Episode 7 | Non-Academic Higher Education Careers for PhDs

In this episode, Dr. Derek Attig, Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development at the University of Illinois, joins PhD Futures Now to discuss their role in graduate career advising and careers in higher ed administration. They also provide valuable resources and advice for PhD students seeking career diversity assistance. Please see the timestamps below for different sections of this episode.

Time Stamps:
Intro to Derek Attig & their work 02:00
PhD career diversity conversation 07:40
Examples of career diversity initiatives through universities 19:15
Career diversity resources for graduate students 27:34


Derek Attig

Dr. Derek Attig is Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where they coordinate career and professional development resources and services for more than 17,000 graduate students. Derek collaborates regularly with the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association on career-related projects and is incoming President-Elect of the Graduate Career Consortium.

Audio Transcript:

Jason Mierek (Podcast Intro) 00:05

This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity in graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of Humanities Without Walls, a 16 University Consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Maggie Nettesheim-Hoffmann (Episode Intro) 00:34

I am Maggie Nettesheim-Hoffmann and welcome to PhD Futures Now, on today’s episode, we are joined by Derrick Attig, Assistant Dean for career and professional development in the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. And in this role Derek coordinates career and professional development resources and services for more than 17,000 graduate students. They collaborate regularly with the American Historical Association, and the Modern Language Association on career related projects. Additionally, they are the incoming President-elect of the Graduate Career Consortium, and international organization comprised of higher education professionals, leading career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs since 1987.

MNH  01:23

The GCC has over 450 members, representing 185 universities. In full transparency, I have also recently joined the ranks of the GCC. And I’m thrilled we are joined by Derek on today’s podcast, I have to also confess you are no stranger to us at HWW, Derek. And in fact, you are one of our favorite collaborators. So this really feels like a chat with a wonderful mentor, colleague and friend. So Derek, welcome to PhD Futures Now.

Derek Attig  01:55

Thank you, Maggie, I appreciate that. And it’s fantastic to be here.

MNH  02:00

We wanted to start out with a question about your own personal career story. How did you get into into the work that you guide now at the University of Illinois and also for the GCC?

DA  02:13

Absolutely, yeah. So I have a history PhD, which I got many years ago now, maybe seven years ago. And I think like many humanities PhDs, I’ve taken a somewhat circuitous route into my current role, I think, you know, in this something we can, we can talk a little bit more about, but careers tend to be nonlinear. And there are ways that an academic hierarchies and the rigidness of them can obscure that fact for people who are in academic programs, and that linearity seems to be there, but it’s just not. So when I was in my graduate program, I did a lot of different stuff. I helped organize conferences, I wrote for a website, I ended up doing an internship through a Google policy fellowship, you know, all sorts of stuff, as well as my academic research, which was on bookmobiles, and the formation of community in the US. But when I got to the end of my program, I just sort of ended up in a faculty job search, kind of by default. I never despite doing all of those different things, I never paused to think, do I want to do those different things instead of faculty job, but ended up in that faculty search? And, you know, it didn’t go great.

DA  03:51

And I have a 20th century Americanist by training. There are a lot of us and you know, not an overwhelming number of jobs. And it was really, really hard, right? It’s really frustrating. It’s really difficult. Now I look back and I say thank goodness, in a way, because I think I would have been a I think an effective a competent, but unhappy professor, knowing kind of what I do now about what I value, and what motivates me. But at the time, that was really hard. And so I had to shift gears pretty quickly. To get a job, I needed a job. My partner had a full time job in the city where I got my PhD, Urbana Champaign, and so I decided to stay local. And I had to look back really quickly over all of the stuff I’ve done and try to find a story to tell and kind of find that next step. And so I ended up I’m running communications for a small nonprofit in town. And I did things like design a new website, did a lot of graphic design, writing blog posts, and press releases and things like that. I was in that role for, you know, a year a little over a year. And I was liking it. I liked how creative it was. But I also found it kind of unsatisfying, because in that communications role, I was really frequently coming in at the very end of a project, and helping people tell the story of the project, how people communicate it, which is interesting, but I missed working on projects from start to finish.

DA  05:50

And so I started tentatively looking around at other stuff. And right around, then a job popped up on the university job board for an assistant director role in career development in our graduate college. And something I always like to really drive home is that it was a kind of job that at the time, I did not know existed. It was not a career I had planned for. I didn’t know it existed. But it aligned with some work I had done in our teaching and learning center working with graduate students, there was a bit of that job that included communications and marketing. And one of the biggest things they wanted was knowledge of higher education and graduate education in particular. And so I applied for that job, I got it. And I’ve been in the graduate college I’ve ever since it’s been a little bit over six years, and I found it extremely fulfilling, it’s a really interesting job, there are a lot of challenges. I get to to tackle, it fulfills a lot of what I liked about both research and teaching, that kind of creativity, of research, that kind of problem solving following threads on teaching, I think of it as kind of almost all office hours and no grading, right? It’s all helping students develop and like talking to them, rather than assessing them, which I really like. So sort of a weird path into a career I didn’t know exist, existed, but which I’m very glad I’m in

MNH  07:40

Now as I was listening to your story, and make me think about what your experience must have been like, as you were finishing your PhD. Where you and I think a lot of graduate students are in similar positions right now, as they you know, whether they’re 20th century Americanist or whether they’re looking at Deepthi, South Asian art historian. I wonder what types of resources did you have available at that time while you’re finishing up your PhD? And then also, if they don’t have resources on their campus to help guide them, what advice would you give to PhD students listening to this podcast? How can they get started?

DA 08:22

Absolutely. So I think the funny thing is one of the reasons I didn’t know this career existed is because I never used this resource when I was a graduate student. I think graduate education can really encourage a kind of tunnel vision. Right? And, you know, the entire world becomes not even a department smaller than a department, right, a subfield within a department. And so I didn’t reach out, right. And actually, had I done that I might have realized that a faculty career wasn’t a great fit for me earlier and avoided that two years of misery and frustration. And so you know, one of the ways I think about my work is helping graduate students avoid that little bit.

DA  09:23

And so I think whether or not you have a ton of resources on campus for you to use, that. The place I think, to start is with self knowledge. Right? Often people when they start thinking about this want to move to like, external stuff, like what is the list of jobs I could do, right? But that list of jobs isn’t going to be very useful to you. If you don’t understand yourself, and what you want, if you don’t, kind of come up out of the tunnel of your graduate program and kind of look around, think about where are you? What direction are you headed? And is that direction actually one you want to go to? And kind of what other horizons are there out there? I think in particular, starting from understanding what in kind of career services are called values. It’s like, what matters to you in your work, right? So some examples of that, from the kind of top of my list, my top values are things like variety, like, it’s really important to me that I am doing lots of different stuff every day. In retrospect, it’s one of the reasons, I think, it took me so long to write my dissertation. Because I didn’t really like the thinking into it, like fellowship year was like, actually a miserable time, because I thrive on there being lots of different stuff I’m doing. So understanding those values, can help you determine whether a particular career direction might be a good fit for you, it kind of gives you a toolkit. For that, I think skills are another one to kind of explore, I think skills are honestly less important than values, because one thing about graduate students is they’re really good at learning things, right? So I wouldn’t get hung up on skills, I think those values are much more important long term satisfaction, I think, is really about alignment with values. And I’d recommend, I think, to anybody, whether they have career services they can use or not a tool called Imagine PhD, which was developed by the Graduate Career Consortium, and designed specifically for humanities and social sciences graduate students. And it includes values, skills, and interest inventories. And unlike some career assessments, like the goal here isn’t to like match you with a career, right? It’s not something that’s going to say, like, you are a 74% match for, you know, career x, right? Instead, it’s to help you understand yourself, and then start to see alignment.

DA 12:30

One last piece of that self knowledge is to think about self knowledge in community, right. Self knowledge isn’t just about, like what’s in you, but how you exist in a network of dependencies and care around you. So and also, like, what are the circumstances under which you feel belonging, and you feel valued? Right? And for some people that’s connected to location, right? Either proximity to, to family, right? Or to locations in relation to, you know, what kinds of laws protect LGBTQ people in a particular area? What is that kind of broader culture, like, in an area? And so I say start from self knowledge, but with self defined to kind of capaciously, and in that kind of networked sense, right? None of this is easy. But if you know yourself, everything else becomes at least a little bit more straightforward. And you’re gonna always kind of return to that core of what matters to you, and what you value, which is, I think, really useful for wayfinding in this sometimes complicated process.

"Self knowledge isn't just about, like what's in you, but how you exist in a network of dependencies and care around you."–Derek Attig Share on X

MNH  14:03

So one of the questions that we had prepared in advance, as you well know, is a question about how they can prepare their skill sets. But as you were talking again, I’m curious about pushing back against this, this heavy dominance within career diversity discourses, whether it’s at the AHA or the MLA, or at local university campuses, to think about skills. And instead I want to write like, how can we to at least, administrators, or faculty or staff who are working at universities who are working on developing programming, how can we encourage them to do what I would call from my Jesuit context, this career and professional discernment process? How do we build that programming? And what are models that you might point to to faculty and administrators that they can that they could learn from and think about developing things Universities?

DA  15:01

Absolutely, yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about skills as a way of seeing, right, not as a list of discrete things, right, that are fixed and are the same between people or among different contexts, but instead skills as one way to think about what we’re good at. I think it’s really valuable to spend time on. What am I good at? I particularly because I think a lot of time academic settings, don’t encourage that kind of thinking, right? Graduate school primes people for negative self talk. Right? And I think particularly people who have less privilege, right, are in different relations to power. But that tended to be really self critical. I mean, it’s how humanists are trained to approach sources, secondary sources, right? You read a monograph, right? And you start with what’s wrong with us. Right? Rather than what does this do well, or what is the project it’s attempting to do? And then what are some gaps between that and what I would do, right, and I think there’s a way to think about skills in a similar way, right? Like, well, what am I good at? What have I learned? What helps me make the contribution I want to, to make? And then where are there some gaps? That would help me do what I want to do?

"Graduate school primes people for negative self talk."–Derek Attig Share on X

DA  16:46

Right, I think we tend to talk about skills in career context, really, from the employers perspective. And I think that’s useful, right? Because I also think about skills as a mode of communication, right? It’s a way to help other people understand what you’ve done. It’s a way to take something like teaching a discussion session of, you know, a literary history survey, right? And make that legible to somebody who’s maybe never even taken a literature course, let alone taught one, right? So I think skills do have value as a mode of communication, but not in a kind of reductive kind of way. Right? And again, like I said, before, starting from yourself, like what am I good at? And then how do I help other people understand that, I think, also thinking about skills in conversation with values, and with the question of impact is important to think about skills as ways to do work that aligns with one’s values or that help you have the impact you want to make? I think, well, the way to design programming that does this, I think, is to embrace a little bit of weirdness. I think, for some reason, some career diversity programming, I think contend to be a little bit stultifying, right? Or just very mechanical, maybe that’s a way to put it right. So you know, A plus B equals C, right? You have this skill, you need this skill, and that leads to exactly this career. And I think that’s one not true, right? It doesn’t prepare people for that non-linearity, right. Like if I had prepared only in really narrowly for a nonprofit communications career, I would have been sort of completely stuck again, at the end of that, that position, when I realized that wasn’t quite what I wanted to do.

DA  19:15

Some interesting models include the the life design realm, sort of derives from the design school at Stanford. And the folks there wrote a book called Designing Your Life and they do some train the trainer stuff. And so, like Johns Hopkins [University] has a really strong life design orientation in its career services generally, but also for graduate students, and it’s an approach that I’ve borrowed a little bit from. Alright, I think taking your kind of magpie approach is is also good. Pick the most important thing if I’m you know…

DA  20:00

…if there’s any department administrators, faculty listening, developing programs that can help your humanities graduate students think like humanists about their careers. That I think is the goal. I think, too often, humanists in general, wherever they are, don’t do that. Right? It’s like, they shut off some of those parts of their, their brain and think about careers in a completely different mode. As long as you pause and reflect regularly, which graduate students I think don’t do enough, because of the way they’re pushed to just keep looking ahead, looking to the next thing, that reflection can help integrate help reorient a bit and bring all of the weirdness together.

"As long as you pause and reflect regularly, which graduate students I think don't do enough, because of the way they're pushed to just keep looking ahead, looking to the next thing, that reflection can help integrate help reorient a… Share on X

MNH  20:58

Well, and as Derek was talking in, maybe I wrote down this question, and this may have come from a different answer. But I’m wonder I often wonder why don’t PhDs ask for help, right? Derek, you were referencing that even when you were finishing up your PhD, you didn’t utilize the resources that were available to you on campus. And we often see this right, that that’s not a unique story, it happens at Marquette. It happens, I’m sure at UIC, where Deepthi, went to school and finished her PhD. But as you were answering the earlier question, it does help to see right we’re supposed to be knowledge experts, or there’s some sort of assumption that we have it all figured out. And so that if we ask for help, that kind of reinforces the this culture that if you ask for help, you might be seen as a failure.

DA  21:49

I think a lot of academia and maybe even particularly humanities, academia, tends to be pretty individualistic, right? That the kind of form of the single author, or non-collaborative dissertation or monograph gets sort of mapped on to a lot of the social relations of graduate school. And I think it’s a real problem, like one thing that I’ve been thinking about with Mearah Quinn-Brauner in that that mindset, humanities mindset, project is agency, right. And this idea that graduate students in the humanities never seem to grant themselves the agency, they grant, the people they study that sort of come to research with an assumption. You know, I think post social history post critical theory sort of turn in the late 20th century, and with the influence of African American Studies, in particular, come with this assumption that even when constrained, people have agency to shape their lives and their experiences in some way, right, that we exist, constrained, but not completely controlled. Right. And I think I see a lot with humanities graduate students not applying that assumption to themselves. Right. And so seeing themselves completely subject like entirely subject to the academic job market, right, or to the structure of the university, right, which are big factors and do constrain what is possible, right, and in some ways, but there is agency within those, right, and I think particularly actually, to maybe bring the two threads here together, through collaboration, and, and mutual aid, right, that that that individualistic approach to graduate education makes it harder to shape those structures and to figure out how to move within them. And so asking for help, whether it’s from peers and colleagues, from a department or from resources outside of the department, I think is a really hard but valuable step in claiming that agency to to move.

"And this idea that graduate students in the humanities never seem to grant themselves the agency, they grant, the people they study that sort of come to research with an assumption. And I think I see a lot with humanities graduate… Share on X "And so seeing themselves completely subject like entirely subject to the academic job market, right, or to the structure of the university, right, which are big factors and do constrain what is possible, right, and in some ways, but… Share on X

MNH  24:51

I wonder if you might want to talk a little bit about the bridge project that you’re designing in collaboration with HWW at UIUC. To talk a little bit about internship, external internship placements that you’re you’re guiding in Illinois, and then also how those types of experiences can aid professional development while you’re working on your PhD.

DA 25:16

Absolutely, yeah, so the HWW Summer Bridge experience is a pilot. It’s an experiment in connecting humanities graduate students to community organizations, so primarily nonprofits, to do project based work that both draws on their strengths and their capacities as humanists and gives them experience with a new setting or a new way of doing things. So far, we’re in the middle of it, as we talk right now, but it’s been a great experience for those students. And I think there’s a lot of interest across any universities in developing internship programs, or experiential learning programs that do this kind of matching in a structured kind of way. And I think those can be extremely valuable for our students, particularly, you know, providing structure and compensation an important piece of that. I do worry sometimes that career diversity initiatives can go too far down a rabbit hole or get kind of caught in a cul de sac of focus on internships, like internships, internships, internships, is the the only way to solve any of this. It’s the only way that students get experience. Right. And I think a couple of things about that, you know, one is I think it can tend to, under value, inadvertently, the kinds of experience graduate students are already doing, right. So it their their teaching and their research, and various service activities they may be involved in. And I think alongside that internship program, also, programs should build in opportunities to reflect and distill and figure out how to talk about the teaching, or the research in the ways that we’ve, we’ve already chatted about a little bit.

MNH 27:34

So what advice would you provide to students interested in administrative careers? Or maybe even if you could reflect a little bit about the future of careers in higher ed admin? Where is that going? So for all of us, you know, I guess I consider myself in this this work now, through HWW. What is the future of career development for grad students and these types of careers?

DA  28:00

Yeah, terms of the advice piece? First, you know, one thing that comes to mind is, I think it’s a good idea for graduate students not to just default into higher education administration, because the setting is familiar, the fact that the setting is familiar can be really useful, right? And you know, a lot of students I work with really like a university setting and want to be in it. They like working with students, and so they want to do that in some way. And that’s great. But again, that self knowledge piece that pause, reflect, why would I want to move in this direction, right. And I think familiarity shouldn’t be enough to just determine your career. If somebody is interested in working in higher education, you know, in a job like mine, or like any of the many different places that humanities PhDs end up in, in universities, it is really crucial to understand how higher education works and how institutions work. I think good news is humanists tend to be really good at thinking about institutions, and how people relate to each other, right, from different perspectives, depending on disciplinary or interdisciplinary background, but to kind of apply that to higher education. And think about, you know, what do these institutions look like? How do they vary, because not every institution is like the one you got your PhD from. Right? And, like really crucially, to understand how all of the different pieces of the university fit together and what the cultures structures incentives motivations are in different parts of the university and to to humanists, I would say in particular, understand what academia looks like in STEM, right? And not Just from I think humanists can tend to have a kind of othering approach to stem or sometimes defensive, right, this sense that they’re, they’re the haves humanities or the have nots, which I think isn’t really true and is a lot more complicated than that. And for many, many jobs in higher education administration, it’s just really valuable to be able to think beyond your own personal disciplinary background.

DA  30:25

Another strategy there is join or explore public resources from professional organizations like the Graduate Career Consortium, for example, but also in career services and career development. There’s the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). There’s the POD Network, the Professional and Organizational Development Network of higher education that has a lot of teaching and learning and faculty development folks in it. NASPA, which is one of these acronyms that doesn’t stand for anything anymore. NASPA is Association of Student Affairs professionals. The National Organization of Research Development Professionals (NORDP), is one for people who will do research development work they support, they support research in different ways, the Association of College and Research Libraries, which is a subdivision of the American Library Association, where the librarians and related people are. NAFSA is an international education association, NAFA, the National Association of Fellowship Advisors are people who help students get nationally competitive fellowships, and all of these, it’s a big list, are parts of higher education, I have specifically worked with humanities graduate students to end up in. Higher education administration isn’t one thing, right. And using these organizations, exploring them, can be one way of figuring out, you know, what your professional home might be in higher education.

DA  32:13

On the the future of careers in higher education administration, I think they’re going to change and continue changing, right? There’s a lot of uncertainty around this kind of demographics, and the number of college age students is likely going to drop. And then following on that, for me, that dumper graduate school, out of graduate school students might drop, I think, in the wake of the pandemic, and a long history of xenaphobic immigration policy, the number of international students interested in willing to come to the US is uncertain, right. And that’s been a huge part of the growth, particularly of graduate education. At a lot of research institutions, there are more and more and more professional master’s programs, and sort of certificate programs that aren’t specifically, degrees, like since I’ve been in the graduate college master’s students went from, I think it’s about a third of our graduate students to two-thirds of our graduate students. It’s doubled in the past six years. And so like, even just in the graduate career development space, it’s harder to just focus on PhD students now, and I don’t want to write because there’s so many of these other students, and they need support and help too. But that support and help looks different than the PhD students. And so this is all really, it’s all really interesting. I think navigating these changes will be interesting, in the good way, and maybe the bad way, because it will be uncertain.

DA  33:56

My question on humanities, career development kind of stuff, is whether the future will just keep looking like the past humanities have had versions of these conversations versions of these crises around the job market and employability, like, over and over and over again, since at least the 1970s. In my office, I have a pile of books going back to the 1970s. About exactly this. You know, I think the good news is this wave seems to be lasting longer than some of the previous ones. And you know, I’m hopeful about that. But academia has a way and I mean academia in that kind of, like research academia has its way of snapping back to what it thinks is normal, even though that normal hasn’t ever really been normal, the way that, you know, PhDs have gone on to do a wide range of things as long as there have been PhDs. But as with so much in the US, we get, I think, stuck in a fantasy of mid-century prosperity, right, that wasn’t actually prosperous for everybody and are kind of always trying to revert to that, in a way that isn’t great. Right? And so I’m hopeful, but a little bit concerned about what the future of this careers conversation and work in the humanities is going to look like, particularly as everything else in higher education changes.

MNH 35:32

Derek, thank you so much for joining us on PhD Futures Now. It is always illuminating to talk to you and I thank you for your generosity and you’re sharing your wisdom and time with us today.

DA  35:46

That’s always lovely to talk to you, Maggie, and great to contribute to an important podcast like this.

Deepthi Murali  (End Credits) 35:55

All the resources mentioned by Dr. Derek Attig In this episode, are listed and hyperlinked in the audio transcript available at www.phdfuturesnow.org. Before we sign off, we have a request for you. If you’re a student, academic, or a higher education professional listening to this podcast, please consider subscribing and following us on your favorite podcast streaming channel. We would also love to hear from you via social media. You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @phdfuturesnow. In our next episode, we talk to Dr. Andrew Keating, Senior Director, Global Head of industry marketing at Qumulo. Andrew has a PhD in History and they will talk about transferring their academic knowledge and skills to the tech sector. Thanks for listening.