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Mellon Mini-Course: Understanding Research Career Pathways Through Health Humanities

This is the first in a new series of blog posts by participants in Mellon Public Humanities Mini-Courses. Learn about 2017 mini-course offerings and register to participate!

I decided to go to grad school because I wanted a research career. When I began my program, I assumed that this was necessarily synonymous with the elusive R1 university, tenure track position. Over the last year, though, I’ve come to understand that the university is not the only place where rigorous humanities research is possible and have started to see a diverse array of appealing alternative opportunities. Alex Stern’s Mellon mini-course on “Humanities and Health” in May 2016 was fundamental in my realization that other possibilities were, well, possible. And perhaps even more importantly, it affirmed that it is also very possible to explore academic and nonacademic tracks simultaneously. The short course enacted on a miniature scale how this double professionalization might in fact overlap and be easily intertwined.

Backing up a bit, though, this was not what I had expected to take away from the course. I initially decided to participate primarily for academic reasons. My dissertation focuses on visual representations of vulnerability and chronic pain, so a short, intensive primer in the medical humanities seemed like a helpful addition to my theoretical toolkit. And the course did satisfy this aim as a compelling introductory overview. During the first three days we read a selection of articles and monographs that mapped out the field from a wide variety of perspectives. Since most of the other participants were from different disciplines our discussion naturally became one of translation and method, which helped highlight the versatile applications and directions of the health humanities. It also forced me to think seriously about how to approach this content based on my own research questions and disciplinary background. Because of this reflection, several of these sources ended up being cited in my dissertation prospectus three months later.

But these seminar-style discussions were only a fraction of our time. They were complemented by afternoon conference calls with a variety of professionals whose work was linked to health and humanities graduate training. The most exciting part of these conversations, beyond the sheer diversity, was how all of these individuals were actually using the humanities content expertise they gained in grad school, not just the more general critical thinking and communication skills. While they had, of course, developed knowledge and skills over the course of their careers that diverged from the professorial route, their primary qualification was their doctoral work. Their careers entailed the translation and reframing of this foundation as opposed to an entirely new skill-set. Moreover, these were jobs that remained thoroughly academic, intellectually stimulating, and rooted in high level research despite occurring outside of the university. It was also exciting to see first-hand how traditional academic research could be mobilized for publicly engaged products beyond the scholarly monograph or journal article.

Following this groundwork, the hands-on final two days proved the most useful part of the seminar, even though it was the part I was most anxious and skeptical about at the beginning. After seeing these real models of scholars in non-university career paths, our task was to identify a job or fellowship opportunity that could similarly utilize our Ph.D. preparation; we then wrote and workshopped a cover letter for it. While I’d thought about potential career paths, this simple exercise of finding a concrete position and seeing what it would be like to seriously pitch myself for it was transformative. Furthermore, the skills we had been practicing in the morning discussions at the beginning of the course, like translating across disciplines and understanding alternative methodologies, mirrored the kind of work and reflective habits needed for this sort of writing.

Despite only being a week long, this program significantly impacted both my sense of my dissertation research and its relation to non-academic paths. It helped me move from the brainstorming and exploring phase into action, and finally showed me the ties I had been looking and hoping for between humanities research and work outside of the university. Coming away with a tangible product in the cover letter, which I will revise next fall and use to apply for the summer internship that I Identified, also made following this path feel doable. Dual professionalization, done intentionally and reflectively, need not be overwhelming but instead can be symbiotically generative. Engaging with alternative careers expansively in terms of content and research interests, as Alex Stern’s mini-course did, as opposed to focusing primarily on discipline-rooted skills is an empowering approach that can open up a whole new set of exciting possibilities.