A Little Advice From 32,000 Graduate Students

January 14, 2002

When you entered graduate school, did most doctoral students want an academic job and think they would be able to get one? According to 32,000 students who participated last year in the National Doctoral Program Survey, that was the common perception, despite the realities of the academic job market.

If many doctoral students fail to land academic jobs, their departments must spend a lot of time preparing them for nonacademic careers, right? Not according to students in the survey, conducted by the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and financed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"There are individuals in the department who are trying to make us more aware of jobs outside the academy, but obviously the specific purpose of an English Ph.D. program is to prepare us to be professors," wrote one doctoral student in the survey. Another student wrote that faculty members seemed unable to "understand the difficulties faced by students who would eventually graduate from the program with little practical training for nonacademic careers."

Not surprisingly, career planning was one of the top concerns cited by participants in the survey. It asked doctoral students whether their departments had adopted some of the "best practices" in graduate education, as recommended by national experts.

The survey, conducted (mostly) by students for students, is unique as a grass-roots effort to improve doctoral education. Based on the experiences and the collective wisdom of the 32,000 participants, we have created a checklist for graduate students to use in career planning.

"There's no time like the present"

Getting a head start on career planning is the No. 1 suggestion. Students looking back on their graduate careers often say that they wish they had started exploring career options and preparing themselves for the job market earlier. Whether you are in your first or last year of graduate school, it's never too late to start the process. During your first year, find out what career-planning assistance is available on your campus and use it. Visit the career center and find out what resources, if any, it has for graduate students. Although some universities have excellent counseling for graduate students, our survey shows that many career centers are unprepared to help graduate students.

If your university's counseling falls short, don't despair; there are books and Web sites, in addition to this one, that may be of help:

  • Humanities at Work Program at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

  • Re-Envisioning the Ph.D.

  • The Escape Pod for Humanities Ph.D.'s.

  • WRK4US, an open discussion group devoted to nonacademic career options for people with graduate degrees in the humanities.

  • Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers, by Margaret Newhouse (Harvard University Office of Career Services, 1993).

  • So What Are You Going to Do With That? A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius.

  • What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press, 2001) by Richard Nelson Bolles.

  • Zen and The Art of Making a Living: A Practical Guide to Creative Career Designs, (Penguin, 1999) by Laurence Boldt.

Know yourself and your "fits"

It may seem obvious, but how many of us have actually sat down to think about what we're good at, what we value in a career, and what excites us? Do you really want to be a professor? It's important that you know yourself so that you can find a career that will best suit your personality. What kinds of careers might fit your skills and aptitudes and be consistent with your values and passions? Think carefully about the kinds of careers you don't think you would like and possible reasons for that lack of fit. Your career center, counseling center, or assessment office may offer interest inventories, personality indicators, or other tools to help you figure out what makes you tick.

Don't forget about the "hidden skills" that might not initially come to mind. If you teach, maybe you've also learned how to plan and how to motivate. There are a lot of abilities that you probably take for granted, but potential employers might not: language, communication, analytic, and writing skills.

Explore your options

"I believe that doctoral programs in English should grant highly specialized degrees intended to produce scholars. It would be inappropriate for my department to encourage careers outside of academia," reported one respondent. Does this sound like something you or your fellow students would say? Is it realistic in today's job market?

Consider the full range of career options available. Identify people whose careers interest you and talk to them about what they do, why they do it, and how they got there. Ask if you can observe or shadow those people who have a career that appeals to you. Volunteer to teach or conduct research for nonprofit or cultural organizations to get a view of that career from the inside. You might even be able to get a grant to support yourself while you check out alternative careers. Finally, make sure you see and understand the full range of job duties in different careers and not just the glamorous parts. If you like working with people, make sure you will spend time actually speaking to real people instead of just reading about them.

"It's not what you know, but who you know"

That was a common theme of the survey results. Personal connections are often the most fruitful way to find out about job opportunities. Make it a point to talk with fellow students and faculty members to uncover mutual interests or friends. When attending professional conferences, focus on several new people you would like to meet and ask your adviser or a mutual acquaintance to introduce you. Broaden your scope of knowledge by deliberately choosing activities that involve perspectives from other disciplines; consider joining student organizations, sports teams, or other group activities that will extend your network beyond your department.

Add to your skill set

"I would have loved to have received training in ethics, responsibilities, public speaking, grant writing, etc., but I didn't even know I should have been asking for such things," said one survey participant.

Develop skills or talents that add to your potential and make you stand out from others in your field. Carve out your expertise in areas that are transferable across disciplines, such as computer programming, Web-page design, conflict resolution and negotiation, business and management skills, foreign-language proficiency, public-relations and marketing skills, or technical- and popular-writing skills. Find ways to showcase your value-added skills by volunteering your services in organizations on and off campus.

Contribute to your profession and community

Establish yourself as a future professional. Help others get to know you, especially in areas related to your career interests. Invest in your profession by presenting current research at conferences and seminars, volunteering to lead sessions at professional meetings, serving on committees, and providing peer reviews. Demonstrate leadership in your program by volunteering to organize seminars or social events, organizing professional-development opportunities, and serving on curriculum or review committees. Finally, actively pursue grants, fellowships, and scholarships to demonstrate initiative and fatten your checkbook. Try to balance the time you spend in these activities with the time you need to spend to complete your degree program. "The more proactive students are in seeking our mentoring and community, the happier and more successful they are," wrote one doctoral student.

Package Your Potential

Learn to showcase the range of skills and abilities developed during your graduate career. Figure out how to sound confident and competent, but not arrogant. Be prepared to fight stereotypes that abound about Ph.D.'s in the nonacademic world: You're not overqualified; you're uniquely qualified.

Develop a portfolio of your work to display your skills in a new and interesting manner. Compile writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation so that you have them close at hand. Show potential employers what you can do in the future and not just what you have done in the past. Don't just rely on print -- use electronic and online formats to display your writing samples, press materials, scholarly publications, and service activities. "There is a lot of job-market preparation so that although we don't know how to do a number of things we should in terms of non-teaching professional duties, our future employers don't know it," said one respondent. "And, now that I am in a job, it was easy to pick up these skills on site."

Concluding words of advice

Our final message is that career exploration is not a process that any one person or office alone can do for you. We've tried to share our experiences and the collective wisdom of 32,000 doctoral students, but it is really 32,000 individual stories and individual interests. We hope these suggestions provide you with a starting point to take the initiative and assume the navigator role in your own career planning.

Kimberly Suedkamp Wells is a co-chair of the National Doctoral Program Survey, and a doctoral student in fisheries and wildlife sciences at the University of Missouri at Columbia. Adam P. Fagen is a co-chair of the survey and a doctoral student in molecular biology and education at Harvard University.