Podcast Episode #4

Scarlett Rebman
Senior Development Officer at Ohio Humanities

Dan Gorman, Interviewer

Listen on Spotify

Episode #4 Transcript:

Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the working PhDs podcast. This episode was recorded while our guest was ABD. We are happy to report that she has successfully defended her dissertation and is now officially Dr. Scarlett Rebman.

Daniel Gorman: Welcome to Working PhDs. My name is Dan Gorman and I’m a History PhD candidate at the University of Rochester. And today I am speaking with Dr. Scarlett Rebman who works for Ohio Humanities.

Dr. Scarlett Rebman: Hi, good afternoon, Dan.

DG: Thanks for joining us.

SR: It’s my pleasure.

DG: So in this podcast, we normally talk about people who’ve started in higher education and moved into a career outside of teaching. So it might be in higher ed, but it’s not being a tenure track professor. But looking over your credentials, I noticed that you were actually working in an alt-ac job all through your PhD.

SR: Yeah. That wasn’t necessarily planned, but it was an exciting opportunity. So I did my graduate work in the History department at Syracuse University, and a couple of years into my graduate program I applied for and received a public humanities fellowship with Humanities New York, which is the state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was a fellowship that supported students who were exploring career diversity and encouraged graduates to take on a public-facing humanities project.

And through that fellowship year, I got to know Humanities New York, and when they had an opening come up for a grants associate, I applied for it and got it. And even though I wasn’t done with my dissertation by any means, I decided to seize the opportunity. I thought it could be really great experience outside of higher ed, but still in the humanities.

And I really enjoyed the public-facing aspect of the fellowship. So I was with Humanities New York for five years. I ended with them as Director of Grants. And then just in March 2022, I relocated as part of the pandemic and moved back home to the state of Ohio. So in March 2022, I started in a new role and I’m currently the Senior Development Officer at Ohio Humanities.

So the state humanities councils, there is one in every state and jurisdiction of the United States, and it’s kind of a well-kept secret. Many people have heard maybe of the national endowment for the humanities. I, before I did the fellowship, had no idea that there was this network of councils in every state.

DG: Are the councils funded by state governments, or are they private nonprofits?

SR: So great question. It’s complicated. They are private non-profits I think in most cases, if not all. The National Endowment for the Humanities allocates a huge chunk of money to fund the state councils. So they do get federal funding and then many councils also get a combination of state and private funding as well.

DG: So it’s a real public-private government partnership.

SR: Absolutely. And it really ensures that NEH funds and federal resources get to smaller rural areas and really make sure that this funding reaches across entire states. So it’s not just the largest institutions always getting the NIH grants.

DG: Why don’t we backtrack a little bit now that we have a sense of where you’ve wound up. We’ll engage in a little bit of backwards course design and go back to your early days of graduate school.

What did you study at Syracuse University? What drew you to Syracuse’s program? Uh, I’m particularly curious if this public-facing activity you engaged in. If that was something that their program was known for.

SR: I would say no on that front. In fact, they have a Museum Studies Master’s program at Syracuse University. I had no idea that the Master’s in Museum Studies was a thing until I’d been at Syracuse University several years. I signed up for the PhD program really just wanting to get that terminal degree to pursue research and just to dive deep in modern United States history, which is my field.

And I ended up at Syracuse because my husband was already there as a graduate student in the history department. And, you know, I know many folks are in this academic partnership kind of situation. Some folks maybe meet in graduate school. It really worked out for the best for me because my advisor, Jeff Gonda does urban history, legal history, civil rights history was exactly what I was interested in. And so I was just so fortunate that I was able to study with him and that worked out really well.

But I think I always had an interest in public engagement. I had a Bachelor’s degree in Middle School Education. So I had an interest in teaching K-12. I bounced around to different non-profit jobs before I went to graduate school. So I have always had diverse interests and passions and different career paths in mind. But I feel like when I started the graduate program, it’s very easy to get sucked into, “Oh, this is what you need to do to get a tenure track job.” And when I got the public humanities fellowship, that really opened different doors for me and helped me think about my own career journey in a different way.

DG: So why don’t we talk about some of the work you did at Humanities New York concurrently with your PhD studies? What kind of tasks did you work on? What kind of outcomes or results did you produce, and did your doctoral research feed into any of that work and humanities?

SR: I got to do a lot of different things in my role with Humanities New York. So, my primary hat that I wore was administering the grants program. So they re-grant federal funds and give project grants to cultural organizations across New York state. Sometimes it’s partners at higher ed, sometimes it’s museums, libraries, historical societies, community organizations that are doing public humanities projects. So I had a bird’s eye view of the cultural work going on across the state and got to make connections with hundreds of organizations and learn about their work. It was so exciting. I loved going to visit projects, you know, doing site visits. It was really dynamic.

And then I also, as part of Humanities New York’s commemoration of women’s suffrage, both getting passed in New York state, the Centennial was 2017, and then the nationwide Centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020, I got to take on the leadership of our own public humanities project, which was the Amended podcast. It was a six-part series, documentary-style series exploring the struggle for women’s right to vote from the perspective of women who faced barriers, not only on the basis of sex but also race and class, and citizenship status. So we took a really complex and diverse view of women’s suffrage and recognize that not all women got the right to vote in 1920.

So as part of that, I was a coordinator for that podcast project. I was also involved in the creative side and scriptwriting and doing research, and I got to bring a lot of my historical expertise to the table as part of that. Women’s suffrage isn’t really part of my dissertation, but definitely historical thinking and knowledge of American History came to play. And I got to collaborate with an amazing professor who was our host, Laura Free, she’s in the History department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

And then I got to work with Reva Goldberg, who’s a professional audio producer and is just amazing at crafting audio storytelling. So it was such a dynamic collaboration. It was so much fun to work with them. We were doing history, interviewing scholars who have been doing amazing research and are on the cutting edge of scholarship, but it was public-facing. It was for the public to help them think about how to commemorate this important historical anniversary.

DG: So it sounds like your experience at Humanities New York sort of split pretty evenly between fundraising, administration, and then programming, at least in the case of this podcast.

SR: It was definitely split, absolutely. And we also did a lot of advocacy as well with the Humanities New York team. I went to Albany to meet with state legislators. I went to Washington, DC, and got to walk around the halls of Congress to meet with, mostly the aides, not usually the Congress members themselves, but to meet with those offices and get to sit in Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand’s office to tell them about the importance of the humanities. So advocacy is also a huge part of the work that humanities councils do. And it’s really rewarding.

So I would just say, you know, for graduate students who maybe are thinking about career diversity, but are concerned that stepping away from higher ed would feel less intellectually stimulating, that you’d feel bored, or just that fear of, “Can I find a fulfilling career outside of the academy?” I would say, you know, absolutely you can, it might not be in the classroom. And I love teaching. I love my time in the classroom with students and love doing research and writing. So it might look a little different, but what are the things that really get you excited? If it’s communicating complex ideas to a diverse range of people, you can find other career paths that allow you to do that. It might be in the academy, it might be higher ed. That’s great, but you don’t have to have that fear that you can’t find something else to do.

DG: I think that’s one of the misconceptions people have about leaving higher ed, that you lose all your opportunities to publish or produce scholarship. And it sounds like what you’re saying is the scholarship might take a different form, but there are opportunities out there.

Would you like to talk a little bit about the end of your PhD and how you transition from Humanities New York to being at Ohio Humanities?

SR: The end of my PhD, it was a long journey. And for sure, taking the job with Humanities New York extended my time to completion. So I started graduate school in August 2013. You and I are chatting in April 2022, nine years later almost, and my defense is scheduled for later this month. So fingers crossed, by the time this, you know, this goes live, I will have officially defended and be, you know, on the books as a PhD.

And I just got overwhelmed by trying to continue to do my dissertation. I officially withdrew from my program briefly for a couple semesters, because I thought that I just didn’t want to finish it. It just felt like not the right thing for me to do or the right place to put my energies. And then in early 2020, I just got to thinking. I had that itch. I didn’t want to leave my research forever, languishing and unfinished. And then I had this itch and I decided, you know, I’m going to finish this. And it was in part in this career, this niche of the public humanities, I was kind of hopeful that if I want to progress and take on more leadership roles, I actually was hopeful that a PhD could help me progress, and that it might be valuable in my career. So I went back and starting in September 2020, went back and worked, set aside my Sunday mornings every week to work on my dissertation, and was able to finish it.

And I’m so, so glad that I’ve seen this goal to completion, but for folks who wonder and have that moment of, is this something I want: I just encourage folks to not feel bad if they rethink staying in their program or rethink if they really want to finish the dissertation. Life changes, goals change and shift. It can be rewarding to see it through. And also if you step away and take your life in a different direction, that’s okay.

DG: So as you transitioned to working for Ohio Humanities, this was of course during, late stage COVID, let’s call it, hoping that we are in late stage COVID. Are you remote in your current position? And if you are, are there plans to return to the office in the near future?

SR: So we are a hybrid and I joined just as they moved to a new office space. And we’re trying once again, to return to hybrid work. They went fully remote back in January due to the Omicron variant. So it was a really fun time to join a new team.

So I currently go into the office three days a week and work from home two days a week. My boss really encourages a good work-life balance and I love it. I love being in the office some of the time. I love the independence of working at home. I love the work-life balance. And I think it’s one of the major differences between being in a higher ed space and being in the nonprofit world is that there is a beginning and end to your day, and you can step away in the evening and not send emails and not work, and just allow your brain to turn off, which as a graduate student is just like impossible to do. There’s that impulse that you should always be working. Right?

So the work-life balance is something I find really enjoyable. We’re going to have events this year, as people are hopefully able to gather in person. So I will have, you know, some evening and weekend responsibilities, but by and large, I log off around four every day and I’m able to spend time with my family.

DG: That actually sounds a bit like the dream. As a current PhD student, the hours can get very mushy between work time and personal time.

So let’s talk about a hypothetical current day at Ohio Humanities, whether remote or in person, you get to choose. What does your typical slate of activities look like?

SR: That’s a great question. So I’m still settling into my new role. I moved from the grant-making side of things where I get to help decide where the money goes out, and now I’m on the fundraising side of things and hoping to bring the resources in. So it’s really exciting for me to take on this new challenge and to learn this new role. But on a day-to-day basis, we have a lot of partner meetings. You know, as a statewide nonprofit, we need to be connected with our partners around the state and we do a lot of collaborations.

So for example, I am going to start working with my colleagues on an application or a special grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, for a digital humanities project. And that is in partnership with actually a science center in Columbus, Ohio. It’s a way to bring the humanities into science education through this public humanities digital platform, essentially. So we’re going to have meetings next week with our partners to plan how to put this project together and how to develop a proposal. And in my current role, I’m not going to be the one implementing that public humanities project, but I’ll bring my humanities expertise, both my experience in higher ed and my experience with the state humanities councils to help put together this proposal.

So we have those sorts of meetings, I’m putting together proposals, I am connecting with donors. And again, it’s that advocacy piece of communicating the value of the humanities and connecting with donors who are excited about the mission and want to support the humanities across the state and letting them know how they can get engaged with the organization. So I might be making donor calls, following up with donors, thinking about who we can reach out to. I’m going to be planning a lot of events around film festivals and public events we might be hosting in our office or out and about around the state with our partners. And every day I’m collaborating with my colleagues on the program side of things, with my boss, with the board. And with our communications director.

DG: Without divulging where you’re actually located, because we don’t want any doxing. And since you’re somewhat in the greater Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area, Columbus is the state Capitol. It’s also the home of the Ohio State University, which is gigantic. I did get the “the,” it’s important. And because it’s a large city, you have museums, you have all the civic infrastructure. Do you find that the work you’re doing is helped by being that close to a major urban center? Or for instance, could you do this task completely remotely? Say, in Southern Ohio, far away from Columbus.

SR: I think being in the urban center helps, especially for fundraising because some of your bigger donors may, not necessarily, may, be in the urban center. And then also for advocacy, the proximity to the state legislature is important. But it’s not necessary. So actually, when I worked for Humanities New York, you know, their office is in the financial district in New York City. And I lived in the metro New York City area for several years. And then during the pandemic, we moved back up to Syracuse for a year, and I did my work entirely remotely from Syracuse, which is a mid-sized city, but it’s farther from the operations.

I think there’s flexibility. It’s one of the things that has come out of the pandemic that helps us see how much we can do remotely or from different places, and just to rethink work. There’s a lot more conversations that need to be had about what work should look like in the 21st century for people to have work-life balance, for people to be fulfilled. How much time do we really need to be at our desks in order to get our work done? So again, I’m so grateful that my director at Ohio Humanities is really, I think, kind of a visionary in that area and recognizes that we can get our work done, and we work 10 to 4.

DG: Well, that’s another thing that’s come out of COVID: people talking about not just remote work, but also changing the structure of the workday. I think it will be curious to see if any of that trickles down to the higher education, the way grad students are treated, but that’s a conversation for another podcast.

SR: Yeah. But I do encourage listeners as they’re, again, trying to envision this career path or what they want out of their career to think about what kind of workplace they really want to be in and to just advocate for yourself. It’s hard as graduate students, I know. Those dynamics are difficult unless you’re unionized or something like that. But for people to take ownership over their careers and really do the exploration to find the organization where they can feel fulfilled and have a work-life balance and advocate for them.

DG: As we move toward the end of our time today, Scarlett, I’d like you to speak, if you can, to the kind of training you think grad students need to get beyond just their academics. So for instance, in your current role and actually your previous role, there’s been a lot of budget management, financial management. Did you have to do any micro-credentials or take any business classes, beef up on any skills that you might not have had otherwise to do your work?

SR: You know, I was fortunate to be able to learn on the job. But in my current role, I may do some micro-credentialing in fundraising to get that credential. It wasn’t fortunately required for me to enter into the role.

So after you get a PhD, at some point you gotta stop doing additional programs, right. Or you don’t have to, but that’s a significant credential. So you might need to pick up other things along the way. For me, it was. Having the experience that I did doing public engagement as a graduate student that helped me secure the position with Humanities New York, and then just being willing and, you know, demonstrating my flexibility and adaptability, which I think is the amazing thing about PhDs and specifically PhDs in the humanities. So communicating that to prospective employers.

You know, budgeting, you can learn along the way. And I learned a lot about database management. I did it while working.

DG: The last question I have for you is what other skills do you think grad students should try to cultivate? So we just talked about maybe some hard skills such as database software, or being able to track budgets. But maybe thinking about soft skills, people skills, what do you think grad students should try to cultivate in their limited time when they’re not reading and writing?

SR: Time is limited, but anything that shows collaboration and project management beyond your individual research project. So that could be working with the graduate school, it could be doing something with a graduate student organization, convening a conference, doing a podcast. Any of that sort of work is excellent skills that you can present to an employer and frame as how you can solve problems for that employer.

But I recently was doing interviewing as part of my job search to transition to Ohio, and I got a lot of questions about how do you manage relationships. And I think graduate students are excellent at managing relationships because if you’re teaching, you’re working with students, you’re working with faculty. If it’s a class with more than one TA you have people below you, students, you have people lateral with you, graduate students, and you’re accountable to a faculty member. That’s a lot of relationships to manage. Likewise, managing relationships with your committee and your advisor, and keeping them apprised of your progress. So I think reframing the value of what you’re doing every day as a graduate student can really help.

DG: Well, Scarlett, thank you so much for joining Working PhDs. And I realized that the start of the program, I addressed you as Dr. Rebman, and hopefully by the time this podcast released, you will be 100% Dr. Rebman. Onward to victory.

Pallas Catenella: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.