As has often been the case over the course of the University of Iowa Next Gen PhD planning year, the advice our guest experts offered ran contrary to the advice graduate students often receive. Our guests were Danielle Dutton, Assistant Professor of English at Washington University, novelist and founder of Dorothy, A Publishing Project, and Eric Zimmer, Senior Historian at Vantage Point Historical Services, Inc.
We brought Dutton and Zimmer to campus to participate in a symposium focused on the CV and resume, miniature autobiographies which distill life experience, and which are being supplemented and enhanced by new kinds of professional self-representation (the personal web page, the LinkedIn caption), as well as being transformed in online formats.
We wanted Dutton and Zimmer to help us think about the opposed values of comprehensiveness and compression as they relate to the CV- and resume-writing process, and also to brainstorm about ways in which students might be encouraged from the beginning of their graduate school education to craft different forms of self-representation for different kinds of professional opportunities.
Our guests spoke about these things, but they also, surprisingly, spoke with particular emphasis and in one voice about the value of saying yes to wayward opportunities. Dutton and Zimmer each described time-demanding extra-curricular activities they pursued as graduate students, commitments that turned out to be directly relevant to their ultimate career paths, but which, to a cautious academic advisor, might have looked like distractions and diversions from the dissertation.
I suspect I was not the only member of the audience who recalled a moment when he or she had exhorted graduate students to keep their eyes on the prize, to stay focused on research and writing during the limited amount of time during which they were not teaching or preparing for teaching. But Dutton described her graduate student self as a bulldog who demanded to take extra classes, and who happily took on substantial editorial duties at a literary journal. Zimmer, whose dissertation advisor supported his “diversions,” recalled his participation in the UI History Corps, a graduate-student-led digital and oral history project that emphasizes “how history and the humanities affect everyone’s everyday lives.” In Zimmer’s view, the public history skills he developed in his work with History Corps prepared him for his current career.
Zimmer spoke about advice he’d ignored. “Don’t write book reviews,” he recalled being told, but he counted his ill-advised book review writing as training for his current job, in which he writes for varied audiences and has to communicate in pieces of varied length, for example, in the web site his company created for the Tufts University School of Dental Medicine.
When inquiring audience members asked Dutton and Zimmer how they decided which add-on pursuits to follow, Dutton said she always tried to make decisions with integrity, based on what she really wanted to do, a sentiment live-tweeter Katie Walden suggested could serve as an apt slogan for a Next Gen PhD bumper sticker.
“I hate CVs,” Dutton exclaimed at one point, calling the CV a weird and awkward distillation of one’s being, but both she and Zimmer talked about how they came to a new understanding of CVs and resumes when they read them as members of hiring committees. Reading a CV is a subjective thing, they came to realize, and they recommended that job seekers use their application materials to tell a story about themselves. “A CV [or resume] needs to communicate that you are exceedingly competent and exceedingly versatile,” one participant noted.
Zimmer suggested that graduate students look for peripheral opportunities to expand their skills and experience, and that they reverse-engineer their graduate student experience so that their training leads to their desired outcomes. He cautioned that faculty should be open to this kind of graduate student initiative without insisting on it by means of added requirements.
Dutton emphasized that she’d benefited from good luck, but that this luck was partly predicated on hard work. She suggested that an ideal job candidate should demonstrate competency and versatility, but also a kind of emotional agility that does not typically get taught or cultivated in PhD programs.
Dutton’s and Zimmer’s were the last of a series of stellar guest participants in our Next Gen PhD symposia—many thanks to all of them. In our final symposium (scheduled for Wednesday, May 3, 2:00-3:30, Main Library, Studio classroom), we will be discussing this semester’s pilot version of a Next Gen PhD writing- and DH-intensive methods class.