How to Apply Humanities Mindsets to Your Career Development

By Sarah Goldberg, Undergraduate Career Development

We’ve talked in previous posts about how to leverage humanities skills like close reading and persuasion in your job search.

A recent session I attended at the Modern Language Association convention shifted the conversation away from skills and toward mindsets. Led by Derek Attig from the University of Illinois and Mearah Quinn-Brauner from Emory University, the session asked:

How can we use the theories and methods we develop through humanistic study to work through tricky career development challenges?

In this post, I’ll highlight just a few of the humanities mindsets that we discussed in the session.

First, what do you mean by “mindsets”?

You’re probably used to lots of talk about “skills” when it comes to careers.

After all, the word “skills” is useful because it represents the language of employers. When you read a job description, skills-based phrases pop up everywhere: “written and oral communication skills,” “research skills,” “project management skills,” “analytical skills”… The list goes on.

Though you’ll rarely see the word “mindset” in a job posting, they’re there nonetheless. Qualities like flexibility, creativity, and openness can all arguably be considered mindsets: ways of thinking or habits of mind. Like your skills, your mindsets will be crucial to your success in the work world, and are highly sought after by employers.

What I like about the idea of “habits of mind” is that it makes explicit the fact that they, like skills, are something we develop through repetition and practice. For anyone who, like me, is a recovering perfectionist, this is always a welcome reminder.

Humanities mindsets for career management

Critical Thinking

Wearing your critical thinking cap means taking in and responding to information with questions. One way you can put this habit to work for your career development is, when you meet a tricky situation, getting in the habit of asking yourself:

  • What’s the main problem I’m facing in this moment?
  • What other questions do I need to ask to understand this situation?
  • What information do I need?

Tip: If you find that you’re getting stuck in critical mode, Attig suggests, leverage your ability to toggle between suspicious and reparative modes of reading. The latter can help you approach tricky career situations as well as your own career development with an empathetic, resilient mindset.

Reading and Creating Narratives

As a humanist, stories are probably your jam. You read them, you analyze them, you create them. There are many, many ways you can apply your affinity for story to your career development. Here are a few that we discussed in the session.

1. Read and Listen to Others’ Stories

Read or listen to the career stories of people you admire, or whose jobs intrigue you.

As you learn their stories, look for elements that excite you, sound like something you’d be good at, or you’d like to learn more about. What patterns do you notice? What relationships of cause and effect do you see?

2. Treat Your Professional Development as a Text

As a humanist, you know that constructing a story is a series of choices, made based on the context of enunciation. That said, it can be hard to remember this when it comes to your own career journey!

Remind yourself that you don’t have one story, but many possible stories, and that you are an active creator of your own professional journey. Analyze your past experience just as you would someone else’s path, and use that self-knowledge to chart possible paths forward.

3. Craft and Tell Your Career Stories

Think about what makes stories compelling to you, and the perspective of the reader or listener. Use these observations to create stories about your experience and path to use when networking, applying to jobs, or interviewing.

Creating Archives

Whether or not you work with archives, your research as a humanist inevitably involves collecting sources and assembling a corpus.

Apply this approach to manage your own career journey: keep track of what you’re learning, where and how you learned it, and what further reflections or research questions this information generates.

Go old-school in a new journal for a convenient excuse to visit your favorite bookstore or stationary shop. Or, consider using a spreadsheet or digital document, your favorite note-taking software, or a platform like Imagine PhD to track your learning—it’ll let you easily collect links.

Resources for Humanists

Check out other resources we recommend for humanists, including: