Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Anastasia Kārkliņa in Conversation with Katina L. Rogers

Today’s post is a conversation between graduate student Anastasia Kārkliņa, who has worked for several years in our Books Marketing department, and Katina L. Rogers, author of the new book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom.

978-1-4780-0954-2For years, scholars of late capitalism have warned against the impending crisis of the gig economy and its inevitably devastating effects on the lives of millions of workers. The coronavirus pandemic has not only changed the way we work, teach, and interact but has exposed deep and persisting forms of labor exploitation that easily discard those who have long ago been rendered disposable. In higher education, too, the pandemic has triggered hiring freezes and layoffs, eliminating already highly competitive faculty and postdoc positions. Many doctoral students and recent Ph.D. graduates feel they have only two options: join the precarious adjunct labor force or abandon the intellectual vocation and leave the academy altogether. For many, this choice is devastating.

In her new book Putting Humanities PhD to Work, Katina Rogers, however, argues that, while leaving the traditional academic path can be unnerving, it can certainly lead to equally fulfilling and meaningful careers in other sectors. Rogers suggests that “the key is rethinking the way we understand intellectual labor” and seeing that the “intellectual and interpretive skills acquired in graduate programs span many careers.” Over the years doctoral programs have failed to provide graduate students with a sound and realistic understanding of the state of the academic job landscape and necessary skills to navigate professional life outside of academe. Nevertheless, broadening the meaning of scholarly success, Rogers argues, has the potential to empower students to make a meaningful impact within and beyond the academy. 

Anastasia Kārkliņa (AK):  As more PhDs look for employment outside of the classroom, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work feels ever so urgent and exceptionally timely. What initially compelled you to work on this book? And, what does it mean for you to see Putting Humanities to Work published at this time, in light of recent domestic and global events? 

Katina Rogers (KR): Thank you so much for the opportunity to talk about this! I began working on the book years ago, partly because I was inspired by the many creative approaches to graduate education that I was seeing across the country—but also because I found that my research on career preparation among PhDs working outside the professoriate was often surprising to people in ways that made it clear that the conversation needed to be happening more broadly. Meanwhile, I had begun moving through my own unusual career path and wanted an opportunity to reflect on the ways that my work combines the intellectual, pedagogical, and often transformative work that happens in the classroom but in a completely different context.

So much has changed since I started working on the book. The negatives are glaring: even before the COVID-19 pandemic, public universities were losing much of their state funding, and the increasing reliance on adjunct labor was growing worse by the year. The pandemic has heightened many existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, while also throwing institutions into disarray. The effects fall disproportionately on minoritized and marginalized groups within the academy, exacerbating the racism and gender bias of academic structures and causing real harm to individuals. I tend to resist the language of crisis, but higher education is absolutely in a moment of crisis right now. While COVID-19 was the catalyst, what we are seeing now has been brought on by decades of disinvestment.

It feels too soon to look for a silver lining; we are still in the midst of this trauma. I do hope that when colleges and universities are ready to pick up the pieces and move forward, they will do so with integrity and intention. We have seen that many structures that seemed immutable can actually change quite rapidly when there is enough collective will. So far, those changes have been reactive. My hope is that leaders, administrators, and faculty will see this as a moment of potential transformation, and will really dig in to build institutional structures that foster inclusion and wellbeing, and that promote an expansive understanding of the value of scholarship to society. From that perspective, it is an exciting moment to see this book released; with so many structures in flux, I hope that the book offers fresh ideas at a moment they can really take effect.

Anastasia, I wonder if you’d be willing to talk a little bit about your own experience? You’re navigating these institutional structures as a doctoral student while also working in publishing and exploring other possible pathways. What are your thoughts on the importance of humanities education in this moment? Why are you doing the work that you do, and where do you hope that it takes you? 

AK: Thanks for sharing that! Indeed, as doctoral students, we’ve been having the conversation about the crisis of higher education that you mention for years, often behind closed doors out of fear that our advisers may “disown” us if we dare to consider other options. I began actively working towards a professional pivot into fields such as communications and strategy a year ago, when I decided that I wanted more for my life, and my career, than poverty wages and unpredictable contracts. And, I arrived at this decision precisely because I believe in the importance of the humanities, especially in this political moment.

As a scholar of culture, I study how social power has historically operated in our society, and I’ve been trained in the tradition of thought that sees the “how” of this moment to be immensely important for understanding the past and imagining the future. And, so now in light of the national and global uprisings, we’re seeing that more companies, organizations, and agencies are asking this exact question: where are we, and how do we move forward, differently? Yet, most are not posing the most important question, and that is the question of power. Often, while well-intentioned, these conversions end up being watered down, simply because, say, marketing directors or consultants haven’t been trained to talk and think about these issues on a deep level. Within this context, I see the immense potential of critical thought to shift cultural narratives and push the discourse beyond the academe. In fact, agencies and organizations who want to be on the frontlines of innovative, actionable conversations about social change should be seeking out and recruiting humanities PhDs who are trained to think critically about these issues, which are ultimately rooted in social history.

I also fiercely believe in the value of intellectual thought as such, and I pride myself on the rigor of critical thinking that I developed thanks to my graduate training. I think more doctoral students should internalize that sense of value. To offer a quick anecdote, earlier this year I wrote an Instagram post that I titled, “How to Ask 21 Questions of a Pen.” And, I did exactly that—I posed with a pen in a photo and then used my training as a cultural theorist to pose twenty one questions about this one seemingly ordinary object: where was it made, and how? How is it implicated in global circuits of production? What does literacy signify in our society, and what conditions even made the pen’s invention possible? And so on, and so forth. That post got more traction than any other! People were genuinely intrigued, and surprised. While it may seem silly, you may ask others to do this exercise, and most feel at loss, at first. After all, it’s just a pen! For me, as a cultural theorist, a pen, as anything else, can be taken seriously as an object of study and put under close scrutiny. Having now worked in marketing and participated in branding hackathons with industry professionals, I can absolutely say that humanists bring to the table a level of intellectual sophistication that can oftentimes be only developed through years and years of rigorous study.

KR: I love this. It is such a clear example of the ways that people can apply scholarly methods to so many things that are outside their formal field. In many ways, I think that is one of the most valuable traits that people with advanced training in the humanities and social sciences share—a deep curiosity that leads to new lines of inquiry and therefore new insights. 

I’m also so glad that you bring up the issue of power. In my work with graduate students, mentorship and care are extremely important, and often bring up questions around emotional labor, which is complicated in itself. But often the conversation stops there, without going deeper to examine the power dynamics that can make those ecologies of care either supportive or problematic. Graduate education trades on prestige—not only tacitly, but explicitly in terms of institutional rankings, tenure and promotion policies, and more. Prestige is the lens through which so much scholarly work is viewed, which makes it extremely difficult to work toward other values, such as the public good. My book considers how we might start to loosen the grip of prestige in order to make space for other kinds of scholarly success.

AK: I couldn’t agree more. In centering individual academic success, which, for many, is structurally unattainable, we divert our attention from the ways in which our labor is implicated in the larger structure of the gig economy. As academics, we often think of ourselves as different from other workers, like fast food workers and delivery drivers, who, too, struggle to access living wages, health insurance, and so on, much like many PhDs who are funnelled into the adjunct labor force. I think your book speaks to our lived realities, while being critical of the corporatization of higher education, and all the issues that come with that. Understanding the erosion of stable academic employment as a structural issue, rather than a failure on the part of graduate students, is precisely what we need, if we are to move the needle within our own institutions and in higher education more broadly. 

KR: These structural questions are essential. Putting the Humanities PhD to Work is more than a career guide. More than anything, I hope that it shifts the conversation about career preparation away from being a matter of individual actions, and instead helps to contextualize it in systemic issues such as disinvestment in public higher education at the city, state, and federal levels; academic labor structures and the adjunct crisis; racism and gender bias; and student debt and material support of graduate students. I hope the book has an impact on these conversations and drives some real structural change at a moment when so much is in flux.

katina-rogersKatina L. Rogers is Co-Director of the Futures Initiative and Director of Programs and Administration of HASTAC at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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Anastasia Kārkliņa is a Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Literature at Duke University, specializing in American cultural studies and black cultural theory.  

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