Using Graduate School Strategically, Part II

October 08, 1999

My July column showed how you can use graduate school strategically to prepare for alternative careers. Here, I'll tackle another piece of that strategy: gaining work experience during graduate school.

This is the single-most-effective strategy for shifting to a career outside academia. Through relevant work experience you gain what I have dubbed "the three C's" -- credentials, credibility, and connections (and possibly a foot in the door).

The three C's can counteract your unconventional professional training and the stereotypes still floating around of academics as impractical and undisciplined. In addition, you can try out a career in advance, thus avoiding a potential mistake, and -- assuming a positive experience -- you'll emerge with greater self-confidence.

Once ensconced in a Ph.D. program, you may find it easy to adopt the (shall we say "narrow"?) perspective of your academic department and to imagine that you cannot possibly take time away from your studies for non-academic work. And indeed, you must keep your priorities clear and yourself focused on your ultimate goal.

But if you want to keep your career options open, it is not only possible but highly desirable to include work experience in your graduate-school curriculum. The clearer you are on what career you want, the more you can tailor that experience, but often it is the work experience that suggests potential alternative careers. (If you are already in a postdoctoral or faculty position, this advice also holds, with minor modifications.)

You may feel constrained by graduate school, but you have more options than you may think. Consider these possibilities, based on the experiences of Harvard graduate students:

  • Finding a summer job or internship. Raphael Lehrer, a graduate student in physics, became interested in management consulting through a seminar taught by business-school professors and alumni. A summer internship at Oliver, Wyman and Company gave him valuable feedback, and he landed a job at Boston Consulting Group. (Several elite consulting firms are now recruiting Ph.D. candidates at major research universities.)

  • Working at a part-time job or internship during the academic year. Charles Gannt, a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, supported his family during graduate school by taking a job at an investment-management firm, which led him to a career in finance. David Bush took a programming job to support himself while he was pursuing a Ph.D. in modern British history.

  • Volunteering for an organization where you would like to be employed or that provides impressive credentials. This is still a primary route to non-profit jobs and can be very effective in other sectors. Roseann Tung, while completing her Ph.D. in cell biology, pursued two internships related to her growing interest in education policy. She created an unpaid fund-raising internship with the Boston Adult Literacy Fund and mentored a beginning reader in an inner-city charter school. Both experiences gave her sufficient credibility to get a postdoctoral position in educational program evaluation at Lesley College. An assistant professor of Italian worked without pay for the then-Bank of Boston during his six-week semester break. He was hired as a management trainee in the international treasury department, which he later headed.

  • Freelancing or consulting for an organization (unpaid if necessary). Dara Menashi, while pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy, found consulting jobs with various firms. This, in addition to her dissertation on public/private collaborations, inspired her to co-found a consulting firm in organizational development. An A.B.D. in religion at the University of Chicago, meanwhile, is developing a freelance career by teaching writing at the business school and writing "white papers" for various clients. Her career ambition has now shifted; once armed with her Ph.D., she hopes to teach professional and technical writing on site at companies.

  • Building a creative portfolio, especially important for aspiring writers and artists. While in graduate school for anthropology, Amy DiBona made jewelry on the side, took local jewelry-making classes, and attended a two-week workshop at Haystack to augment her portfolio. Another graduate student, an A.B.D. in English, wrote romance novels on the side and had a completed manuscript ready to submit to publishers when she left graduate school.

  • Gaining international experience. Living and working in another culture can give you the edge in certain fields and is virtually required in a field such as international development. You can use your field research to your advantage, as did Nancy Pyle Nicols, an art historian: Her dissertation research in Turkey helped land her first non-academic job directing a program that brings Third World, mid-career professionals to the Kennedy School.

  • Finding postgraduate fellowships with technology companies, government agencies, or research institutions. Susan Euling recently embarked on a career shift from biology to environmental policy via a Congressional Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that placed her in the Environmental Protection Agency.

One word of caution. In some fields it is necessary to get a credential, and that credential is sometimes most efficiently (or only) gained by returning to school. Even when a credential is not absolutely necessary, you may find returning to school a more-appealing option, as did Tamsey Andrews, a Brandeis University Ph.D. in classical and oriental studies who took advantage of a tuition-assistance program to get an Ed.M. at Harvard.

She writes: "Getting those marketable credentials is the fastest, most effective, and most direct road to serious career change. You get all three C's through course work, internships, and the support of mentor/instructors." Note, however, that Tamsey mentions an internship: Even when you go back to school, you often need to get the work experience.

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