Reflections of an undeveloped careerist

 January 21, 2014

Professional development isn’t why I came to Duke. I came here to be formed as a scholar, a researcher; to become a better writer, which also means to become a better reader, which means that my eyeglasses prescription strength is proportional to the federal debt.

The questions soon follow, though. “When are you going to get a real job?” I can ameliorate the interrogation by explaining that I’m living fine, that I’m getting paid to do something I absolutely love, that I have health insurance and that I’ve been putting money away for the future. Of course, the “life of the mind” doesn’t seem so appealing to those outside my mind.

But what can I really answer? “I’ll graduate in five years and get a tenure-track job at a top university.” My Magic 8 Ball told me the answer is hazy, so I’ll ask again in a few years. I’m a PhD student in humanities, and most of the articles I read and people I talk to tell me that my chances of getting the “dream job” are as probable as the U.S. winning the World Cup this summer. To my relatives, getting a PhD in humanities seems more like getting a degree in snobbery. I read a lot of hand-wringing (like this article in the Duke Chronicle) about the value of a liberal arts education. Business school, law school, med school, or a PhD seem the only valid options for a graduating student. And, as academia seems to be the next bubble to pop, better to hedge bets with the first three.

But, I’m actually not that worried. I’m never going to get a letter like Ted Turner did after he told his father his decision to major in Classics at Brown. And I have the wonderful support of Career and Professional Development at Duke University. I didn’t take much advantage of career services when I was an undergraduate, but I also know myself much better now than I did at age 22.

Through the efforts of Dr. Melissa Bostrom, Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Professional Development, the Graduate School offers so many great programs, speakers, and workshops about exploring my career options, that even after one semester at Duke, I feel much more confident in my “life after grad school” daydream. I attended one “free lunch” lecture given by a PhD in musicology who now works for a non-profit; hearing her story was instructive to me. I’ve heard speakers talk about paths to “entrepreneurship,” a career idea that to me has always sounded like trying to become Ebeneezer Scrooge. I even attended a workshop on “How to Write an Op-Ed” with staff from Duke’s Office of News and Communications. I don’t think I knew what an op-ed was before going to the workshop. (I read them every morning now.) I learned the basic idea at that workshop, wrote a couple paragraphs about my feelings on the present state of classical music, and after a couple edits it was published in six newspapers nationally. Through that publication I even established a connection with a North Carolina music blog, and I now have a position as a concert critic for Right now I love the non-linearity of all of my “career options,” combined with the rather linear-track of research and coursework, and I’m looking forward to more years of studying, reading, writing, and watching my “daydreams” become tangible.

Harrison Russin is a 1st-year PhD student in musicology.