You Have Options (Yes, Even When Your Ph.D. is in the Humanities)

 February 25, 2015


Making the decision to attend Duke was easy.

The faculty in my department are powerhouses who have revolutionized their fields. The Ph.D. students I met, in my field and others, were having fantastic experiences. And, there was always the alluring promise of taking a few hours to be in nature and explore hiking trails only minutes from campus.

What clinched it was that Duke is a place of possibility in a world where conservatism seemed to be the name of the new academic game. An uncertain economy was causing universities to cut departmental budgets. Many worried about the fate of academia as the cutting of tenure-track positions started to call into question whether or not the academy as we knew it would exist in a few years’ time.

I did not find that nervous energy on Duke’s campus. Duke’s graduate student placement record is one explanation for the lack of alarm. But so was the fact that students and faculty across the university were undertaking innovative projects that apply scholarship to the “real world” from which academics are so often accused of being estranged.

For a prospective student like me who was leaving the world of foreign policy to pursue a humanities-based academic career, this energy was exhilarating. I wanted my research to be truly “interdisciplinary” and to lead to a variety of avenues when I graduate. So I was excited to see how the digital humanities were being explored through labs at the Franklin Humanities Institute, including the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge. A professor in my program, Walter Mignolo, was leading a course that took place almost entirely out of the classroom and in the streets of Durham. He introduced me to Miriam Cooke, another professor who was organizing a conference on the nexus of art and activism in the context of the “Arab Spring.” I even met a faculty member from the Sanford School of Public Policy, Bruce Jentleson, who in collaboration with peers from other prominent universities, launched a program that helps guide Ph.D. students who want to conduct policy-relevant research.

Branching out into uncertain territory and exploring the many possible intersections of different fields, to me, is the whole point of scholarship. Duke’s commitment to fostering this kind of research on campus and to exploring diverse avenues of professional development was my deciding factor, and is the reason I continue to feel that I made the right decision. While I cannot know for sure where I will end up a few years from now, I do know that many possibilities await.


Renée Michelle Ragin
Renée Michelle Ragin

current Ph.D. student

Renee Michelle Ragin earned her Bachelor's degree in History and Literature from Harvard in 2010 before joining the US Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. Her tours of duty included assignments in Washington, DC and Saudi Arabia. In 2014, Renee began her Ph.D. in Literature and is currently researching artistic and literary representations of the challenges of reconstructing national identity in the wake of political conflict.