Lessons from “The Transferable Ph.D.” Conference

 April 8, 2015



Almost 50 percent of those who earn Ph.D.s in history do something else besides teach as tenure-track faculty at universities or four-year colleges. As a history Ph.D. student, I’ve been confronted with that basic fact since starting graduate school four years ago. And yet, that “something else” has often felt elusive. What else do history Ph.D.s do? How do they make that transition from graduate school to other employment? How do they take the skills and experiences of Ph.D. training and apply it elsewhere?

Trying to answer those questions led several of us history Ph.D. students to form the Duke History Professional Development Committee (HPDC), and sorting out how to transfer Ph.D. skills into “something else” was at the heart of our half-day conference held on Saturday, March 28. “The Transferable Ph.D.: Converting Academic Skills to Broader Career Paths,” our second annual event, consisted of sessions on entrepreneurship, transitions to a new audience, and teaching outside the four-year institution. We concluded with a keynote speech from public historian Benjamin Filene (UNC-Greensboro) on “Shooting Ourselves in the Foot—and How to Stop: Applying Ph.D. training to Non-Academic Jobs” (a video of his talk can be found here).

A few prominent themes stood out at the conference—most prominently, that there’s a lot you can do (and enjoy doing) with a humanities Ph.D. We heard from humanities Ph.D.s who started businesses, administered multimillion dollar projects, produced amazing scholarly work, and taught brilliant classes in high schools and community colleges.

A large key to unlocking the Ph.D.’s potential is, in the words of speaker Jacqueline M. Olich, distinguishing the Ph.D. skillset and the Ph.D. mindset. As I interpreted Dr. Olich, our skillset positions us for all sorts of occupations—we are quick learners, close readers, and dogged researchers. But the Ph.D. mindset blinds us to the opportunities to apply those skills in other fields. Of the hundreds of Ph.D.s working at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, where Dr. Olich serves as director of university collaborations, she is the only history Ph.D. It’s that difficult to realize that we have more to offer than the substance of our dissertations—which, almost every speaker emphasized, is not something that will come up with employers and colleagues outside the tenure track.

Despite that sizable skillset, however, several speakers mentioned that they have returned to graduate school for classes or new degrees in order to send the right signals or obtain the proper credentials. And sometimes the right signal comes from demonstrated interest: David Long, a teacher and administrator at Durham Technical Community College, noted that applicants to teach at community college need to show that they want to teach at that level. One great way to do that: spend a semester adjuncting at a community college to see if the fit is right. Or if you’re interested in public policy or nonprofit work, find a way to intern during a summer or semester.

There is some hope that the Ph.D. mindset blinders might be coming down, including here at Duke where the hiring of Dr. Melissa Bostrom, assistant dean for graduate student professional development, has led to a professional development blog, a professional development grant , the Emerging Leaders Institute, and a robust event series specifically dedicated to professional development. These open conversations about broader Ph.D. career paths in the past several years are a stark contrast from the graduate school experiences of our speakers. Even Margy Thomas Horton, who started her own business as a writing consultant after graduating with an English Ph.D. from Baylor in 2012, said that no one spoke of alternatives while she was in graduate school, and yet here at Duke we had 40-plus graduate students show up on a Saturday morning for this conference. Keynote speaker Benjamin Filene drew attention to the expanding criteria about what constitutes tenure-worthy work as a positive trend for broader Ph.D. applications. Still, humanities graduate training must continue to evolve in order to fully address employment realities (or, put another way, employment opportunities)—and several presenters targeted faculty culture as being in particular need of change.

For more information on The Transferable Ph.D. conference, please check out our webpage, where in the coming weeks we will post selected video from the conference. And anyone who wishes to participate in HPDC—which we are considering re-naming to be more inclusive of humanities and social science Ph.D. students beyond history—please simply e-mail


Will Goldsmith
Will Goldsmith

Duke Ph.D. candidate

Will Goldsmith is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Duke University. Before coming to Durham, he worked as a public high school teacher in Halifax County, N.C. and as a journalist at an alternative weekly in Charlottesville, Virginia. He received a B.A. in history from Yale University.