By Kaete O’Connell
I arrived at my first AHA annual meeting layered in clothing and emotions. The expected trepidation (is there anything more overwhelming than stepping into a hotel literally buzzing with historians?), was coupled with curiosity and a smidge of excitement. I was attending as an observer, getting my feet wet for next year when I will be on the job market. To get the most out of a busy three days, I attended a variety of panels discussing everything from teaching methods to writing historical fiction. The annual meeting has no shortage of sessions devoted to career development, but the standout for me was the ImaginePhD workshop.
ImaginePhD first appeared on my Twitter feed a few months ago. Impressed by the content, I created an account (it’s free!) for full access to their resources. ImaginePhD is a career exploration and planning tool for PhD students and postdocs in the humanities and social sciences. It was created under the umbrella of the Graduate Career Consortium by a committee of 82 professionals representing 56 academic institutions and professional organizations. In development since 2014, the website officially launched in October 2017.
The platform asks you to imagine where your PhD could take you, providing users with information on different job sectors and search strategies, while also offering a variety of career-exploration tools. The workshop at the annual meeting introduced the platform and was led by Annie Maxfield, associate director for graduate student relations and services at the Career Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. The session was billed as “ImaginePhD and Career Diversity: Integrating Self-Assessment, Career Exploration, and Planning into History Departments,” so it made sense that the majority of participants were faculty, but I was surprised there were not more grad students in attendance.
Some statistics presented in this workshop hit home for me. A survey across all 10 University of California campuses found that PhDs in the humanities were less likely to be satisfied with their life than those in professional fields or STEM. Yet, a nationwide study of postdocs found that those who developed training plans with their advisors early in their graduate career were more satisfied and published more papers. Thus, people who develop and implement strategies to pursue career-specific goals achieve greater career success. These days many newly minted PhDs feel a desperate need to keep all options on the table. But as Maxfield, who’s also product design and development lead for ImaginePhD, succinctly put it, how can you hit a target if you aren’t aiming at anything?
ImaginePhD was created to help PhD students and recent graduates find a good starting point, offering important tools and insights for their journey from grad school to early career. The website provides numerous resources to explore different career paths and map out a plan for degree completion alongside career/professional development.
Relying on input from professionals in academia and industry, developers identified 16 job families organized around corresponding sets of core skills. The job families include the familiar nonacademic options of consulting, research and analysis, or writing, publishing, and editing, alongside entrepreneurship, advocacy, and human services to name a few. As for core skills, the development job family, for example, lists the following: planning and organizing projects including developing goals and creating timelines, writing grant proposals, writing for a general audience, being able to make persuasive arguments, and developing and managing budgets. Each job family is accompanied by resources including annotated job descriptions, suggested keyword searches, sample application materials, and even job listings through a partnership with Indeed—something that is very useful for identifying current opportunities one may not have seen posted elsewhere. ImaginePhD also offers an online planner/academic organizer that allows users to set goals and create a timeline stretching anywhere from three months to seven years, perfect for those at the beginning or toward the end of their grad school careers.
A major component of the online platform is a series of assessments used to measure career-related skills, interests, and values. A good portion of the workshop was devoted to exploring these assessments and considering how they may be useful to students at different stages in their PhD. I admit I’m skeptical of some of the assessments. While the Interests Assessment may offer a good point of reference for some, I personally found the results to be far from surprising. Included in my top five interests were “Narrative and Storytelling” and “Planning and Organizing Events,” two things I love, but the addition of “Editing and Revising Writing” made me cringe—it’s more of a love/hate relationship there.
The Skills and Values Assessments do offer some valuable insights that are particularly helpful for those embarking on the job market, irrespective of sector. Taken early in grad school, the Skills Assessment can help users identify what skills they need to develop. The Skills Assessment works in tandem with the Values Assessment, which could be particularly empowering for those embarking on a job search or negotiating a contract. Key values can include compensation, impact, or balance, among others. I’ve struggled throughout my graduate career to find a suitable work/life balance, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that rise to the top of my key values.
While I think it’s fantastic that careers outside the academy are finally attracting the right kind of attention, I worry the job market is strictly seen in binary form. One chooses an academic or nonacademic career, with the latter still perceived as the backup. It’s also hard to make fluid transitions from one to the other. ImaginePhD does not favor either track and includes faculty jobs as one of its job families, with information on both research-focused and teaching-focused positions.
One of my biggest takeaways from the workshop and from exploring ImaginePhD was the importance of having both a CV and a résumé. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a résumé, but in the weeks since the workshop, I’ve started the process of translating my CV into a workable résumé. ImaginePhD’s sample résumé helped me in this process, allowing me to frame my academic accomplishments as assets for positions beyond the university. My résumé is still a work in progress, but I’m confident that I now have the language to properly convey my skill set. While nothing can fully assuage the anxiety I have about choosing a career path that is right for me, I do feel more comfortable knowing I am better equipped for that next big step.
You can find ImaginePhD on Twitter @ImaginePhD
Kaete O’Connell is a PhD candidate in history at Temple University. Her dissertation explores the political, cultural, and emotional impact of US food relief in occupied Germany as it evolved from a stability-seeking endeavor to a Cold War propaganda tool.