Meet Carolyn Davis
After exploring the academic job market during the final years of her doctoral program, Carolyn stopped to reflect on what she really wanted for her life and what career options allowed her to continue pursuing her passions for research, teaching, and advocacy—and she opened herself to the possibility that such opportunities might be available outside traditional academia. After a heart-felt talk with her mentor, she realized that policy work had always been a simmering passion that she had engaged as a component of her research in religion. Now, Carolyn engages religion, politics, sexuality, and justice as a policy analyst for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Washington, D.C. think tank Center for American Progress while serving as an occasional adjunct professor at Wesley Theological Seminary.
Jessica Parks-Piatt: How did your degree and other experiences at Vanderbilt help prepare you for your career?
Carolyn Davis: Vanderbilt allowed me to take the theoretical work I was doing in religion, gender, and sexuality and apply it to real-life issues. As a former church minister with youth and young adults, I spoke regularly with young people struggling to make sense of issues surrounding sexuality, their identities, their experiences, their faith, and the lives they were creating for themselves. At Vanderbilt, I got to take those experiences and pair them with research into faith traditions and philosophical ideas. I chose Vanderbilt because my program allowed me to continue working on feminist theology and theory while engaging the practical implications of my work. Being part of the Program for Theology and Practice was critical to helping me bridge the gaps between religious scholarship and the “real world.”
Along the way, I tapped into a long-standing interest in policy and politics that began in undergrad. My dissertation analyzed the impact of national sex education policy debates on Christian understandings of adolescent sexuality. A side project examined the role of proposed religious exemptions in Tennessee anti-bullying statutes.
This kind of work helps support the research knowledge I use now in my position at CAP. As a policy analyst with the Faith team, a good portion of my work takes on the recent religious liberty debates and intersects with gender, economic, and reproductive justice. I continue to do a lot of writing and research, but I also get to adapt my skills to new and related areas. For example, I’ve helped to facilitate a consultation on the role of transgender people in faith communities with Bishop Gene Robinson, and I am presently working with a variety of internal and external partners to draft some exciting legislation.
JP-P: What are three key tips that you have for students early in their grad programs?
CD: I think that setting up realistic standards and limits for yourself early in your program pays dividends down the line. First, be realistic in the sense that you are a human being—you’re fallible, and you need care. An increasing number of grad students are also balancing jobs, financial struggles, and obligations to loved ones and dependents. Figure out what you need to nurture your body, mind, and soul. Good nutrition, exercise, stress reduction, counseling and/or spiritual support, communities of people who can hold you up when you are struggling (and I know I struggled)—those are the necessary components to making it through, so build them early. Learn to be protective of your time, and block off personal time with just as much ferociousness as you do your writing or research time. You are working on your dissertation when you are taking a walk, visiting your counselor, taking a sick day, or spending time with people you care about. Those things re-energize you for the tough writing work. And your brain doesn’t turn off just because you’ve stepped away from your computer. Heck, one year I took an art class that taught me more about my writing process than any writing workshop ever has.
Second, it will be painful, but take constructive criticism of your dissertation proposal seriously. I won’t even tell you how many drafts mine went through, and how many frustrated hours I spent in my advisor’s office trying to articulate and narrow the parameters of my project, but what emerged was a document that helped me write a well-organized and relatively painless (though no less challenging) project. The major moves of the argument had already been developed early in my process. Did I find myself at one point reorganizing a printout of one of my chapters on the floor of my office, with the pieces cut up line by line? Yes. But I was struggling because I knew what I wanted to say, just not how to say it yet. That’s a much easier struggle than being midway through and still not sure how to tackle your argument.
Finally, set attainable, quantifiable goals for yourself. Then build in rewards. Instead of saying you are going to work for three hours, say you are going to write 750 words. Chain yourself to that desk until you get it done. If 750 words (or whatever your realistic goal is) takes three hours, fine. If it takes all day, it happens. If it takes 45 minutes—awesome! Half the battle of a PhD is being willing to get up and do it again, day after day. So also pair big milestones with big rewards, whatever that looks like to you. For me, it was travel. Nothing cleared my head better than a change of scenery.
JP-P: What are three key tips for students at the end of their graduate programs?
CD: The academic landscape is shifting, and what it means to be a scholar and teacher is shifting with it.
As graduate students face the end of their graduate programs, especially in the humanities, they are going to be entering a constricted job market with rapidly changing expectations for professional academics. At the same new, new and exciting opportunities for applying your unique skills outside traditional academe continue to emerge.
Because of this, I recommend that students reaching the end their graduate programs take stock of their vocational goals in relation to this shifting context on a regular basis. There is a good chance that the Plans A, B, C, and D you may have thought about 4 years ago could look materially different to you now—both due to these shifting contexts and to the fact that a graduate program, and the passage of time along the way, will change you.
This means that discerning a vocational path as your program draws to a close needs to include more than just an idealized vision of the perfect job on the perfect campus. I found it incredibly helpful to stop thinking about the “perfect job,” and start thinking about what makes a good life. A lot of reflection and conversation with valued friends and mentors helped uncover that my priorities lie first in being in a place I love, in reasonable traveling difference to my loved ones, with access to cultural events and opportunities. Beyond that, I knew I needed to keep engaging passions for writing, research, teaching, and advocacy. And I knew I wanted a stable, balanced life that let me keep myself healthy and develop meaningful relationships in my community. I was fortunate to discover opportunities to engage a good balance of all of these priorities in my new job here in DC—outside of full-time life in the academy, but not outside of what good living means to me.
I would also encourage scholars across the disciplines to think seriously about how the work they seek will contribute to the common good in some way. The luxury and privilege that is a time in the academy comes to us through the loving sacrifice of many others. We owe something back. The world needs critical thinkers, committed teachers, and researchers devoted to creating meaningful work that is accessible to others. We help celebrate what higher education can be when we are willing to think about the relationship between creating new knowledge and social change.
JP-P: What were some of the challenges that you faced in preparing for your job search and career? How did you overcome them?
CD: A lot of the challenges I faced were really practical. Academic job searches are their own animal. The protocols are byzantine, the requests for endless documents exhausting, and the process itself mentally taxing and emotionally tough. I am glad I reached out early to Ruth Schemmer and the great folks in Vanderbilt career services. Ruth helped me decipher the intricacies of both the academic and non-academic search process, develop strong questions and responses for informational and job search interviews, and ensure that I was up to speed on what my target organizations and schools would be looking for from me.
Getting myself ready to apply for non-academic jobs was also especially daunting. Reaching out to friends of mine in professions far different than my own—business, law, consulting—was so fruitful. They were the ones who helped me write a resume that told an effective story of my successes and training, in the language of non-academic professionals. I will be forever grateful to the friends who spent long afternoons helping me talk through my resume and revise my application materials.
As I began to consider jobs outside the academy, I found informational interviewing invaluable for building my network, learning about opportunities in my field, and discerning what kind of work I wanted to be doing—and what kind of work that I definitely did not want to do. I found my school alumni networks especially critical to connecting with the right folks in my area. Never underestimate the power of an alumni happy hour or conference reception to change your life. Then be ready to be surprised by just how willing friends, friends of friends, and even complete strangers are to help you succeed.
JP-P: Any last thoughts?
CD: I would just say to stay open-minded when it comes to what the future beyond your degree program has in store. In some ways, the job I’ve found myself in is certainly miles away from the professorship I anticipated when I started my program almost 8 years ago now. But the collaborations, research, and partnerships my work at CAP has engendered feel perfectly in line with the skills and knowledge I developed at Vanderbilt—as well as with my work and preparation before that. And I continue to nurture relationships with the scholarly community that have allowed me to move back and forth in productive and creative ways. Statistically, more of us will end up outside the academy than inside it, and there is real potential to join in truly transformative work.
Carolyn’s Fun Facts!
Current city: Washington, D.C.
Current position: Policy Analyst with the Center for American Progress, Adjunct Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary
Degree program: Religion, Fellow in the Program for Theology and Practice
Dissertation advisor: Dr. Ellen Armour
Favorite Nashville restaurant: City House
Favorite place to study: I did most of my writing in a home office, but a whole lot of editing perched in a window seat at Fido.
If you would like to learn more about Carolyn and her work, send her an email.
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