Empowering Humanities Graduate Students Through Internships

By by Lillian Wilson

This summer, sixteen Wayne State Humanities Clinic interns are working with eighteen non-profit community partners throughout Detroit. Projects require data analysis, technical writing, historical documentation, and critical thinking—skills that humanities graduate students gain through their academic training. The Humanities Clinic, a graduate internship program, gives Wayne State graduate students an opportunity to practice these skills outside of the classroom.

“Knowing how to organize things and set up a project is something I learned as a graduate teaching assistant,” says Humanities Clinic intern Aimee Shulman, a second-year doctoral student in history. Shulman is currently digitizing an archive at the Heidelberg Project, a public art environment in Detroit. “This was the first major archival project I’ve worked on,” says Shulman. “Before I graduate, I’d like to have a variety of skills that can translate to different kinds of work. It’s good to be flexible.”

Shulman is one of five history and English doctoral students whose internship is funded by the Council of Graduate Schools Humanities Coalition grant that Wayne State was awarded last year. The Humanities Coalition is aimed at introducing first- and second-year English and history doctoral students to diverse careers early in their graduate training. The Humanities Clinic is a critical part of this initiative at Wayne State.

The Humanities Clinic began in 2017 with support from a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Next Generation Humanities PhD planning grant. It has quadrupled in size since then and hosts as many as twenty-five interns every summer and partners with an average of twenty community partners each year.  Each spring, non-profits and small businesses answer a call for projects. Graduate students apply to the Humanities Clinic, which then matches them to projects based on their research interests, past professional experience, and career objectives. The clinic pays interns so that community partners can receive support free-of-charge.

When the pandemic began, the clinic prioritized projects at healthcare non-profits and hospitals. This resulted in lasting partnerships with organizations like Henry Ford Health System, Karmanos Cancer Institute, and Wayne State’s Institute of Gerontology. Interns collect and analyze data, and contribute to social outreach and education projects alongside doctors, nurses, and social workers. This work demonstrates how humanists are essential when it comes to increasing access to things like healthcare, quality nutrition, clean water, and transportation, especially in underserved communities. Now that museums and cultural organizations have reopened, the clinic has begun to increase its partnerships with some of the city’s largest museums and cultural organizations.

K.M. Begian-Lewis, a first-year English doctoral student, whose internship is supported by the Humanities Coalition grant, is applying their technical writing and project management skills to a copyright project at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “A technical writing course I took prepared me for the type of writing I’m doing now at the DIA,” says Begian-Lewis. “Managing multiple projects at once, like I’m doing at the DIA, is also very similar to graduate school.”

Begian-Lewis has gained transferrable job skills during their internship, too. “The biggest skill I have gained is accepting feedback about my writing, and not taking it personally, but using it to produce something better,” they say.

Data collection is essential for measuring the success of graduate internship programs like the Humanities Clinic.[i]Since 2020, the Humanities Clinic has collaborated with the National Humanities Alliance to measure the impact of Humanities Clinic internships on graduate students. Surveys found that eighty-five percent of Humanities Clinic interns felt better prepared for careers beyond academia following their clinic experience and the same percent reported a better understanding of how to apply their academic training to a range of jobs following their internships.[ii]

Wayne State has participated in several national initiatives aimed at preparing humanities graduate students for diverse careers including the NEH NextGenPhD grant in 2017; the CGS Career Pathways doctoral student and alumni surveys from 2017-2019; and the American Historical Association (AHA) Career Diversity initiative from 2018-2020. Data from these programs, and the exponential growth of the Humanities Clinic since 2017, confirms that humanities PhDs are building careers in a range of fields and that they need help connecting their academic training to jobs outside the academy.

Andrew Hnatow, PhD, was a Humanities Clinic intern during the first iteration of the clinic in 2017. During his Humanities Clinic internship, Hnatow worked with Wayne State University Press, an experience that prepared him for his career in publishing. Hnatow’s first job after finishing his PhD in history in 2018 was with the University of Texas at Austin Press. He is currently editor at the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at The University of Texas at Austin. “The Humanities Clinic internship at Wayne State University Press introduced me to the everyday work of a university press acquisitions department: evaluating manuscripts, managing peer review, creating profit-and-loss statements, and preparing materials for meetings,” says Hnatow. “I received a crash course in the rhythms of book publishing, from acquiring to peer review, from transmittal to copyediting to deciding cover art and copy. It was a valuable experience, as well as an enjoyable one.”

Even for graduate students that want to teach, a Humanities Clinic internship is important. “I want to teach composition and produce research on socioeconomic barriers to higher education,” says Begian-Lewis. “My experience at the DIA hasn’t changed that, but it has shown me there are other things I can do with the PhD.”

Shulman also would like to teach but understands that tenure-track jobs are difficult to come by. “If teaching doesn’t work out, historical consulting is something that I would like to do,” she says. “Consultants do a lot of archival research so working in the archives at the Heidelberg Project has definitely helped prepare me for that.”

To deepen its impact, the Humanities Clinic will soon launch a digital repository for intern projects, a diversity equity and inclusion training program for interns, and a grant writing workshop for all humanities graduate students at Wayne State. Along with the Humanities Coalition grant, the Wayne State Graduate School, Office of the Provost, Office of the Vice President for Research, and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences will fund this work. These initiatives aim to prepare Wayne State graduate students for diverse careers and provide an innovative model to inspire other institutions to advance graduate education in the humanities through internships.

[i] Edward Balleisen, “Taking Experiential Learning for Ph.D. Students Seriously,” Inside HigherEd, February 24, 2022; Zeb Larson, “Doctoral Training Is Ossified. Can We Reinvent It?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 29, 2022.

[ii] Younger Oliver, “Assessing Impact: Wayne State Humanities Clinic,” National Humanities Alliance, September 8, 2020