What Can Faculty Members Do to Help?

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

February 15, 2011

Jenny: This year, at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, in Los Angeles, I helped lead a workshop on "Careers for Humanists." Before we started, we asked people to fill out a brief survey on what they hoped to learn. As you might guess, most participants were A.B.D's or Ph.D.'s looking to learn more about their career options.

But to our surprise and delight, several of the participants were faculty members interested in understanding nonacademic career paths in order to better guide their own graduate students.

At the convention, I had time to catch up with a few friends, many of whom are now tenure-track faculty members with graduate students of their own. And in those conversations, too, I found academics wondering what to tell their students about their career options.

Julie: Most faculty members have trouble advising students on nonacademic careers because they are simply unfamiliar with the territory themselves. It's also true that some faculty members have trouble with the idea of Ph.D.'s working outside of academe. They've nurtured their students and supported them financially with a particular career goal in mind.

And, in fact, the majority of doctoral students and recent Ph.D.'s are most interested in becoming faculty members—that is clearly their first choice. However, the reality of the lack of teaching jobs in the humanities and the real need to earn a solid living are often what makes Ph.D.'s look for employment elsewhere. Here at Penn, we've partnered with the provost's office for years on a range of programs meant to help graduate students explore their options.

Jenny: In a recent article in The Chronicle, "Changing the Way We Socialize Doctoral Students," Leonard Cassuto talked about the gap between students' career expectations and reality. Faculty members are partially responsible for developing those expectations. It's crucial to help your students understand that they can have fulfilling careers outside of higher education, and then to guide them along that path.

Julie: So begin by letting students know that it's OK if they want to consider nonacademic career options. You can do that, as Alexandra Lord recently pointed out, by posting information on your department's Web site about your program's alumni who have gone on to nonacademic jobs. You can also partner with the career-services office at your university or with the graduate dean's office to bring in former students who are in nonfaculty careers to talk about what they do. It helps if the department strongly encourages, or even requires, all of its graduate students to attend such events.

Jenny: Department participation is essential to send a message that attending programs on nonacademic careers is acceptable. We have met too many graduate students who feel they need to hide their attendance at such programs from their advisers and even from other students in their department. Having the department play a role in organizing or publicizing the events can go a long way in legitimizing nonacademic career possibilities.

Julie: Faculty members can also help students understand how the skills gained in a graduate program have applications outside a university setting. Many of the things that students learn to do in their doctoral programs can be put into play in other workplaces. Help students keep an inventory of the transferable skills—those related to teaching and presenting, to research, and to organizing events like conferences and talks.

In most academic contexts, the language used to describe such skills can often seem foreign. We really like the chapter on skills in Margaret Newhouse's Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering Alternative Careers. Although that book is fairly old and out of print, it's available in libraries and many career-counseling offices. That chapter is invaluable in illustrating the skills that one gains in a Ph.D. program.

Jenny: Professors can also help students understand the importance of explaining their skills to a nonacademic audience. Not everyone understands what academic research involves. You might also see if there's anyone on your campus, such as a career counselor, who can conduct a workshop on transferable skills for students. Any career counselor who has ever helped a client through a career change should be able to talk about transferable skills, even if their experience isn't specifically with Ph.D. students.

The career counselor will be able to help your students organize their lists of skills and use language that will make sense to nonacademic employers. For example, a doctoral student's experience in teaching an introductory course develops a wide range of skills, such as organizational ability, planning-and-scheduling ability, public speaking, the ability to translate new concepts to new learners (and old concepts in new and interesting ways), interpersonal skills, diplomacy, supervision and relationship management, and the ability to think on one's feet.

Julie: One thing we've noticed in working with faculty members is that they often simply don't know where outside of the university their students' skills will be valued. Students mistakenly interpret that lack of knowledge as an unwillingness to talk about nonacademic careers. It's fairly typical not to know about careers far beyond your own—lawyers tend to know the most about being a lawyer, investment bankers about being investment bankers. But academe sometimes seems more insular than most professions.

Jenny: That said, a good place to start looking for Ph.D.'s who've put their degree to work in other fields is often on your own campus. We know people with Ph.D.'s in the humanities who now work at campus libraries, provost's offices, human resources, university presses, campus museums, student services, and development offices. In fact, we wrote about that very topic in a recent article, "Following the Nonacademic Track."

Have your students talk to some of those humanists-turned-administrators. In fact, some of those administrative positions, when combined with adjunct teaching or part-time research, are what we might call "hybrid careers" and may be the wave of the future. By hybrid careers, we mean a full-time administrative career with a college or university coupled with the occasional chance to teach a course or work on one's own research. Anne Whisnant and Donna Bickford wrote about these types of positions earlier this year.

Julie: Talking with people about their work is really the best way to learn about career options for yourself, so you should encourage your students to do that. Career counselors call that "informational interviewing." It means reaching out to people connected to you through friends, family, professional organizations, or alumni networks, and setting up a time to interview them about their work. That may sound strange to those who've never done it, but it's a surprisingly effective way to learn about other careers. Most people enjoy giving advice and are happy to teach someone a bit about their profession.

Jenny: Some graduate students may be intimidated by interviewing relative strangers, so encourage them to start with someone they know, and move outward from there. For instance, if you're a historian, you may find that a local museum, historic site, nonacademic publication, private nonprofit, or government branch is actually focused on or near your research area. Seek out a staff member there with whom to speak. Julie and I wrote about how to get started on informational interviewing a couple of years ago. That article, as well as others about informational interviewing that you can find on the Web, would be worthwhile to share with your students.

Julie: A bold step for any department is to encourage students to do an internship or two in another field. Our colleague Christine Kelly, a graduate career counselor at the University of California at Irvine who led the MLA workshop with Jenny, put it brilliantly at the meeting when she said that employers often perceive Ph.D.'s as "overeducated and underexperienced."

Internships outside of academe will help your students to combat that stereotype. We know many doctoral students who have worked under the radar to get some experience. While internships are often unpaid, they are invaluable for the work experience they provide and can stand out on a Ph.D.'s resume.

Jenny: We can recommend a few career resources for faculty members to recommend to their own doctoral students. A Web site called the Versatile Ph.D. is a great source of information on nonacademic careers. Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius's So What Are You Going to Do With That?: Finding Careers Outside Academia is a terrific primer for Ph.D.'s who need some suggestions for taking those first steps out of academe. Herminia Ibarra's Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career is a great book for anyone making a career change. Ibarra is a member of the faculty at Insead, a French business school, and the somewhat academic tone of her book often resonates with Ph.D. students. And, of course, students should be aware of all of the services offered by both the career offices on their own campus and the university's alumni network.

Julie: Faculty members can do many things to help students widen their circle of career possibilities. Probably the most important is to remove the stigma of a nonacademic career for the many students who are either struggling on the tenure-track market or don't want a teaching job. We urge faculty members to discuss it in departmental meetings, to partner with their university's career office (including linking to it from the graduate portion of their department's Web site), to remain in contact with former doctoral students who are working in nonfaculty jobs, and to be positive about Ph.D.'s working in an array of employment sectors.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press). If you have questions for the Career Talk columnists, send them to