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Brandeis is overhauling the Ph.D. preparation of humane

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Most Ph.D. students will not end up getting faculty jobs because there are far more potential assistantships than available positions. Brandeis University is one of a growing number of institutions facing this reality. This encouraged graduate students, faculty, and academic programs in the humanities and social sciences in addition to the traditional Ph.D. learning with the development of skills and experiences that are not central to the work of teachers. Some departments have also made significant curriculum reforms.

Much of this work was part of Brandeis’ work Connecting Ph.D. an initiative that is already three years old. The program was launched with a four-year, $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For students, the program funds professional development experiences, including fellowships (something like paid internships) on campus or at other locations designated by the candidate. Past fellowships, some of which have led to permanent employment or other lasting connections for the student, include fellowships at the Brandeis Center for Teaching and Learning, Brandeis University Press, Brandeis Initiative for Equity in Education, New England International Institute, Society for Cultural Anthropology, National Center for Women Law and Boston Public Schools.

Anthony Lipscomb, Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern and Judaic Studies and one of two students to receive a Ph.D. funding to work with Brandeis University Press, is now the full-time press coordinator, a job he was offered after his fellowship. He said he was initially interested in the press fellowship because of his previous experience as a researcher on faculty publishing projects and a general desire to diversify his “perspectives” in light of the tough faculty job market.

“Looking back, I feel extremely blessed to have had this opportunity,” Lipscomb said this week. “I am currently working full-time at the press while writing my dissertation. Who knows where this road leads? Academic publishing is an important endeavor, a partnership between publishers and scholars to shape fields of knowledge. I see myself thriving in this venture on both sides of this partnership.”

Sue Ramin, press director, said her operation has benefited from being part of the Connected Ph.D. program as well. While a doctorate is not a prerequisite for a career in publishing, she said graduate students bring a valuable “independence” to their work. It’s nice to have someone who, if they don’t know how to do something, will figure out how to do it.”

While Brandeis fellowships have proven particularly practical during COVID-19, when lockdowns and travel restrictions have limited community outreach, external fellowships and engagement have continued throughout the pandemic.

Kaiti Chakayan, Ph.D. candidate in social policy, said her 2020 PhD work at the National Women’s Law Center stemmed from an earlier course on gender-based violence research taught by Anita Hill that she took at Brandeis. At the center, Chakoyan helped conduct a national survey of survivors, contributed to the Survivors’ Agenda political platform, and planned a national summit.

“It was an incredible experience, mostly because of the network of leaders, activists and survivors I was able to work with that summer,” Chakoian said. “I’ve been on committees with frontline workers, executive directors and community organizers from so many groups and organizations doing real work on the ground to support survivors and work to end gender-based violence.” Now completing her dissertation, she said, “the connections I made working with the Connected Ph.D. helped me formulate my research.” She also serves as the campus policy manager for End Rape on Campus, an organization involved in Survivors’ Agenda.

Some students have received funding from the Connected Ph.D. funding for professional development and certification, for enrollment in digital tools, techniques, and design courses and workshops outside of Brandeis. The university also now allows Ph.D. students to enroll in additional online courses through the Raba School of Continuing Education at Brandeis, namely: Cognitive and Social Psychology of User-Centered Design, Principles of Learning Experience Design, and Writing for Digital Environments.

“We as educators have an ethical obligation to prepare students for jobs that exist, and those jobs are different than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago,” said Wendy Cage, dean of Brandeis’ Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “It’s just a realist. I mean, if you’re going to invest in a Ph.D. students, you want them to be successful. And I think they need a wide range of skills and the ability to be flexible—and frankly, an understanding of what the job market looks like when they start getting their Ph.D. program so they can make the best decisions for them.”

In addition to the Connected Ph.D. funding opportunities, Brandeis doctoral students are guaranteed 9 months of funding over five years.

Connecting Ph.D. also offers faculty members funding for course development and program innovation.

“Bridge” from science to career

Jonathan Anjaria, Associate Professor of Anthropology, is involved in many aspects of the Connected Ph.D. program as the first Brandeis Faculty Director of Professional Development for Graduate Studies. In this latter capacity, Anjaria offers highly personalized career counseling to individual graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, and arts (a different mentor and other services are available for graduate students in the sciences). He also plans careers workshops and talks, and interacts with alumni working in and outside the academy, who also help guide current students down different paths.

Anjaria said recently that “the reason we felt this position was so important is because we wanted to create a bridge, a position that connects the academic work that happens in the departments at the academic level, as well as career services and other career support”. Often, he said, graduate students stick to academics and follow an “unspoken rule” not to discuss “practical,” “professional” or “financial” topics with their immediate professors, which hinders their career planning.

“When I meet with students, usually someone says, ‘Well, I’m in my fifth year, sixth year of my Ph.D., and I feel like I’ve been trained to be an expert on this subject, and now I realize that the odds are that I’m I will get a full-time job in this topic, very small. I’m really worried that I’ve only been taught to do this one thing and I can’t get another job,” said Anjaria. “And so a big part of my job is finding a career to get people out of that mindset. To say, “Actually, even if you’re in the most liberal arts or whatever, there are a lot of options,” including but not limited to teaching jobs.

These options are magnified with careful planning, Anjaria continued: “The two graduate school tracks are assumed to be academic [job] track or the non-academic track, but what I’ve seen is that two tracks actually go through graduate school with a job in mind, rather than going into graduate school without a job in mind.”

Sarah Gable, Ph.D. candidate in history, worked in the provost’s office through Connected Ph.D., researching how majors can better align their course offerings with direct learning objectives. She has since moved on to other projects in the provost’s office and remains invested in career diversity (she said her interest and involvement in career diversity work began before her Ph.D., in part because that she worked outside of academia until graduate school and now has young children whom she doesn’t want to “scatter” around the country for a string of temporary postdocs while they’re on the job market with coordinates).

“I’m very passionate about this because I want to protect people from this really emotional grieving process” about the job market, even if Gable’s own thoughts about the faculty’s future were more “practical,” she said. “I want people to be prepared, and I want people to know — especially in the humanities, where we sort of justify our existence — that there is value in a PhD even if you don’t get an internship … a job. Your skills and everything you’ve learned are all really needed outside of academia because a lot of people are talking about the issues we’re talking about in humanities in the wider world, rather than just talking to other scientists.’

Brandeis is now working to secure funding for the fellowships, which will continue even after the Mellon grant ends in a year. But other elements of his approach to rethinking the Ph.D. training costs next to nothing and will continue. Example: Curriculum reform that has already been approved by several programs.

John Burt, chair of the English department, said that COVID-19 has sparked discussions in his program about changing the 2020 curriculum. Examining the career outcomes of graduates has been a large part of this effort. Changes to be implemented over the next few years include asking applicants upon admission to share career plans that may include working outside of traditional faculty, expanding the scholarly writing course to other types of writing (including grant proposals), and rewriting the pedagogy course taking into account different types of learning. Other plans include adding a fourth-year internship and making the final research project more flexible — meaning it doesn’t necessarily have to be (in Burt’s words) a “proto-book.”

“This project has so many features,” he said.

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