My title is, admittedly, intentionally flippant, seeking to grab your attention in this age of clickbait. Yet beneath its flippancy lurks a serious assertion: postgraduate education can be a high-impact way to approach and improve the employment prospects of new PhDs in the humanities in an ever-increasing academic job market. disastrous. Such, at any rate, has been our experience in the Writing and Communications program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the Marion Brittain Postdoctoral Teaching Fellowship has provided dozens of early-career scholars with many develop as instructors and researchers and gain experience in multiple areas related to their professional interests.
Recently, the program has had shocking success. Over the past year, for example, 18 of our postdoctoral fellows have obtained a professorship. Post-doctoral education, I want to argue here, should be seen as an invaluable means by which humanities PhDs can be mentored and supported as they seek to shape their professional futures during this uncertain limbo between the defense of the diploma and the obtaining of a continuous position.
However, to make an argument about the potential vitality of the postdoc for PhDs in the humanities, one must first establish the nature of a postdoc. According to the National Postdoctoral Association, a postdoctoral researcher is “a person who has obtained a doctorate (or equivalent) and who is engaged in a temporary and a defined period of mentorship and development coaching to enhance their professional skills and the research independence necessary to pursue their chosen career path.
To be a true postdoctoral experience, the program must therefore include systemic professional development aimed at broadening the career possibilities and professional skills of postdocs. Since new PhDs in the humanities often need such developmental experiences, postdoctoral opportunities offer a rich path to professionalization.
More immediately, the teaching postdoc can create space for experiences that are simply not relevant to 21st century higher education. With each passing year and the further tightening of the academic job market, it seems that the Ph.D. candidates must continually prove that they know more, that they know it more deeply than ever before, and that they have contributed more to the scholarship of their field than ever before. This race for specialization leaves them little time for broader reflection, to understand the written genres of the job market or to discern professional opportunities beyond tenure.
A well-designed postdoctoral program, however, provides resources for postdocs to consider options that could give them the greatest job satisfaction as well as time to develop their skills in the job market accordingly. For example, our fellowship includes both required postgraduate seminars and optional workshops and lectures that support teaching, academic and non-academic writing, and job search both in and beyond academia. Post-docs themselves, having passed the PhD bar, can now take a deeper interest in such initiatives and the opportunity offered to reflect on how they will use their new credentials in the world.
Teaching postdocs can also “level the playing field of mentoring”. Not all doctorates. advisors have the time, the training, the resources or, frankly, the disposition to mentor new PhDs in today’s job market. After all, their qualifications for their roles and success are based primarily on their expertise in the field of study.
In my own previous position as a faculty member of an English doctoral program, for example, I regularly referred candidates in my field. This work was both satisfying and challenging, as it required me to deepen my own understanding of my advisors’ areas of study. I learned a lot, for example, about rhetorical theory in medieval and early modern times, undergraduate reading strategies in the digital age, and eloquence strategies seen on stage in the 18th and 19th centuries. centuries. While I was, of course, committed to the professional success of my students, carefully reading their working papers, and carefully considering the letters of recommendation in which I presented their work, I spent the majority of my time with them to develop the scientific expertise necessary for their projects and by supporting their initiation into the rites and passages of the academy.
Now, in contrast, as a faculty member leading a program staffed with postdoctoral fellows, I can focus on acquiring the skills and knowledge that support postdoctoral growth. The time that I devote to my postdocs is not devoted to deepening my knowledge in their fields of scientific research, to developing their specialized scientific knowledge or to reading their dissertations. Rather, it focuses on developing programs and resources to support their broader professionalization, building a network beyond my immediate area, and enhancing my understanding of career opportunities they may wish to pursue. . Leading a postgraduate program therefore creates the time and space for faculty leaders to engage expansively and intentionally with the issues and possibilities that new PhDs in the humanities have before them.
Helping scholars find their future
Beyond the resources and attention of mentorship, however, the change in location that accompanies the move from a graduate department to a postgraduate program can itself foster innovation and development. When a postdoc enters a new program, adjusts to a challenging program that develops their teaching skills, and works with a new demographic of students, it adds depth to their resume and opens up new avenues for exploring career.
In the case of my own program, for example, postdocs gain experience with a highly skilled STEM undergraduate population, enhance their multimodal teaching capacity, and do so within the context of a highly competitive institution. and a dynamically changing city. Indeed, we regularly warn our new postdocs to plan carefully so that they can make the best use of everything the university and the city have at their disposal. Unsurprisingly, we’ve also seen postdocs leveraging their skills not only to secure academic positions, but also to carve out careers in the local tech industry, nonprofit management, and college and university administration. private sector.
Certainly, postdoctoral programs are not a silver bullet to all the problems that beset the academic job market. On the one hand, the type of program I am describing is highly context-dependent – a very specific set of resources and institutional commitments must be in place to make it possible.
On the other hand, once you move beyond the broad definition of the National Association of Postdocs, there is little uniformity when it comes to postdocs: positions designated as such vary wildly in their terms of employment, compensation and the quantity and quality of professional support they provide. As with the graduate programs they complete, a postdoctoral candidate would be well advised to carefully research whether the position they are considering is a genuine postgraduate experience and not simply a thinly disguised temporary instructor position.
And, finally, it must be recognized that even the best postgraduate programs are part of what has become one more step in the arms race for college degrees – adding a new layer of hurdles to jumping into a profession with far too many already. requirements to succeed. .
In sum, postgraduate teaching positions are not going to settle the entire academic job market, and all teaching postdocs are certainly not created equal. At best, however, these programs provide professionalized support and development structures and offer new PhDs the time and resources to plan the next stage of their careers. For institutions that can commit to supporting the humanities in this way, they can be a valuable and interesting strategy in which to invest. And, to return to the title of this essay, teaching postdocs alone cannot save the humanities, but it can help individual scholars find their own future and thereby improve our fields one postdoc at a time.