UI PhD Alumni: Where They Are Now

November 1, 2019

Event Reflections and Summary


With the season’s first snow hanging in the air, over 30 people gathered from 15 different departments across the University of Iowa at MERGE co-working space in downtown Iowa City to learn about career diversity from humanities PhD alumni. Eight PhD alumni (seven from the University of Iowa), some of whom work beyond the academy and others who occupy a wide range of teaching positions in education, traveled to Iowa City from across the country to share their experiences and insights.

Teresa Mangum welcomes everyone to the alumni symposium

The first panel, “Diverse Careers for Humanities Scholars,” featured three alumni working in private, corporate, and government industries. Erica Damman, SEO specialist and channel manager at Ravenel New Media Consulting, kicked off the session by explaining how her new form dissertation in Environmental Humanities through the Interdisciplinary Studies program at the Graduate College––in which she created three analog games to inspire conversations about ecocritical well-being for humans and non-humans—allowed her to gain skills that she leverages in her career beyond the academy. At Ravenel New Media Consulting, Erica explained how she does a lot of project-based work that is collaborative, interesting, and challenging. There is no “waste” of her intellectual energies. In the same vein, Erica emphasized that academia is, at the end of the day, a job (not the or the only job out there). There are certain things you have to do to get any job, academia or otherwise. Erica shared how she actively and consistently networked with anyone—from UI colleagues to running club mates—who could help her perceive her next steps post-graduation. Eventually, a non-ac acquaintance suggested she apply for a paid internship, where she quickly climbed to the senior position she holds today.

“Academia is a job…and there are lots of other jobs out there.” – Erica Damman

Erica Damman shares the context of her new form dissertation

Peter Bezanson is the CEO of the BASIS.ed charter school network and BASIS Educational Ventures, but his path from a PhD in philosophy to his present-day work was long and winding. Peter was a teacher long before he became an executive: he started his own unofficial tutoring company while he was still in grad school, working with high schoolers from disenfranchised communities. From there, he hopped around schools and even continents teaching high schoolers a huge range of subjects. Peter’s teaching confirmed for him that he wanted to devote his life toward finding a way to make available a top-notch K-12 education to anyone who wants it. Although Peter is no longer in the classroom, he still uses the skills he learned from his PhD in his job today. Peter remarked how his doctoral training taught him the humility and curiosity needed to appreciate and get excited about new ideas and deep thinking with groups of highly motivated, very smart people.

Dan Schulz rounded out the first panel discussing how early on in his doctoral studies, he sieved his research in philosophy through data analytics, which ultimately not only won him tenure-track academic offers, but also enabled him to turn down those offers to venture outside of education and focus entirely on data. Dan developed what he calls a “reserve-chute methodology,” in which he incorporated methods valued in data-based industries into all of his scholarly activities (for example, Dan wrote his dissertation in LaTeX and used Python to organize and translate his teaching evaluations). In short, Dan baked into his PhD training data-driven decisions that he knew would offer continual challenges and possibilities for him far into the future.

“When you’re really pushed [in graduate school] to think clearly about ideas, make careful distinctions, think under pressure, it makes you more empowered in the business world.” – Dan Schulz

Dan Schulz’s methodological strategy

Key take-aways from the first panel:

  1. Many people pursue their PhD because they know they are not “done” with research in a higher education setting. They may know that they are not going to stay in academia post-degree, and they may not know what their post-degree steps are, but they are committed and motivated to pursue their doctoral training.
  2. What if we put academic jobs on the same playing field as non-academic jobs? What would happen if job location, team, environment, benefits, and salary were assessed as comparative metrics for academic and non-ac jobs alike? Would this expand the academic narrative of post-degree success?
  3. Networking is crucial. Networking is also a practice that must be learned, cultivated, refined, and maintained. Networking will help you perceive possibilities and get your materials in front of the right people.

The second panel, “Diverse Careers Across Education,” featured five presenters who have used their PhD to teach at different education venues in Iowa, including a public high school, community college, private liberal arts college, and a comprehensive regional university. Michael Ayers, who earned his PhD in language, literacy, and culture from the UI College of Education, now teaches at City High School in Iowa City. He started the panel by reflecting on what sort of outcomes are valid when it comes to being a PhD “out in the world.” Michael noted that, somewhat ironically, he is in the career that his PhD explicitly prepared him for (public education). Yet the prevailing concerns expressed to him by other PhD holders seeking his advice revolve around curiosity and rigor. Will my curiosity continue to be fed as a high school teacher? Will I be intellectually challenged teaching high school? Michael’s resolute, definite answer: absolutely. In that way, Michael noted, doctoral training is mutually beneficial to both PhD-holding teacher and high school student, as the teacher is able to offer exceptional expertise and students are able to query that expertise in interesting and unexpected ways. Michael recommended that if any PhD students were interested in teaching high school, they could investigate RAPIL, an alternative path to licensure for teaching in Iowa.

Lenore Maybaum also received her PhD in language, literacy and culture; she teaches at Kirkwood Community College alongside fellow panelist Scott Samuelson, who received his PhD in philosophy from Emory University. Both Lenore and Scott made the case for community college teaching because of the opportunities it affords you to work with students from varied backgrounds, often first-generation college students whose experiences push you to hone your content expertise in ways that will resonate with that student body. Lenore explained how she had to generously extend her time to degree because of both the intense demands of being faculty at Kirkwood and the personal demands as a mother of four young boys at home. Sometimes your career trajectory does not come through in a neatly wrapped package, Lenore cautioned, yet it is all the more personally and professionally valuable for it. Scott agreed with this sentiment and further compelled symposium attendees to embrace the unique challenges that community college education offers to a teacher and scholar. “The craziness [of community college classrooms] confirms the calling [to teach],” Scott argued, urging a recognition of the importance of exploring one’s research through public praxis (for him, via Kirkwood). Teaching at a community college is not the path of least resistance when it comes to using your PhD, Scott admitted, but it just might be the most meaningful.

Jama Stilwell talk about her unique teaching style at Cornell College

Jama Stilwell, professor of Musicology at Cornell College (a private, small liberal arts college), and Elizabeth Sutton, professor of Art History at the University of Northern Iowa, closed the panel by reflecting on their pedagogical practices at four-year institutions that focus on humanities and teaching, respectively. Jama has learned to translate her love of playing and studying music—what she describes as “a natural part of [her]self,” rather than a hobby or course of study—into a job that continues to foster and complicate her passion for musicology. Jama shared that her PhD program provided many opportunities that enriched her knowledge and offered practice that would eventually serve her well as a professor. She credits the chances to observe faculty, teach bi-weekly discussion sessions, and receive extensive feedback from supervisors as crucial for her own development as a scholar and a teacher. Elizabeth, likewise, noted that she benefitted from her PhD training in how she approaches her pedagogy today –– learning just as much from her focused research project as she did from the pros and cons of how she was mentored for the academic job market. Elizabeth quickly discerned that she had to pitch herself as more of a generalist for teaching jobs, rather than as a specialist of her highly developed dissertation topic. She has learned to embrace an explicitly feminist and anti-racist teaching approach in her classrooms, as she endeavors to make art history more relevant in undergraduates’ personal lives.

“I wasn’t doing a job so much as doing something that felt like a natural part of myself.” – Jama Stilwell

Michael Ayers and Sam Samuelson listen to Elizabeth Sutton explain her pedagogy

Key take-aways from the second panel:

  1. Teaching at a non-research-intensive university will still challenge you and your content expertise. You will not become intellectually bored.
  2. Even survey courses can be enriching and stimulating if you focus on breadth (rather than depth) and design questions that allow for multiple answers.
  3. Your time and efforts in the classroom count, even if the results aren’t always what you might expect.

“Time spent bettering others never means time flushed down the toilet, regardless of the outcome.” – Scott Samuelson

The symposium closed with two rounds of Mentoring Conversations, in which panelists met with symposium attendees in small groups to discuss best practices for career diversity and address lingering questions. Everyone came together one more time to discuss final reflections about what PhDs can do beyond academia and in a variety of educational positions.

Mentoring Conversation session in small groups

Key take-aways from the final full group discussion period included:

  • Networking as a practice: it is important to network both with colleagues and people outside your field, beyond what you may be able to imagine as something you “can” do
  • Job interviewing and networking skills: nuts and bolts of what the job-seeking process is really like outside of academia
  • How to market your “side hustle”
  • Desire to discuss in more detail the intricacies of family, ethics, and work life, and how a balance can be framed and negotiated
  • The need to have an honest conversation with R1 faculty about what their life is actually like; to de-mysticize the romance of the “university professor” role

Written by Obermann Center

The University of Iowa’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies in Iowa City, Iowa.