In this episode, I interview Dr. Hannah Apert-Abrams about her transition from completing a PhD in comparative literature to being a program specialist at the National Endowment for the Humanities. We talk about how awesome librarians and archivists are, the benefits of seeing humanities as a collective, the unpredictability of the job market, and what exactly is (are?) the digital humanities.
Dr. Apert-Abrams' personal website: https://halperta.com/
Her open access work book, Finding Your Purpose, here: https://halperta.com/shalperta%20press/purpose/
The Academic Support Network at the Humanities Commons: https://hcommons.org/groups/academic-job-market-support-network/
You can email the podcast here: firstname.lastname@example.org
No longer on Twitter, but you can find me on Mastodon: @email@example.com
Music credit: Robert John - Changes
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:00:00] And what I learned is that that project was languishing because the way the university was structured is that only a professor could make the decisions necessary because of the power hierarchies. The librarians didn't have the power to do what was necessary to bring funding and support to this project. And there are no faculty members who are positioned to give the project that support. And I thought, I have a PhD, I should become a professor so that I can be the person who advocates for these projects and makes them happen. At that point, I decided I really wanted to be a professor and started taking really seriously my faculty search.
Kino: [00:00:37] You're listening to Off Campus, a podcast about humanities scholars in the tech world. I am your host, Dr. Kino Zhao. This is episode eight, where I talk to Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams, a program specialist at the National Endowment for the Humanities, about how librarians are awesome, the benefit of seeing the humanities as a collective and what exactly is (or are?) the digital humanities.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:01:07] I'm Hannah Alpert-Abrams. In order to introduce myself, I have to give five details. I am a program specialist as well as an interim program officer in the Office of Digital Humanities at any age. I'm also I have a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Texas, and I write and think a lot about topics relating to labor and careers and work and the future of higher education.
Kino: [00:01:35] We will start with your PhD first. Your PhD was in comparative literature. Can you tell us a little bit about what made you decide to go to grad school in the first place?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:01:45] I decided to go to grad school in 2011 and I had already worked for about four years before I made that decision. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I really was fortunate. I had had a bunch of different jobs doing a lot of different, really interesting work, but I felt really unfocused. I felt like I wasn't going anywhere and I was kind of frustrated with capitalism. I was frustrated with a job where I had to work every day and I was trying to make someone else money who wasn't me. I worked in nonprofits and they were pretty messy. So I sort of had this idea that graduate school would let me learn to do really interesting and exciting things, and then I could have a career where I would be free from all of that stuff, basically.
Kino: [00:02:28] Did you find that in graduate school?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:02:30] Um, not exactly [laughs]. But I did learn a lot of interesting things, so that was good.
Kino: [00:02:35] Can you tell us a little bit about what the kind of research you did? What was your research topic?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:02:40] Sure. So I wrote my dissertation on copying technologies, so machines like photostat and lithography and microfilm and even digital scanning and optical character recognition technology and how they were used to shape access to cultural heritage. The project. That's not what I went to grad school to study. It was a project that I developed over many years. Mostly it took me a lot, a long time to find the things that really interested and excited me within my graduate program.
Kino: [00:03:15] What kind of tasks were you doing on this topic? Because I have to admit I'm very ignorant about this area.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:03:22] The dissertation project had a bunch of different pieces. It was a study, it was sort of a historical study. I did a lot of archival research. I was working in libraries. I was really focused for my dissertation on cultural heritage materials created in the early colonisation period of North America and how they had circulated and moved to different collecting institutions and then how technologies had been used to provide access to those materials. So I got to visit historical libraries like the John Carter Brown Library. The University of Texas had an amazing Latin American Library and Princeton and some other places to read records about acquisitions and collections and basically how the materials had circulated. I also worked on what was ended up being a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project to develop new technologies to digitize these materials and make them more accessible to people, especially in a multilingual context. So for that project, I was collaborating with librarians and computer scientists. So my project was both a sort of historical archival project, but also a technical project and an experimental project.
Kino: [00:04:38] Oh, an experimental one too. That's exciting for the humanities.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:04:42] Yeah, Yeah, it was. It was a lot of fun. I got to work with some amazing people and I'm proud of the work we did. None of the tools that we built ended up being usable [laughs], but I think they really did shift the field. You know, we were really focused on understanding how copying technologies make it much easier to read works written in English and written in sort of normalized standardized 21st century English than any other form, and how we could build tools that were much more capacious and that could that you could use to access materials like from 16th century New Spain, for example.
Kino: [00:05:22] Can you tell us a bit about your grad school experience overall? So including the archival research, if you want to talk about that, but also the teaching, which you probably did a little bit and the conferencing, you probably also did a little bit.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:05:34] So I was in graduate school for six years, I did a joint MA PhD and that was what they called fully funded at the University of Texas. That means, or it meant that I taught to receive a stipend. So I taught one course a semester. For the first two years I was a TA, and after that I was I taught my own courses. And then near the end I was able to receive external funding. So I did the NEH funded research project and then I had a continuing fellowship to finish my dissertation. My salary range was 14,000 a year to 30,000 a year. So for Austin, Texas, even back in the 2010s, it was a little tough, especially at the beginning. I think that there were some really great things about my graduate experience. The best thing for me was the opportunity to work with the libraries. The grant that I wrote and ended up receiving funding for, I developed in collaboration with LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections. I got to work really closely with librarians at the Benson as well as at the main University of Texas Library and at Texas A&M Libraries as well. And I really thrived in that collaborative environment and in a place where I felt like my research was for me. But it also had this sort of bigger impact that I was doing work that other people could engage in and participate in. So that was really fun.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:06:58] I personally, I also loved writing my dissertation and I love doing archival research, so I got to travel to various locations in Mexico. I got to travel across the Northeast in California to do research, and then I also had a year of funding just to write my dissertation and that was great. I really enjoyed that. What was harder for me was the departmental politics and the coursework. I found the coursework really didn't align with my graduate school goals, so it was very sort of frustrating for me to be in coursework. We had three and a half years of coursework, so there's a lot of time and I also found that we didn't always agree with the policies of my department in ways that were frustrating. I had had a job. I was used to being treated like a colleague and going into an environment where people treated me like a juvenile. You know, it was really hard for me. I expected a certain level of respect that I wasn't receiving and I expected to be taken seriously. And I also didn't do super well with policies that I found to be inequitable or unfair or unreasonable. So I had some conflict in my graduate program, but really loved the community that I was able to find in the libraries.
Kino: [00:08:10] Right? I wanted to say one thing about the libraries, so like I mentioned earlier, my work doesn't require me to do a lot of archives, but I did have the opportunity to interact with librarians sometime during COVID to find some of the things I needed. Librarians are gods. I don't know if listeners know this, but librarians are omniscient. If you have trouble at all, just find a librarian and pray to them.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:08:34] And then and then make sure that they get paid better. Because librarians are some of the most underpaid people in the humanities.
Kino: [00:08:41] Yes and get recognition too. Pay and recognition.
Kino: [00:08:45] Also, to your point about having worked before and getting this culture shock, I do think that when I chat with graduate students, there's kind of like people who went into grad school because they really enjoyed college and they just want to extend that period, which I totally understand. But they seem to have a different expectation. They enjoy the coursework, especially ones that seem irrelevant because that's what they're there for versus the people who are very focused. I'm here to do this one thing and I am able to do this one thing. I don't understand why I need to learn about things that are not very relevant. I can see how both of those are valuable. We should have both. It's an interesting balancing act.
Transitioning to alt-ac
Kino: [00:09:23] Can you then tell us about your path leaving academia? I guess you're still working for a funding agency that mostly funds academic projects, so it's not entirely leaving per se, But when did you first think about, you know what, I'm not going to pursue a professorship.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:09:40] I was never sure if pursuing a professorship was the right thing for me, because all of the professors that I worked with seemed desperately overworked and unhappy, and I didn't want that in my life. I also I knew it was extremely competitive, and I'm a little bit stubborn, so I don't always like to compromise for career advancement. So I just wasn't sure that it was going to be a great career for me. But when I started working in the libraries, I started taking seriously the possibility of academic librarianship as a future career path. You know, there's a real problem with over credentialism where PhDs sort of like stormed the libraries in a very entitled way and expect to be paid better and treated better even though they don't have librarianship as a whole career. And it's a whole skill set. I didn't want to do that. But I really just admired so much the work that my colleagues were doing in the libraries. I worked with a team Theresa Polk, Itza Carbajal and David Bliss, and I just respected so much the work that they were doing and was inspired by it. So I thought maybe that could be a place where I could learn to be to be impactful, right? Also, because my work falls under the category of digital humanities, there was a big sort of push in hiring for digital humanities or digital scholarship librarians, and many of those were recruited from doctoral programs.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:11:04] So I could see a path that way, and I was really drawn to the labor rights that librarians have, you know, like the paid time off and boundaries around work, work life balance and things like that. So that was sort of where I thought I might end up after graduate school. But what happened is I got a postdoc. It was a CLIR, Council for Library and Information Resources Postdoctoral Fellowship, which is intended for doctoral students who want to learn more about academic librarianship. I got this CLIR postdoc and I was assigned to a project, and the project was really important to me. It was really interesting and exciting, and it had been around for about ten years. It was really languishing. And what I learned is that that project was languishing because the way the university was structured is that only a professor could make the decisions necessary because of the power hierarchies. The librarians didn't have the power to do what was necessary to bring funding and support to this project. They needed faculty support and there were no faculty members who are positioned to give the project that support.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:12:09] So basically I saw a power differential and I thought, I have a PhD, I should become a professor so that I can be the person who advocates for these projects and makes them happen. At that point I decided I really wanted to be a professor and started taking really seriously my faculty search and was sort of like, That's it. I want to be a professor. I don't want to be a librarian. I don't want to be in a position where I am powerless to support the things that I care about within the institution. So I did three years on the academic market and and didn't get a tenure track job. I got two postdocs. One was two years, one was one year, the one year postdoc. I sort of thought it was at an Ivy League. I was like, Ivys, like they have money, they'll just renew it if I don't get anything. And they didn't. They said it didn't fit their mission. So they didn't.
Kino: [00:12:56] The Ivys are famous for taking money and not so much for spending money.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:13:00] Yes, it was a real privilege to have that position in some ways. But a year long postdoc, I moved across the country for that position and then spent the entire time applying for jobs. Right. Because it was one year I was offered another postdoc and another. I've after that and I just thought like, I can't do this forever. At that moment, I had been working since I was a graduate student on this initiative that was NEH funded, and one of the people at NEH reached out to me and they said, Hey, we're hiring. Have you ever thought about NEH jobs? And I applied and I got it. So I got the job offer like a month before my lease ran up and my contract ended. It wasn't really a choice exactly, but I was grateful for the opportunity.
Working at the NEH
Kino: [00:13:46] Tell us a little bit about the NEH, because I have talked to, for this podcast I've talked to other people who are sort of exploring outside academia, and they're... Not everybody was like this, but people were like, I spent so much time in academia. I kind of know how it works. So I will look around or look at maybe publishing or maybe teaching in other capacities. And funding agencies I think is a natural place. A lot of us spend a lot of time applying for grants and maybe even sometimes reviewing for them. So we have the skill set that's close enough to perhaps what they're looking for. So can you tell us a bit about what it's like?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:14:24] I should say that I'm not representing the NEH here today. I'm speaking as myself, but we are federal government. NEH is one of the few sort of alt ac jobs that actively recruits people with doctorates. And that's one of the things that they look for, particularly for the program officer position. NEH has something like seven different offices. You know, we have accounting, we have a general counsel, we have human resources, right? We have a grant management office. And then the program office is that those are the offices that interface with faculty and librarians, museum specialists, people applying for grants and that oversee the writing of calls for funding opportunities, and then that work with applicants and awardees. So in those program offices, Division of Research or Division of Education, the office that I work in, the Office of Digital Humanities, in those offices, we do recruit at the program officer level for people with doctorate. And that's because, as you mentioned, a lot of the people we work with are in academia. And so understanding those structures is really important.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:15:30] I will say that it is a little bit of an understanding of what NEH does to think that we work primarily or exclusively with higher ed because of course, only a small amount of our funding goes to R1 institutions. We work with liberal arts colleges, we work with community colleges, we work with regional comprehensives. We also work with historical societies and we work with archives and libraries and museums. We work with documentary filmmakers, right? We really work on the big picture of what the humanities can be. And so while the understanding of academia is certainly useful, it's a small piece, I would say, of the kind of expertise that the NEH requires and depends on to do our work. The job working as a program officer in any does require you to stay up with the field and to participate sort of in the field. I go to academic conferences, some of which I went to before and some of which are in totally different fields that I didn't know anything about. Like I recently attended the Association of African American Museums Conference, which was amazing. I learned so much. Totally outside of my field. You know, we have to be able to sort of understand what the field needs, right, and then evaluate the quality of projects. We also run all of our grants go through a pretty serious peer review process which we oversee. So understanding how to run peer review and how peer review works, which is an academic skill, is something that we do.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:16:56] But when I interviewed, a huge part of what I think helped me was, for example, I remember I had written for a bunch of blogs in other kinds of spaces, and they kept asking me about that. And when I had applied to academic or faculty jobs, I just didn't even talk about that. I pretended it hadn't happened, and I was so shocked that the NEH cared, but they thought that was a big asset that I could talk to a broad array of people about the humanities and what they mean and why they matter, for example, and they were really excited about that. I had also worked in a lot of collaborative and team environments through the libraries. And so I, I had these communication skills and calendar syncing skills and all of this kind of stuff. And liked it, right? I liked working with other people. I would say that those are sort of two spaces where the work is a little different from what I was taught to prioritize as a scholar.
Kino: [00:17:46] I did notice that you had a lot of collaboration, which is unusual for humanities in general. I think you mentioned that NEH works with more than research universities, which I think is very important for us to remember. For us being like people like me who work in research universities, to remember that a lot of research happens outside of... I mean, there are a lot of funded projects that are not research, but also a lot of research happens outside the university.
Kino: [00:18:10] Can you tell us a bit about the ways in which grad school training was or wasn't useful for you? Maybe you wish you had learned. You feel like they should have taught you, but didn't, and you have to kind of pick it up on your own?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:18:23] I think that one thing that was really great about grad school was a specialized training and a specific field and a specific discipline. You know, even though I was interdisciplinary, it's still always very narrow. But one thing that I would like to see more of that I learned at NEH and that I just think is really missing, is a sense of the humanities as a space of solidarity. When I get this big picture, look at NEH, at how the federal budget works, at how humanities funding works, at how universities work, I see how connected we all are. That philosophy, linguistics and literature and history are also deeply connected, and we depend on each other and have so much to learn from each other. I wish I had been given more space in my graduate education to see that. That's not professional skills building necessarily, but I think that that might have made me feel a little bit more confident in myself as a humanist, as someone who works in this field to understand how I'm part of this bigger picture, the way that you could say that a scientist is part of STEM, right? It's this massive space where so much interesting work happens. I wish I had sort of had similar perspective on the humanities.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:19:33] Another thing much more concrete is I was hired not as a program officer but as a program specialist. And when they sort of recruited me for the position, they said, you know, we really haven't had the capacity in our office to evaluate our grant programs, to understand their impact and how they're shaping the humanities and what the humanities need from us. Right? And that was really exciting for me. I was like, Yeah, that's the kind of impact I want to have in my career. And I got there and they were like, And you're going to have to know how to work with data. Right? And so I have some data skills like I can, I'm good with an Excel spreadsheet, but I'm not a statistician and my data visualization skills are very rudimentary. It has really limited my ability to sort of lead in the ways that I want to lead because I don't have that training. Since I've been doing it, I can see how it would have changed how I did my research, to have this mode of thinking, even though my research wasn't statistical. It wasn't a data oriented, well, some aspect, but it wasn't a data visualization project. But I think Alan Liu talks about data storytelling. I heard him give a talk saying that data storytelling is the future of communications, and I think that learning how to even count and then display knowledge outside of the essay form would have been really helpful for me. So I think that that's a space that I wish I had invested more in, and I'm now scrambling to pick up those skills on the side.
Kino: [00:21:06] I mean, so am I and I think so are a lot of people. On the one hand, you don't want them to just give up and hire a statistician because you do need that subject knowledge. You need the social knowledge, too, that humanities scholars have in how to read the room, and they can't replace that. But on the other hand, you do need to sort of shift your thinking and present things in a concrete deliverable language to grant agencies and stakeholders, which is the stuff we don't want to think about in academia but are so important.
The digital humanities
Kino: [00:21:41] Before I asked about your typical day, there's one question that I skipped until now, but can you just tell me and tell our listeners in broad strokes, what is digital humanities?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:21:52] I love the question what is, or what are, I've never even sure, the digital humanities, because it's the first question. I took one digital humanities class taught by Tanya Clements and it was like the first day that was the question that she posed to the class. And my first week at NEH, I got an email asking me that question, to our office. And I love that question. There's even a website and you can go to it and every time you refresh it, it gives you a different definition because it's a very capacious term that can mean many different things, right? There's a new book, it just won an award at the American Studies Association on like alternative histories of digital humanities. It offers some really interesting perspectives for me. I think the term can be useful for different people depending on what they're trying to accomplish, right? It can be useful if you're trying to start a center. If you're trying to get funding. It can also be not useful if you really need to communicate with different spaces or make different claims for yourself. So I think it's a term that has some utility.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:22:59] NEH was founded in 1966 and in the first call for funding, one of the funding areas was humanities and technology or humanities and computing or something like that. So at NEH, NEH has been funding sort of work that tries to understand the relationship between those two things for a long time, really since the beginning. The first grant in that area was 1967. So we've been doing that for a long time now. We find people who use digital technologies to change how humanities research is done or who use humanities methods to understand how technology works, right? Like we look at both of those spaces, we also support using technology and teaching. Learning and public programming related to the humanities can sometimes fall under the digital humanities. So I think it can mean a lot of things.
Kino: [00:23:51] One thing is interesting that you mentioned there is that it's not a new phenomenon. I think a lot of people, including myself, thought it was new, but digital or technology isn't new. New technology is new, but technology itself isn't new. Of course, it's always changed how people in humanities, broadly speaking, think about the world.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:24:13] One of the great talks that I attended as an academic, which was right before my first and only in-person conference interview that was held in a conference hotel room and that went really poorly, was a talk by the scholar Whitney Trettier who's at University of Pennsylvania, and she was talking about these books, woven books made in the 19th century. So they're made on looms, and they were made using punch cards. And so there were these books made using punch cards by women who were weavers. Right. And she talked about how you could argue that that's the beginning of digital humanities. Because it's this punch card computing technology. It's these women using that to make something that is both beautiful but also humanistic. Right? And I really loved that as one origin story where the digital humanities come from.
A typical work day
Kino: [00:25:06] Can you describe to me what a typical workday is like for you?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:25:10] Sure. So it's an interesting time for me right now because I am actually working three jobs. I am program specialist, program officer, and I have a detail to another office. So exciting times for me. Some of the things that I do, I oversee our inbox. So when people email us and say, like, Can you tell me about this grant program or I have this project idea, do you think it would be a good fit? I'm often the person who answers those general questions. I also take, we divide among us consultations with researchers. So if someone has an idea and wants to talk about how to write the application, maybe they have some questions, maybe they want to toy with ideas, I get to talk to them about it, and that's a really fun part of the job is exploring research ideas with people working in all kinds of different fields. This week I'm reviewing drafts, so we have a draft review process. We received 50 drafts for this deadline and split them among us. So I think I have 12 drafts to read and provide comments on this.
Kino: [00:26:09] How long are these drafts?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:26:11] The narrative length is between four and eight pages. Yes, not too bad, but yeah, so I'm going to provide that feedback. And you know, that's a skill I learned as a as an instructor. Right? Providing feedback. And as a peer reviewer for journals. So it's very in my academic training. I also this week I am the vice president of our union, so I do a lot of work with the union I'm involved in right now, working with other union members to develop our new remote and telework policies. So we're negotiating with the agency. We're really fortunate to have a really capable and communicative human resources office, but we're working with them on that and that we have a collective bargaining agreement. So that is part of my time can be spent working on that. I am also, I am detailed part time to a new office, which is the Office of Data and Evaluation. And that office is trying to develop sort of agency wide policies for how we collect data and how we tell stories about what we're doing. And it has a specific mandate from the Biden administration about thinking about data equity, inclusion and accessibility. And so I'm working with that office to kind of right now we're doing a data census just to see how how we do things at the agency and then sort of identify some spaces where we can make some changes. And I think that covers a lot of it. I you know, I write blog posts and do I think I, I did write some tweets. I don't know if anyone saw them. I don't know if anyone's on Twitter anymore. But I used to manage all of our online stuff. And then and then sometimes I do outreach events, so I'll usually virtual these days, but I'll go to a university or zoom in to a university and and talk about NEH. And what we do.
Kino: [00:28:01] Sounds very exciting. I was, for part of my graduate school, I worked a year at a, it's kind of like a writing center, but it's for graduate students and post docs where I read a piece of writing that they give and then try to provide feedback. It's fascinating to read all sorts of different research and there are a lot of things where I didn't know existed before, but once I read it like of course someone will have to figure it out and that sort of thing. And I just like know more about what's going on in the world. That is fascinating.
Finding Your Purpose, a work book
Kino: [00:28:33] Earlier you were talking about the different exciting works that you do in the different offices that you're affiliated with, but also on the side. And so I want to mention your workbook, called Finding Your Purpose. It's aimed at helping scholars think about their academic careers and their sense of purpose. And it is open access, I think. Can you tell us a bit about that, both your motivation for doing it and what you hope that it can accomplish?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:29:01] Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I do at NEH is I oversee a very small grant program that we have that is exclusively for university presses to make books open access. And it's a pretty simple program. It's not a lot of work, but it's been really rewarding because it's just really fun to be part of. 50 Monographs have been made freely available online because of this program. So far we get about 30 or 45 a year, so it's really fun to be part of providing free access to knowledge, and that's something that I'm really pleased that I'm able to do in my own work as well. When I finished graduate school, I was really devastated that I was going to have to stop doing academic research because I love my research. I thought my dissertation was cool. I wanted to write the monograph and it was really hard to sort of figure out. There are amazing people who I really admire who have written monographs in their free time. I am not one of those people. I don't have the emotional whatever it takes to do that. And so I had to find something that would be like more joyful, a more joyful for me, a more restful approach to writing things and producing things for myself and this workbook. And there are a few projects that I've done that I'm really proud of that I think have replaced the time I would have spent writing a monograph is sort of how I think about it. They've sort of become the center of my research, and even though I miss those aspects of academia, I never could have done this work if I had been in a faculty job. And it is exciting to know that. So I just wanted to share that.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:30:36] Since I was a graduate student, I've been really interested in building resources. Primarily it was to help originally to help graduate students, but then sort of to help colleagues and friends and community members navigate higher education, sort of take down some of those walls that make it so confusing. One project that I run is called the Academic Job Market Support Network, and that's on Humanities Commons. It's a free resource where you can find like sample cover letters and sample research statements and also like guidelines on how to do an informational interview and sort of all these materials for doctoral students looking for jobs in academia or outside of academia.
Kino: [00:31:18] Oh, wow. Is it still active?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:31:20] It is still active. So it's called Academic Support Network. It's on Humanities Commons. And so that's also open access. And then this project was sort of a continuation of that, that project in a lot of ways. But I found increasingly I was struggling with sort of reconciling the fact that I need to make a living right. I can't just not work, as much as that sounds super nice. With my desire to have sort of a positive, a meaningful impact through my work and then the realities of just institutional life. Right? And career is being really difficult and the job market being really rough and all of these different things and sort of trying to figure out where to put my energy, how to make decisions. I was really drowning in that and this workbook was a product of that. It began with work that I was doing for myself. I started developing some exercises to do with my interns at NEH, and then I wrote the workbook. And the workbook is a series of sort of writing exercises, rituals, different things to help you think about what are your values, who is your community? Who are the people that you admire? What brings you pleasure, and how does that fit into your academic career? So I have gotten good feedback. I hope that it's useful for listeners as well.
Kino: [00:32:40] I'll put a link to that on the show note, but you can also find it on Hannah's personal website, which I will also include in the show notes.
Advice for alt-ac seekers
Kino: [00:32:48] So if someone finds what you just described to be super interesting and they want to go in this direction, how do you advise them to proceed?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:32:56] If you have a doctor already, you can volunteer to serve as a reviewer for any age. There's a signup form on our website and you can just put your name in. Now that doesn't guarantee you'll get chosen. Choosing reviewers is super complicated for us because of conflicts of interest. So if your institution has any applications pending, we can't choose you. You know, there's all kinds of reasons, right? But you can volunteer to serve as a reviewer. You can also, I would say, find a way to write some grants. If you're a graduate student and you know someone who's working on any grant who has an NEH grant and you want to ask them about maybe working with them, that can be a great way to get some experience on the other side, which is always a benefit for grants and funding in general to understand both perspectives.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:33:43] At NEH We are typically pretty open to informational interviews. I, on my website, I have a whole section on how to request an informational interview with me. I have always said yes. If a time ever comes when I get too many and I don't have time, we'll deal with that when it happens. But I love having the chance to talk to people about careers and different things. Doing informational interview can be a great way to learn more about what we do. The reality is that NEH hires very rarely. We are hiring, but positions come up... We just hired two program officers. Both of them required experience working in as an archival professional and working with under-resourced communities. So very narrow area of focus, and that's typically how these jobs are. So like I said, it was an incredible good fortune that I was looking for a job at the moment when a job I could apply to came up.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:34:41] But NEH is just part of a field which is funding. There are a number of agencies that give money away in all kinds of ways. There's also the other side, which is working in grants management at institutions or working in the Office of Research and an institution or working as a grant writer. Right. So there's lots of different ways that you could work within the funding world without getting a job at NEH, although I do feel very lucky and definitely recommend if if a job comes up, I think it's a great opportunity, but it's just so rare.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:35:14] I will say one other thing, which is we do run an internship program. It's a paid, it doesn't pay a lot, but it is a paid internship program. It's a summer program. All of our offices host interns, so it could be in our Office of Research or a Division of research, Division of Education, Office of Digital Humanities, Division and Preservation Access. We Office of General. It could be in our Office of Congressional Affairs. There's lots of different spaces in my office. We typically hire interns who are early stage graduate students or master's students or not yet ABD, But we have hired two ABD students, so it can be kind of everyone. And we do typically hire graduate students for that. We're just now seeing where their careers are going to go as they finish their degrees. But it's been really exciting to see where their careers lead and they say that the internship is helpful. So I think that can be another way to get to know us and what we do.
Kino: [00:36:13] Do you have any last advice for graduate students who are thinking about leaving academia?
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:36:19] It's always hard to pick one thing to say, but the first thing that I would say is that it's really, really hard to earn a doctorate. And if you are doing that, that's pretty amazing. And even if you don't become a faculty member, it's still amazing and it's still hard and you still deserve it. I think we sometimes forget to tell people.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:36:39] That said, there is a culture right now that says that because the market is hard, if you just do more and do better and do faster, maybe you'll get a job. At first, when I started graduate school, it was one peer reviewed publication. By the time I ended, it was two peer reviewed publications and a grant. You know, the goal posts are constantly escalating. And what I have observed is absolutely no correlation between whether you hit those goalposts and whether you get hired for an R1 tenure track position. So working harder is not going to necessarily solve the problem. And that's why I do think it's so crucial to take the time to figure out what you want, right. And how you want to live your life now as well, because we can't just put off our lives indefinitely while we wait for capitalism to to work in our favor.
Kino: [00:37:30] Thank you, Hannah, for sharing your wisdom with us.
Dr. Hannah Alpert-Abrams: [00:37:33] Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to talk to you and thank you for everything you're doing for graduate students.