Department of English

Spotlights on Alumni: David Liao

The best piece of advice I can think of is to be flexible and adaptable to the changing realities of the field/job market/this crazy and precarious world, and be creative and expansive in your conception of what a PhD in English can contribute (a lot!)

David LiaoDavid Liao

PhD, 2015
High School Mentor & Adjunct Professor.


What did you think you wanted to do post-graduation when you began the English PhD program here at Brown? Did that change during your time in the program, and if so, how?

I began the English PhD program at Brown with every intention of applying for tenure track jobs and pursuing an academic career, although in the early years this notion always felt a little distant and abstract. My time in the program (from 2008-2015) was also a time of less-than-encouraging news about the job market from those who were on it, and growing rumblings and inklings that the supply and demand of the tenure track job market was becoming less sustainable. Somewhere along the line I decided that my heart would not be broken if I didn’t pursue an academic career after completing my degree. In fact, as I neared the finish line I became more intrigued and optimistic about the creative challenge of marketing the skills that came with a PhD in English. More importantly – and this was crucial – the more I mentioned this notion the more I found that I was not the only one among my colleagues who felt this way.


How would you describe your PhD project? Who was on your committee? If you went on the academic job market, what fields (including but not limited to those in English) did you apply under (ie. 20th Century Studies, Gender Studies, Poetics, etc.)?

My PhD project examines dictator figures in works by ethnic American authors, with a focus on Richard Wright, Chang-rae Lee, and Junot Diaz, as well as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy. Foregrounding their geopolitical and transnational contexts, I highlight how these texts serve as literary meditations on real-life political strongmen such as Kwame Nkrumah, Syngman Rhee, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, and Fidel Castro. I explore how the figure of the ethnic dictator, as an intermediary between American imperial power and the racialized populations they both ruled over and represented, also functions as a hermeneutic lens through which ethnic subjects came to apprehend their relation to the U.S. state. For these writers, I argue, the dictator figure embodies both diasporic fantasies of cultural cohesion and forward-looking – though not necessarily progressive – fantasies of political power and multicultural unity. In addition, my project explores how these writers utilize experiments in literary genre to articulate the affinities between political authoritarians and literary authors, and in doing so, take up the dictator’s absolute power as a model and rival for their own work.My committee consisted of Deak Nabers, Tamar Katz, and Olakunle George. I will admit that I never went on the job market, which allowed me the bandwidth to focus solely on completing my dissertation.


What kind of work are you doing now? Can you tell us about your path to this career? How did you get started?

Since finishing my PhD, I have found a rewarding career in student advising and academic support, while continuing to teach college courses as an adjunct. I am currently a High School Mentor at Blackstone Valley Prep, a charter school in Rhode Island that emphasizes intentional diversity and college readiness. My work involves building relationships with students and their families, supporting students’ academic progress and personal well-being, teaching them positive life skills and academic habits, and connecting them with school resources to help them succeed and thrive. 

For over a year after graduating, I supported myself through adjunct teaching, which I had started during my last year of grad school, mostly to keep a roof over my head. I didn’t have a clear idea about what I wanted to do next, only that I was okay with not pursuing a tenure-track academic career. I ended up applying for positions in all kinds of fields, including teaching, student advising, higher ed administration, advertising, communications, and publishing, among others. I even interviewed for a researcher/analyst position at a financial consulting company (which led me to realize that, for all the complex literary theory and criticism that I’ve read, I still can’t grasp the difference between Term Life Insurance and Whole Life Insurance). Finally, in Fall of 2016 I was hired as a Dean of Students at RIA Global Education, a residential college prep program for international high school students. In this role, I oversaw student academic success by serving as the primary liaison with their host high schools, and supported student life as their residential mentor. I worked here until Fall 2020, when the pandemic forced the program to close, and started my current position at BVP the following year.


What is your favorite part of this work? What has been the biggest surprise?

My favorite part of this work has been the opportunity to mentoring diverse student populations and guiding them on their academic and personal journeys. I genuinely enjoy getting to know each student personally and engaging them as whole individuals with distinctive histories, aspirations, and complexities. Having worked with both international students attending prestigious private schools and students from low-income and underprivileged communities (many of whom go on to be first generation college students), I have gained invaluable perspectives about the challenges of creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive learning environments. I think one major surprise has been the easy contentedness I’ve felt in transitioning out of academic research and into more student-facing and administrative-facing roles. Another has been the close connections I’ve been able to form with students and colleagues from drastically different backgrounds and experiences than myself.


Which resources (at Brown and beyond) were most helpful to you in your specific career path?

The last year of my PhD program, I attended a talk hosted by the Brown Graduate School on the topic of “Using Your Humanities or Social Science PhD Outside Academia.” It felt very encouraging and validating to see the university sponsor an event like this and show support for graduate students who were considering non-academic careers. Attending this event also made me realize that there were considerably more graduate students who felt this way than I realized (one of the first people I encountered in the lecture hall was a colleague from the English department). As part of the talk we also received a free copy of the speaker’s book, titled So What Are You Going to Do with That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. This book became my bible as I applied for jobs one after the other during the year after graduation, and I’ve always been grateful to Brown for providing us access to material resources like this.


What advice do you have for students currently enrolled in this program, as they plan for their futures?

The best piece of advice I can think of is to be flexible and adaptable to the changing realities of the field/job market/this crazy and precarious world, and be creative and expansive in your conception of what a PhD in English can contribute (a lot!) One of my close friends and classmates in the English department once insisted that she didn’t spend so many years in grad school to not be a professor; this friend ended up going to a top law school after finishing her PhD, and is now very happy as a lawyer at a public interest firm, where she works on class action discrimination suits and in support of labor unions. Try your best to keep an open mind about what a fulfilling career might look like, and figure out what aspects of the grad school journey bring you the most joy – for me personally, it was always the colleagues and friends and personal relationships. I also discovered that I enjoyed teaching undergrads quite a lot, which is I why I decided to keep doing it as a side-hustle even after finding a full-time job. I also want to mention that I was recently offered a full-time university teaching position, which was not an opportunity I expected to entertain after so many years away from active scholarship. I was unable to accept due to timing considerations and obligations to my current work, but it does go to show that you never know how these forking paths might wind and curve back into your life.


Is there anything else you would like to add?

Fun fact: I got my first full-time job out of grad school because I randomly met and chatted up someone at a costume party, which led to talking about our work and exchanging contact information. You can never go wrong talking to more people, rather than less.