Continuing Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track

Samantha Sabalis earned a PhD in English literature from Fordham University in 2017. She joined the Council of Independent Colleges in 2018 as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and was hired to stay on as development officer in 2020.

From (Sir) Gawain to Grant-Writing: A Circuitous Path

Two things happened in my second year as a PhD student in medieval English—I saw the latest job placement data for PhD graduates in the humanities, and I discovered I was petrified of teaching. From this inauspicious beginning, my career explorations took me from museum education to academic administration to grant-seeking, culminating in my current position as development officer at the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, DC.

When I was applying to PhD programs, I didn’t think at all about their job placement rates, or indeed what I would do after I completed my degree, apart from a vague image of myself as a professor in a tweed blazer. Like many applicants, my main focus was on the faculty members I could work with and my eagerness to continue exploring my passions—mainly, the evolution of Sir Gawain across the French and English romance traditions (I still have a soft spot for Sir Gawain in all his incarnations). I was delighted to be accepted at Fordham University, which boasts a very strong medieval faculty and also happens to be my father’s alma mater.

At the end of my second year, I was struggling through a teaching practicum, overwhelmed by comma splices and rhetorical strategies and dreading the prospect of flailing through weekly presentations under the jaded eyes of first-year undergraduates. I was also conducting (bleak) research on placement data for one of my professors. I started digging deeper into what I could do after my PhD, and found “Every PhD Needs a Plan B,” an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Beyond Academe founder Alexandra Lord. One piece of advice really resonated with me—why not pursue an internship at a museum? I could expand my career prospects, get behind-the-scenes access to beautiful medieval manuscripts and objects, and become more comfortable talking to groups of strangers.

So I applied to be a docent at the Morgan Library and Museum, partly because of its wealth of medieval objects, but primarily for its lovely little chocolate box of a library, which reminded me of the one featured in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. My work at the Morgan and subsequent museums in New York helped me see the wide applicability of my research and teaching skills and pushed me to move beyond my strict view of qualifications for particular career paths. I loved designing and giving tours at the Morgan Library, but I was reluctant to pursue paid opportunities in museum education because I lacked scholarly training in art history and experience teaching children. Finally, a friend of mine just asked me—why don’t you seek out the experience you need? After pursuing a series of (alas, still unpaid) internships, I finally achieved a paid position, as a part-time educator in School Programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This public humanities work led to my selection as the graduate assistant for an initiative to revitalize doctoral education in the humanities at Fordham. In this position, I got the opportunity to collaborate with project leaders in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and stakeholders across and beyond the university—fellow students, faculty members, administrators, and PhD graduates pursuing rewarding careers outside the academy. Stepping outside my discipline and department to see how doctoral education worked across the humanities was fascinating, and I began to consider how I could stay involved with academia and supporting students outside of a faculty role.

For me, the PhD was a journey of self-discovery. I learned that while I loved working with my students and was an enthusiastic teacher, I did not consider teaching a vocation in the way many of my peers did. Similarly, though I was (and still am) an avid researcher, I exceled at conducting intensive research on a wide variety of topics for a month or two, rather than the deep dive of the dissertation. And while I wanted to stay connected to academia, I was not committed to following the hazy professorial path I had envisioned.

My current role as development officer at the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) aligns well with my goals. I came to this position as a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow in 2018 and was invited to stay on when my fellowship concluded in 2020. CIC is a membership association that serves over 650 small to midsized, private, liberal arts colleges and universities. As development officer, I work with my colleagues to seek out and apply for grants to support programs for our member institutions, such as scholarly seminars for faculty members and consortia to address key issues like online humanities instruction. I also administer these grants and manage several of the funded programs. Every grant proposal requires intensive research on topics ranging from community college transfer and graduation rates to the ongoing legacies of slavery in the United States, as well as persuasive writing catered to the foundation’s mission. The programs I help fund have an impact on hundreds of faculty members and administrators, and thousands of students, across the country.

But what about my identity as a medievalist? I’ll admit that my dissertation research on reading and teaching manuals of religious instruction in fifteenth-century England doesn’t often come up at work (though my boss likes to say that every association should have a medievalist on its staff). And, though I will happily regale friends, colleagues, and unsuspecting strangers with snippets about priests behaving badly, Sir Gawain’s amorous exploits, and St. Monica’s role as the original helicopter parent, I have not yet resumed my research or participated in academic conferences. And for now, surprisingly, I just don’t miss that part of my life enough to do more than dip into medieval scholarship or visit the occasional museum exhibition. And yet, I still consider myself a medievalist—without my passion for medieval romances, I would not have developed the skills I use every day, or discovered a fulfilling career path as a grant professional.

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