Post-Academic Skills in the Humanities

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Preparing Postgraduates for Work outside Academia

As cuts take hold, budgets contract and job openings shrink in academia as elsewhere, the question of what opportunities there are for postgraduate students in the humanities needs to be more widely debated in the UK. It is true that there are a number of different services for students to access offering advice, from websites (many US-based) to in-house employability programmes and careers services. But in this blog post I want to consider the question of what responsibility those who teach postgraduates have to raise this issue with their students.

1. Whose responsibility?

All too often lecturers consider that the question of their students’ employability prospects is not their concern. There are good arguments for this (not least the argument that lecturers have enough to do without taking on another impossible task before breakfast). However, bear in mind the opposite argument, i.e., that by omitting to raise the issue of employment possibilities outside academia with postgraduates, at the same time as focusing on improving academic research skills, lecturers may perpetuate the impression that an academic career is possible for everyone – and that considering a different career path constitutes a form of failure.

2. Be realistic

Of course, it is difficult to suggest to students that they may have to consider options other than the academic job they have set their heart on, particularly when you stand before them as a shining example of how, it would seem, it is possible to get an academic job despite it all. While you do not want to pour cold water on aspiration, it is possible to find ways to remind students of the many and varied options they have before them as well as academia. In the humanities in particular, this may mean occasional discussions of the uses to which their finely honed research skills will be sought after in other public sector areas, including, but not limited to, the civil service, teaching, and NGOs. It is also worth talking to postgraduates candidly about the realities of academic life – e.g. from the REF to the shape of the academic year and its corresponding demands on your time – so that they get a realistic picture of what an academic career comprises. Talk to them, if the opportunity arises, about other careers that you respect and admire. In other words, give them the impression that while an academic career path is a fine thing, it is not the only goal to aspire to in life.

3. Use alumni network

Postgraduate alumni are an underused resource in the humanities. Consider organizing a series of talks by alumni who have landed jobs in a range of fields, as well as those who have followed an academic path. Such people not only have interesting experience that may be directly relevant to your postgraduates, but they also have social capital in the form of contacts that your postgraduate may benefit from. This may all be done at a wider level in your university (by the careers’ office, for instance), but consider the benefits to your students of organizing a small series of talks in your specific subject area. If this isn’t possible, why not set up or facilitate an online forum for your postgraduates to talk to alumni of your programme.

4. Build postgraduates into your research

When you next sit down to write a research application, consider building in research placements in partnership with local creative and cultural industries that overlap with your field. These might include, for instance, placements for drama or creative writing students with local theatre companies, in schools, with media companies, or working with other, non-academic research organizations (heritage organizations, think-tanks, NGOs). If your research allows it, you might also consider bidding for funding for a postgraduate to conduct research in your field overseas: he or she might be employed to undertake bibliographic research in libraries overseas in order to build a research database, for instance. Ask around: you may find that your colleagues already have come up with creative and mutually beneficial ways of giving postgraduates wider experience in their own research projects.

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