

“Looking back, I feel tremendously fortunate to have this opportunity,” Lipscomb said this week. “I am now full-time staff with the press while also writing my dissertation. Where this road leads, who knows? Academic publishing is an important work, a partnership between publishers and scholars to shape fields of knowledge. I can see myself flourishing in this enterprise on either side of this partnership.”

Sue Ramin, press director, said her operation has benefited from being part of the Connected Ph.D. program, as well. While doctoral study is not a prerequisite for jobs in publishing, she said, graduate fellows bring to their valuable work “independence. It’s nice to have somebody who, if they don’t know how to do something, they work out how to do it.”

While Brandeis-based fellowships proved especially practical during COVID-19, when lockdowns and travel restrictions limited some community-based work, external fellowships and engagement have continued throughout the pandemic.

Kaitie Chakoian, a Ph.D. candidate in social policy, said her Connected Ph.D.-related work in 2020 at the National Women’s Law Center was an outgrowth of an earlier directed research course on gender-based violence taught by Anita Hill that she’d taken at Brandeis. At the center, Chakoian helped conduct a national survivor survey, contribute to the Survivors’ Agenda policy platform, and plan a national summit.

“It was an incredible experience, mostly because of the network of leaders, and survivors that I was able to work alongside that summer,” Chakoian said. “I was on committees with front-line workers, executive directors and community organizers from so many groups and organizations that are doing the real, on-the-ground work of supporting survivors and working to end gender-based violence.” Now “her dissertation, she said the connections I made working with the Connected Ph.D. helped me frame my research.” She’s also working as the campus policy manager with End Rape on Campus, an organization involved in the Survivors’ Agenda.

Some students have received funding Connected Ph.D. funding for skill-building and credentialing, to enroll in digital tools, methods and design courses and workshops outside Brandeis. The university also now allows Ph.D. students to enroll in supplementary online courses through the Rabb School of Continuing Studies at Brandeis, namely: cognitive and social psychology of user-centered design, principles of learning experience design and writing for digital environments.

“We as faculty have an ethical obligation to prepare students for the jobs that are out there, and those jobs are different than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Wendy Cadge, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis. “It’s just realist.realistic? -sj***NO and apparently this is an adjective as well as a noun—CF I mean, if you’re going to invest in Ph.D. students, you want them to be successful. And I think they need a broad range of skills and the ability to be flexible—and, honestly, an awareness of what the job market looks like when they start their Ph.D. program—so that they can make the decisions that are best for them.”

Apart from Connected Ph.D. funding opportunities, Brandeis doctoral students are guaranteed 9-month funding for five years.

Connected Ph.D. also offers faculty members funding for course development and program innovation.

A ‘Bridge’ from Academics to Careers

Jonathan Anjaria, associate professor of anthropology, is involved in many aspects of Connected Ph.D. program as Brandeis’s first faculty director of professional development for the graduate school. In this latter capacity, Anjaria offers highly personalized career consultations with individual graduate students in the humanities, social sciences and arts (another mentoring, and other services, are available to graduate students in the sciences). He plans career seminars and talks, as well, and engages with alumni working inside and outside the academy, who also help guide current students on various paths.

Anjaria said recently that “the reason that we thought this position was very important was we wanted to create a bridge, a position that bridges the academic work that’s going on in the departments at the academic level, and career services and other career support.” Often, he said, graduate students across academe sense and abide by an “unspoken rule” not to discuss “practical,” “professional-related” or “financial” topics with their immediate faculty mentors, inhibiting their career planning.

“When I meet with students, the typical scenario is someone says, ‘Well, I’m in my fifth year, sixth year of a Ph.D., and I feel I’ve been trained to be an expert in this one topic , and I’m realizing now that the chances of me getting a tenure-track job in that topic are very slim. I’m really worried that I’ve only been trained to do this one thing, and that I have no ability to get any other job,’” Anjaria said. “And so a big part of my work is career exploration, to get people out of that mindset. To say, ‘Actually, even if you’re in the most humanities-focused field or whatever, there are a lot of options out there,’” including—but not limited to—faculty work.

These options increase with careful planning, Anjaria continued: “It’s assumed that the two grad school tracks are the academic [job] track or non-academic track, but what I’ve seen is that the two tracks are actually going through grad school thinking about jobs versus going to graduate school not thinking about jobs.”

Sarah Gable, a Ph.D. Candidate in history, worked in the provost’s office through Connected Ph.D., researching how undergraduate majors can better align their course offerings with direct learning goals. She’s since moved on to other projects within the provost’s office and remains invested in career diversity (she said her interest and participation in career diversity work predated Connected Ph.D., in part because she worked outside of the academy prior to graduate school and now has young children, whom she is unwilling to “bounce” across the country for a series of temporary postdoctoral positions while on the tenure-track job market).

“I am really passionate about it because I want to protect people from having that really emotional grieving process” about the job market, even as Gable’s own thoughts about a faculty future have been more “practical,” she said. “I want people to be prepared and I want people to know—particularly with the humanities, where we kind of go around justifying our existence—that there’s value in the Ph.D., even if you do not go into a tenure track- job. Your skills and everything you’ve learned, it’s all actually needed outside of academia, because many people are talking about the issues that we talk about in the humanities in the wider world, and not just talking to other academics.”

Brandeis is now working on securing funding for the fellowships to continue even after the Mellon grant ends in a year. But other elements of its approach to rethinking Ph.D. training cost little to nothing, and will continue. Case in point: curricular reform, which several programs have already approved.

John Burt, chair of English, said that COVID-19 triggered discussions in his program about the changing the curriculum, in 2020. Studying alumni career outcomes was a big part of this effort. The changes, to be rolled out over the next few years, include asking applicants at admission to share career plans that may include work outside of the traditional faculty track, expanding a course on writing for academic to cover other kinds of writing (including grant proposals ) and rewriting a course on pedagogy to include various kinds of teaching. Other plans include adding a fourth-year internship and making the final research project more flexible—meaning that it doesn’t necessarily have to be (in Burt’s words) “a proto-book.”

“There are so many features to this project,” he said.

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