HWW Team Spotlight: Consultant on Career Diversity

On Disrupting Norms in Graduate Education

Derek Attig headshot
Derek Attig,
HWW Consultant on Career Diversity

Meet Derek Attig, Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Attig also serves as an HWW Consultant on Career Diversity.

Please describe your role at the Graduate College.

I help graduate students figure out where they want to go during graduate school and beyond. Some of our role is providing an equitable baseline of information about the hidden curriculum of career development and the job search that students on campus have really uneven access to.

One of the things we do is make sure everybody has access to some information and then some steps forward. We also collaborate with departments and programs to integrate career development and career thinking into the graduate school experience: at the program level, into the curriculum, or into co-curricular activities in departments.

Can you talk kind of about the mindsets that graduate students bring with them from academia, including the narratives that they tell themselves? How do these stories shape how they position themselves during their career searches outside of the academy?

I'm trained as a historian. One of the things I brought to my work after my PhD is a real attention to agency, and to how people claim power or making choices under constraints and not thinking about that as a binary state, which I think is important for my work now with graduate students. But I've also worked a lot with people in literary studies who pay attention to narrative and narrative structure. It's really useful for thinking about how people interact with each other or about cause and effect, which historians think about a little bit differently than people who study narrative. There are a lot of examples of these, but they're all of these strengths, perspectives, and ways of looking.

“At the same time, maybe from a different angle, I think humanities graduate students are often immersed in a set of stories of collapse, limitation, and a kind of hopelessness—I think understandably given the state of the academy and structural forces there.

But I think sometimes they can bring that inadvertently to the story they're telling about themselves to people outside of those contexts. Some of what I try to do in working with them is to disrupt that a little bit.”

To think about multiple possible stories you could tell. And to then come from an asset-orientation rather than from a deficit-orientation.

Could you describe the significance of values-based career development? How do graduate students think or rethink the concept of job skills?

A big part of work I've done with humanists has been in collaboration with a colleague from Northwestern, Mearah Quinn-Brauner, to push beyond just thinking about skills. I think humanists often resist the language of skills for better or worse. It also has limitations. Skills are a really effective communication tool for making legible across contexts what you're doing. But it's not the only way, nor often the best way to capture what somebody gets out of sustained engagement with humanistic inquiry. A lot about what we call the humanities mindset—ways of thinking, ways of looking at the world that come from that advanced work in the humanities—but can be applied more broadly.

Skills are a very common framework in career development. It's a very visible one, but there are multiple challenges that come with it. One of them is that humanities graduate students are often developing very specialized skills that are then applied pretty narrowly. Paleography or historiography? That can feel very much like the “well, just go work in a museum or an archive,” as common advice to humanists, as if those are settings that don't have their own massive job crises that they're experiencing.

In academia, we tend to talk about skills in context-specific ways. We talk about syllabi, lecturing, and skills in ways that are dependent on the particular contexts they’re in. That makes it hard to communicate to somebody in a different context. One of the conversations I have probably at least once a week is about whether we really need the word “grading” in a resume. Somebody who hasn't taught doesn't really know what grading is and they're going to think to themselves, “I'm not hiring somebody to grade papers. What do I care about this?” But the grading actually does involve a whole lot of skills and abilities that are really valuable, [including] the ability to assess how somebody is doing and provide constructive feedback and to thoughtfully norm across a wide range of students. But you have to really do the work of helping people see that.

I also think humanists who are confronted with the skills question run into a bit of tension. They often feel that their skills are hyper-focused, hyper-specific, and not useful anywhere else. They also run into a lot of well-meaning people, telling them they have really useful transferable skills and then using a vague checklist language for that.

And so often humanists get caught in a bit of a spiral. They’re caught between: “I can only do this one thing” and “I can do anything but what does that even mean?”

We like to start not with skills, but with values and with thinking about what a student really wants out of their career. How their career fits into and interacts with the rest of their life. We often see students realize that location is really important. They want to be near family or want to be in a state where abortion is legal. Starting from values, you can shift to skills and find things that resonate across both.

Could you tell us about your involvement with the Humanities Without Walls consortium?

My most significant sustained experience with HWW was in collaborating to create the Summer Bridge program, which takes humanities graduate students and matches them with a local community organization to do some project-based work. My experience with the HWW Summer Bridge program fed directly into the Graduate College developing the Career Exploration Fellowship program, which is structured somewhat similarly, pairing students with campus units during a semester. In particular, I learned a lot from the Summer Bridge program about the kind of support and professional development that is most useful in an experience like that.

I've also been involved in the HWW Career Diversity summer workshop for some number of years. I have presented on values and skills, but also the workshop is one of the places where I've experimented with the humanities mindset project and thinking about how to facilitate students applying theoretical or critical frameworks from the humanities to the challenges and decisions they face in their careers. That's been a really good test bed for different ideas and experimental approaches.

How has the career diversity conversation evolved over the last fifteen years?

One of the biggest shifts I've seen is in faculty sentiment about career development for graduate students. That shift has primarily been from hostility to neutrality. Particularly in a field like English, but also in history and in some others, there are not enough faculty positions to sustain some of the… let's say “fantasies”…about what these PhDs were going to do. That, combined with the work of the HWW consortium and people in the graduate career field, has shifted that conversation. There's a lot less defensiveness.

We'll see where it goes from here. The work of the HWW consortium and others to normalize and institutionalize [career diversity initiatives] shows how that shifts the sense of what's possible in humanities graduate education. I'm cautiously optimistic about that. Given my work in the broader graduate career field, I'm interested in getting people who work with life scientists and on NIH-funded initiatives in conversation with some of us working in the humanities to talk about their perspectives. There's a lot of value to focusing our attention on the humanities, but I want to avoid talking to just ourselves. I want to seek out opportunities to bring other people into the conversation.

Interview by Heather Ennis & Bridget Sullivan