How to Plan for a Career Before You Have One

August 26, 2002

Students pursue a Ph.D. for a lot of reasons: They want to be a professor at a research university, they want to teach, or maybe they simply fell in love with a particular field of knowledge. Even those with very clear career objectives from the start can change their minds over the five, or seven, or more, years it takes to "get minted."

You don't have to know from day one how you plan to use the degree, but you also shouldn't wait until the end is in sight to start thinking strategically about your professional life. The best career choices are based on knowledge of the prevailing opportunities; the worst ones are made out of desperation or a sense of feeling cornered.

What you need is a blueprint for professional development, and we offer one possibility here. Our approach is not organized chronologically. We consider it more of a spiral, with repeating phases of reflection, data gathering, and application. You return to each phase again and again, but with more information, more knowledge of yourself and your opportunities, and more experience to enrich your decisions. Five critical professional challenges make up the body of the spiral, and we'll look at each in turn.

Get a Grip on Your Resources

Teams of professors, students, and administrators who got together recently to discuss doctoral education under the "Responsive Ph.D." project agreed on three key findings: Graduate students don't get enough career information, sources of such information do exist on campus but are too scattered, and students fail to take advantage of these sources in a timely manner. Your challenge is to identify and make use of all the sources of professional development on your campus as effectively and intensively as possible. Here's who you should get to know:

  • Potential mentors in the department: In addition to an adviser who directs your academic work, you should also find a mentor -- someone who will have the time to discuss your ideas and interests with you, push you when you need a push, and help celebrate your successes.

  • Your department's academic placement officer: She or he may know little about nonacademic career options but may be interested in learning with you.

  • Your campus's teaching and learning center: Specialists and workshops in these centers will help you improve your teaching skills and understand the range of teaching positions available in all kinds of colleges and universities.

  • Your university's career center: Many of the major Ph.D.-producing universities now have at least one career counselor specializing in nonacademic employment for graduate students. Even if your university doesn't, it's worth checking out the Web sites of other universities for valuable online resources.

  • Your campus's office for community outreach: If you are interested in exploring the application of your scholarship outside the university, outreach coordinators can introduce you to local organizations that have a need for your expertise.

Get Involved With Your Network

Developing relationships with people of varied backgrounds is still one of the most effective and fun ways to find out about the world, not to mention the best jobs. And whether you choose later to pursue a career inside or outside of academe, learning about the world around you can bring new meaning to your studies. In addition to your family, friends, and neighbors, you have access to several established networks:

  • Faculty members in your department can introduce you to their nonacademic spouses, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances.

  • If you are traveling to a conference or for pleasure, look up your department's alumni in advance, invite them to coffee, and ask what is interesting in their world.

  • Participate in local organizations as well as national ones such as disciplinary societies and the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students.

  • Visit with career counselors at your campus career office. Even if they've never worked with graduate students, they can introduce you to local and national employers.

Or you could start or join a peer "support" group to help you think through career choices as well as support you through the various grad-school hurdles. Consider a cross-disciplinary approach -- students in other departments are probably dealing with very similar issues. Having to explain your work to really smart people outside your discipline will force you to think more creatively about the varied applications of your doctoral training.

Get Varied Teaching Experiences

The insights and experiences that you gain through teaching are essential for success in venues ranging from the classroom to the boardroom. Anytime information is being conveyed, teaching is happening: whether you are a faculty member, a manager, a CEO, a trainer, a project leader, or a product developer.

Most doctoral programs ensure that their students have at least one T.A. experience. Unfortunately, many departments are unable to offer sufficient teaching assignments for their students to gain increasingly independent and varied experiences in the classroom. Gaining that additional experience is up to you. In your second year, try to secure a T.A. job. Attend training workshops for new T.A.'s if one is available. By your third year, you should be ready for a more independent assignment:

  • Study your department's undergraduate curriculum and develop a list of courses you'd like to teach. Consider both team-teaching and designing your own course at some point. Share this list with your adviser and your department head, explaining your interest and the benefits to your professional growth, and lobby for developmentally progressive teaching assignments for yourself and others. You may not get your first choices, but presenting such a plan sends a clear message to your professors of what you expect them to help you get out of your doctoral training.

  • Expand your search for teaching opportunities outside your department. If you are fluent in a foreign language that is taught on your campus, seek an experience as a language instructor. Language departments often rely on adjuncts external to the university, and might be persuaded to employ graduate students instead. Teaching a foreign language can be very demanding; some classes meet every day for an hour, but such a schedule provides fast pedagogical growth. As an added benefit, many students find that the rigid structure makes them more efficient with their own research and study time.

  • Contact your university's equivalent of a general college or evening school. Many of these classes, aimed at adult populations, are taught by graduate students and are excellent opportunities to experiment with developing syllabuses, lesson plans, and exams besides sharpening your teaching skills.

  • Seek opportunities to teach in other settings, such as at local community colleges or nearby institutions. You might arrange with a faculty member there to lecture or do small group instruction on an occasional basis, or you might teach an entire course on your own. Don't forget to ask for remuneration.

Get Organizationally Savvy

It is important to understand how organizations work, whether you spend your professional life inside or outside the academy. The most effective academics -- and the most effective employees elsewhere -- know how the system works, and they participate in processes that improve the way the organization functions.

You need to understand how your academic training fits into a larger organizational scheme, and how you can become a valued member of a whole profession, not just a discipline. You need to learn about different types of organizations and organizational cultures; much as you wouldn't expect to find the perfect pair of jeans or little black dress in the first store you walked into, it may take some time to find an organization that "fits" you. You need to learn to lead and how to be a member of a team. and you need to recognize how organizational systems function, and how they can malfunction. All organizations are politicized environments. How they function depends less on the industry or type of organization than on the talents and behaviors of its members. Observe your own reactions to certain organizational dynamics and learn to operate in a way that contributes to the health of the organization under the best of circumstances, and protects your integrity and sanity under the worst.

So, get your hands dirty:

  • Internships or volunteering are excellent ways to try out an organization or a career path. Savvy interns can access opportunities that may be closed to entry-level employees. Internships in which you contribute your academic expertise are particularly beneficial, as they provide a broader context for what academics might, somewhat insularly, view as highly abstract knowledge without a readily available application. Look for paid internships or internship programs that provide stipends. Internships can turn into longer-term employment, but don't despair if your internship turns out to be less intellectually stimulating than expected -- it is, after all, an experiment, not a lifelong commitment. View it as a steppingstone to something better and move on.

  • Temporary jobs, freelancing, or consulting are also productive introductions to organizations, and they can improve your financial health as well.

  • Service on academic search committees and participating in student government or other student organizations can also provide insights into how groups and systems function.

Get a Good Sense of Your Self-Worth

If you've done the first four things we suggest, you've probably already accomplished this one. But remember, assessing and communicating your value to others is a continuing challenge because your circumstances are always changing, and your talents are always evolving.

Hadass Sheffer is director of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Humanities at Work program, and Bettina Woodford is the program officer for the Responsive Ph.D. project at the foundation.