Why the World Needs Humanities Ph.D.s Right Now

July 22, 2020

In her new book, Katina Rogers addresses how to turn humanities Ph.D.s into fulfilling employment and ways to make the degrees more equitable, just, and relevant.

Katina Rogers and the cover of her book, "Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work" (Photos courtesy of Rogers)
Katina Rogers and the cover of her book, "Putting the Humanities Ph.D. to Work" (Photos courtesy of Rogers)

A new book by Katina Rogers, co-director of the Futures Initiative at The Graduate Center, answers pressing questions about the role and relevance of Ph.D. programs in the humanities. Among these are how do schools that offer such programs respond to students’ changing career needs, especially as faculty jobs become scarcer? And how can these programs become more equitable and just? 

In Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom, Rogers makes the case that, “even in this challenging time for higher education, a Ph.D. in the humanities is worth pursuing for the training it offers, the doors it opens, and the value it provides to society.”

Humanities scholars, she argues, are uniquely positioned to push the boundaries of long-established fields and even advance newer, growing ones like technology. “Tech companies, for instance,” she writes, “face a multitude of ethical and intercultural questions and have increasingly turned to humanities scholars to help them think differently about how their products will function in the world.”

Rogers criticizes the conservatism of universities, which lies at the root of “higher education’s systemic racism and sexism.” Celebrating different graduate outcomes and rewarding diverse forms of scholarship, particularly scholarship that is digital or has a public impact, are ways that humanities programs can attract and retain diverse students and faculty, she argues. 

In addition to guidance for higher education faculty and administrators, Rogers offers practical career advice to new and continuing Ph.D. students. She devotes an entire chapter to the topic. She encourages students who look to careers beyond the academy. 

“There are so many career paths that not only align with but amplify the goals of doctoral study in the humanities,” she writes. She suggests ways to translate the “core values” of doctoral education — research, teaching, and impact — for different professional contexts. ​

The findings and recommendations in her book are based on extensive interviews and research, as well as her own experiences as the first in her immediate family to pursue a Ph.D.

In a recent interview in Inside Higher Ed, Rogers reflected on the disruptions to higher education from the pandemic and said that this unusual time might offer schools unexpected opportunities to rethink and reform higher education. 

“Because colleges and universities are in a state of upheaval right now, with upcoming semesters highly uncertain, people at the decision-making level have a unique opportunity to reinvest while also fundamentally reimagining how educational structures function,” she said.

Expanding on that interview, Rogers told The Graduate Center that doctoral students here should be both optimistic and realistic about the future. 

“Students at The Graduate Center have an incredible depth of experience and perspective,” she said. “Everything that you do, from research and teaching to union involvement and mutual aid work, is a valuable asset when you apply for jobs. The key is making these experiences legible, which often involves the work of translation — learning how to help others see the ways that your strengths fit with their needs.” 

She noted that the unexpected challenges students are facing demand greater humanity, adding, “the pandemic has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities and inequalities, and it goes without saying that this is an extraordinarily difficult time to be making major life decisions. This is a time to be extremely gentle with yourself and to be really clear about your goals — not only intellectual, but also material. What do you need to do to get or retain health insurance? How important is it for you to be geographically close to loved ones, especially if travel is difficult or impossible? The concept of ‘the life of the mind’ is a misnomer that makes it too easy to dismiss concrete needs.”

Hear Rogers talk about her book and her research in an interview on The Graduate Center’s podcast, The Thought Project.