Using Graduate School Strategically

July 30, 1999

Is it possible to develop an alternative career path while still in graduate school?

Absolutely. The key is to make the most of the unique opportunities afforded by your graduate-student status while staying on your academic course.

Let's assume you are serious about wanting an alternative career by the time you leave graduate school (though you may not have abandoned the possibility of an academic career). Let's also assume that you are fairly clear about the career you want to pursue, and that your graduate program does not prepare you for or even encourage you to work in such a field.

What you want to acquire as a graduate student is what I have dubbed the three C's -- credentials, credibility, and contacts. You can do so in at least three ways:

  • Taking and teaching courses
  • Writing a strategic dissertation
  • Getting relevant job experience through freelancing, consulting, interning, and performing community service.

Let's look at some examples.

Courses: One of your greatest resources as a graduate student is your university, with its various professional schools, which generally are open to cross-registration. Whether you take a course for credit will depend partly on how important it is as a credential and how risky it is to get your adviser to approve the course (some advisers are not enthusiastic about alternative careers).

But serious auditing can often be just as effective, especially if you have a recommendation letter from the professor for use in future jobs. You should also explore the possibility of cross-registering at nearby universities. Many students at Harvard, for example, take courses at M.I.T., including its Sloan School of Management.

If you are able to invest a little money, you can take courses such as accounting, editing, or computer graphics at your campus's extension school (the fees may be reduced for students) or at local adult-education centers. Professional organizations offer Certified Financial Analyst courses for those who wish to pursue that path. You can also buy self-instruction packages such as Robert Anthony's Essentials of Accounting, a staple for students interested in business or non-profit management.

Teaching: It's easy to forget that the best way to learn a subject outside your discipline is to teach it. You can be resourceful in fulfilling your teaching obligations, without, of course, sacrificing a credible academic teaching record.

A history student, for example, with an economics background taught several semesters of an introductory economics course. (As it turned out, she remained in academe, but in a business school.) A historian developed his knowledge of jazz by serving as a teaching assistant in a jazz course (this led to a freelance assignment writing jacket notes). An assistant professor of anthropology interested in consulting co-taught a course at the Harvard Business School.

Writing a strategic dissertation: This requires some creative thinking and politicking insofar as you must satisfy your department requirements for theory, originality, and disciplinary relevance. But it can be done with good effect, giving new Ph.D.'s both subject expertise and contacts in new fields.

For example, a student in philosophy changed her dissertation topic from a question concerning truth and method in ethics to a question concerning the nature and justification of human rights, after a summer internship with a human-rights organization.

If you can't manage such a dissertation, you can at least write a seminar paper on a topic relevant to an alternative career. Some academic disciplines (such as economics and public policy) allow three papers in lieu of a dissertation; one of the papers could serve as that link.

Work experience: Gaining work experience is the single most effective strategy and will be detailed in a separate column. For now, bear in mind that your options are numerous, limited as much by your imagination as by the seeming constraints you face.

I've known scientists who have "escaped" their labs to do internships; full-time students holding down full-time jobs in totally different fields; students with internships or part-time jobs; students with consulting gigs; and students who have developed writing or art portfolios. And seemingly "academic" jobs or projects, such as archeologist John Fox's work with the Perseus Project, have led to alternative careers.

If you are struggling with how to juggle both career paths during graduate school, you may be inspired by the example of Lara Pellegrinelli, a Harvard ethnomusicology student. Lara was unable to decide on a dissertation topic, so she took some time off to explore alternative careers. She wound up with what she describes as a terrific job, which in turn led to her dissertation topic:

I went to a music show/conference and fell into a job working as the assistant to the editor-in-chief of a leading jazz magazine. I had been studying jazz and knew that the topic for my dissertation would be in this area. My job gave me the opportunity to explore the current music scene in a way that academia couldn't. The magazine receives every jazz CD on the market, and I could attend concerts in New York free [as a member of the press]. My employer was also excited to have an academic on his staff, and I think I've made a positive contribution to the publication as someone with a background different from the average jazz writer or critic. I've also written for the magazine on a number of occasions.

This year, I'm staying in New York to do fieldwork and am doing so without financial support. I've been promoted to an editorial assistant and am still enjoying all the same job perks. My dissertation is on jazz singers, and through my connections at the magazine, I've been able to interview a good number of the most famous ones even at this early stage of my work.

Lara has decided to stay in New York for a third year, to keep her foot in the music-journalism world (where she thinks she has greater employment potential) while she devotes herself to finishing her dissertation and freelance writing.

Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Please send your comments to