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From Diss to Career

A creative dissertation can open doors to a wide range of career opportunities. People who have completed next-generation dissertations have gone into all kinds of professional spaces, including positions both within universities (as faculty members, library workers, center directors, and more), as well as beyond. Working differently, on a project that excites and enlivens you, can be a huge asset when you’re ready to look for your next career move. We recommend Imagine PhD (created by Annie Maxfield and the Graduate Career Consortium) as a first-stop resource for anyone thinking about their post-PhD plans.

Screenshot of the Imagine PhD website
Imagine PhD offers values-based assessments, descriptions of job categories, sample application materials, and more.

In interviews, people who had completed innovative dissertations spoke repeatedly of the professional value of having pursued a project that aligned with their own research and goals, rather than the standards set by prior generations of students in their departments. For instance, when Dr. Justin Schell considered using a standard dissertation format for his richly multimedia research on global influences on local hip-hop artists, he found himself thinking, “this is not what I want to do with my life” (call with Katina Rogers, July 16, 2021). He began to realize that he didn’t actually need a protomonograph for a job. When he instead allowed himself to consider other possibilities, he says it felt deeply liberating. The end result was We Rock Long Distance, a phenomenal full-length documentary with complex auditory, visual, and intellectual textures, that follows three musicians across multiple continents. Dr. Schell now works as the Director of the Shapiro Design Lab at the University of Michigan Library, where he consults with faculty and students on their own innovative projects.

For students considering their dissertation options, think about the additional skills you may either gain or be able to articulate differently if you create your own project. From technical skills and artistry to collaboration and project management, a creative dissertation may help you to synthesize the research and analysis work in new and powerful ways. Nothing can guarantee that a student will find the job of their dreams right after graduation, but people who create next-generation dissertations seem to do remarkably well in a wide range of job markets (including for faculty positions).

Conservative dissertation practices persist in part because of deep anxieties about the academic job market, which has long been threadbare. These conservative practices, however, do nothing to alleviate the reliance on adjunct labor that is at the heart of the faculty job market crisis. It is past time to foster the exploration of new models of scholarly work, rather than holding to norms that may not serve the research or the career goals of students.

For further reading, see Putting the Humanities PhD to Work by Katina L. Rogers (Duke University Press, 2020).