What can you do with a Humanities PhD? Takeaways from “Inside Dope: Life as a Humanist”

by Vael Gates, Alicia Roy, David Bratt, and Cécile Fortuny

On April 6th, current and past PhD students in the humanities gathered to hear and share advice about career trajectories. This was the second year of “Inside Dope: Life as a Humanist“, an event organized by the Townsend Center in partnership with the Graduate Division, Career Center, and Beyond Academia. Eleven Berkeley PhD graduates, currently working in a range of academic/non-academic careers, led small group discussions with current PhD students.

The session opened with a keynote from Kelly Anne Brown, PhD in Literature (2011), Assistant Director of University of California Humanities Research Institute and and leader of the Humanists@Work project.

“Where do you currently receive your career mentoring?” Dr. Brown asked the room. “The survey primarily reported that students received mentoring from peers and colleagues. Your community and network are very important. Be connected with each other.”

Kelly Brown sharing advice with UC Berkeley Humanities PhDs.

Dr. Brown went on to emphasize the importance of developing a good network, both in terms of faculty-student conversations and student-student connections, and having frank and open discussions in this space. She sees that there is much work to be done in preparing students for post-PhD life, and suggests that “our community can only be stronger by having an understanding of what our humanities expertise is and how it matters.”

Dr. Brown shared her own story as well, describing that though people already in careers can downplay the difficulty of the transition from being a graduate student to a new career, it can be painful. She and her husband had periods where the lights were off and there was no heating when she graduated into the economic downturn (she graduated in 2011). However, she found strength and her next job as a research program manager through her connections, as she received her first job out of her PhD via an introduction made by her previous graduate advisor. “I wish I would have had someone to talk with at that time, to advise me when I received the job offer. I felt isolated during that time period– many people did– but it would have been good to have had someone to remind me that I could negotiate for research time, research funds, or flexibility of schedule. Those were my mistakes; do what you can to reach out.”

Speaking to a room of people with or working on PhDs in the humanities, Dr. Brown encouraged thinking beyond “skills and capacities,” which is a common phrase in the non-academic job market. Instead, she emphasized that humanities training offers more than a calculated breakdown of skills and abilities. The real way for the humanities to move forward, she argued, is in open and honest conversations about what humanities expertise is and how it matters.

Dr. Brown finished with a hopeful note, describing her next project to facilitate the conversations that should be happening within academia (among faculty and students) and outside (among outside employers and students), and highlighting the work done by the Humanists@Work project.

After the keynote, current students assembled into groups of 3-4, and had the opportunity to sit down with PhDs who had transitioned to a variety of fields: freelance writing, editing, translating, university administration, EdTech, teaching, nonprofit and governmental management, and more. Students had the opportunity to learn from these mentors’ experience in navigating the challenges of job hunting post-PhD.

Tips and strategies shared:

  • Attend different meetups and events around the Bay Area: build your network in the field you’re interested in transitioning to, it will help when looking for a position. “Go to events like Inside Dope! They’re a great way to meet people who can put you in touch with other people.”
  • Similarly, if you already know the particular industry or line of work you would like to do, get contract work while in grad school. It’s a great way to build up experience and also network.
  • Reach out to other people you know outside of your academic network: your non-academic connections can be extremely useful in introducing you to people or helping you learn the practices of negotiating job offers in their own field. Don’t hesitate to ask for support and advice.
  • Use a “pipelining” strategy for the job search: Don’t wait to hear back from a job application or interview to start applying to other places. You will feel more productive and waste less time in applying to new positions, which leads to “less [time] waiting and more motivation” to put toward the job hunt.
  • Observe your own experiences and look at the benefits accrued from it (for yourself and others: think about the transferable skills you already have.)
  • Administrative jobs at universities are a great way to provide security for yourself if you’re looking to build up a company but need to start small. Plus, staying plugged into a university community gives you access to a lot of interesting and smart people with valuable connections of their own.


PhDs present at the event:

  • Alberto Ledesma, PhD in Ethnic Studies. Assistant Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in the Division of Arts and Humanities at UC Berkeley
  • Amyrose McCue Gill, PhD in Italian Studies, Co-Founder and Editor, TextFormations
  • Anne-Marie Harvey, PhD in English, Associate Director, Principal Gifts, University Development and Alumni Relations, UC Berkeley
  • Christopher Wu, PhD in Education (Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Program), Founder/Principal metacyber (higher education consulting) & community college instructor
  • Eric Blind, PhD in Anthropology, Director of Heritage Programs and Sites, Presidio Trust
  • Gabe Yoon-Milner, PhD in History, Teacher, The Episcopal School of Los Angeles
  • Julia Nelsen, PhD Comparative Literature Program Manager, Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley – Co-Founder, Cultura et alia
  • Laura Welcher, PhD in Linguistics, Director of Operations and The Long Now Library, The Long Now Foundation
  • Luke Terlaak Poot, Ph.D in English, UX Writer, Google
  • Marina Romani, PhD in Italian Studies and Film Studies, Academic Specialist, Berkeley International Study Program, Department of Sociology, UC Berkeley – Cultura et alia, Co-founder, San Francisco Opera, Contributing Writer
  • Rebecca Bodenheimer, PhD in Music, Writer, editor, independent scholar