7 Ways to Fix Ph.D. Advising on the Job Market
You’re a doctoral adviser, not a job counselor, but you don’t have to be an expert on career paths to do more for your grad students.
“Let’s not be the sort of advisers who evade responsibility for our students’ career options.” That was the provocative plea of a 2015 essay by Jenna Lay, an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, who was responding to the rise of for-hire career consultants. They filled a gap left by faculty advisers who tended to avoid difficult conversations about the gloomy state of the academic job market.
In the eight years since, some advisers have started guiding their Ph.D. students on their career options. But
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“Let’s not be the sort of advisers who evade responsibility for our students’ career options.” That was the provocative plea of a 2015 essay by Jenna Lay, an associate professor of English at Lehigh University, who was responding to the rise of career consultants for hire. They filled a gap left by faculty advisers who tended to avoid difficult conversations about the gloomy state of the academic job market.
In the eight years since, some advisers have started guiding their Ph.D. students on their career options. But plenty of others haven’t. “How am I supposed to advise students about careers I’ve never had?” is a question that both of us continue to hear on a regular basis.
At its heart, that question is about expertise. We’ve worked for years on graduate-career counseling. But faculty members are not job counselors, and the array of options open to Ph.D.s is so vast that it can be hard to know where to begin. The good news: You don’t need to be an expert on job searching to better support your graduate students in pursuing a variety of career pathways. In fact, a great first step is admitting that you aren’t an expert — but are willing to learn.
Lead with curiosity and openness. Doctoral programs aim to inculcate a critical stance in their practitioners. That stance is useful in research and writing, but it can lead to a reflexive skepticism that is not always helpful in advising your students on their job search and getting them to open up about their career ambitions.
Conversations with your Ph.D. students are likely to be more productive if you are asking open-ended, nonjudgmental questions such as:
- What led you to your graduate program?
- What do you like most about it?
- What matters to you, not only in your work but in your life?
- Do you intend to go on the academic job market? What other types of careers are you exploring?
- How many application cycles are you willing to go through on the tenure-track market?
- Are there other factors in your life that might influence how you organize your job search?
Career-assessment tools and questionnaires — such as those available on ImaginePhD and Stanford University’s Meaningful Work Kit — can help you and your students prepare for these conversations. Ask your students to fill out one of those career quizzes before an individual or small-group advising appointment. They are intended to be done iteratively, as answers do change over time; what matters to someone in the first year of a doctoral program might not be what matters in the fifth.
Keep your tone as impartial as possible in these talks. Your students’ reasons for being in grad school, and their hopes and dreams for the future, may be entirely different from the ones you nurtured at a similar stage. Especially early in an advising relationship, when trust is still being built, any flicker of judgment is likely to shut down a conversation and make it more difficult to have the next one.
Talk about career paths early in the program, and often. As a new doctoral student, one of us was told: “Don’t worry about finding a job. Do your work and the job will come.”
As well-meaning as that advice undoubtedly was, it is not realistic today. Some students start worrying about life after grad school from the moment they enter their programs. Being told not to fret about it will not make them less anxious, nor will it help them make productive strides toward figuring it out. Other students will be happy to put off thinking about their post-Ph.D. careers until some nebulous “later,” but that doesn’t mean it benefits them to do so.
If your department offers an “intro to graduate studies” course, it can be a great place to start career conversations on an even footing. Having all students take, for example, the ImaginePhD assessments, and then talk about their results, can help minimize the fear that certain students will be singled out as “not good enough” for an academic career. The message you are conveying here: Excellent scholars find themselves on an array of career pathways for all sorts of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with the quality of their scholarship.
Some faculty members think that simply being honest with doctoral students about tenure-track openings and placement statistics in the discipline will suffice. Certainly share as much job-market data as you can, but we would encourage you to go beyond that and take a more thoughtful approach.
We’ve found that relying too heavily on statistics discourages students, giving them a burdensome sense of futility. At this point, most doctoral students are already aware that finding a tenure-track position is not a guarantee. This is where your Ph.D. alumni — and those from peer programs — come in. Too often, postdoctoral career options are presented as a binary: faculty or “other.” Alumni stories can help inform graduate students’ sense of possibility and broaden their understanding of potential careers.
Make all of this a routine part of your mentoring. At least once a year, you should revisit the career conversation with every advisee, perhaps at the same meeting when you discuss their progress toward the degree. Help your students set goals in this area, just as you would in any other aspect of doctoral study. Early on, those goals might be as simple as “make an appointment at the university career center.” Later, they might progress toward seeking out internship opportunities or informational interviews.
Know your campus resources. For a long time, campus career centers focused almost entirely on undergraduates. But an increasing number of universities are hiring career-services staff with expertise in working with graduate students. That is reflected in the membership of the Graduate Career Consortium, whose numbers have more than doubled in the past 10 years.
If your university employs one or more graduate-career counselors, find out their names and introduce yourself. We have both been those staff members, and we are always delighted when faculty members reach out to us. A career-services staff member may be able to visit graduate courses and collaborate with departments on programming. At the very least, it is important for your students to know which staff members they should see and where they can be found on the campus.
If your university doesn’t have any staff members offering career services for graduate students, lobby your graduate dean to make a hire (or two or three) in this area. It is very likely that many of your peer institutions already offer such support, so providing benchmarks to make the case will not be very difficult.
Join LinkedIn. We realize that LinkedIn may not feel like an obvious or necessary place for academics to spend their time. But there is a case for spending at least some time there for the sake of your doctoral students.
As an adviser, especially if you’ve spent your entire professional life in academe, you can use LinkedIn to learn about nonacademic career paths. Students often dream big — and they should — aiming for jobs that might be just one or two steps above their current level of experience. Looking at profiles of folks with interesting jobs on LinkedIn can help you and your students see how they got to their current roles, and the types of skills and abilities they needed to get there. People’s first jobs usually aren’t their “dream jobs,” but it may be that a second or third job gets them pretty close to where they want to be.
LinkedIn is also effective at making your own professional network more visible to you. It can be hard to keep track of where your former students have gone, but on LinkedIn, you can see where they are at a glance. You can also see where friends and colleagues have landed and even whether you know people at certain institutions, organizations, and companies. LinkedIn is of course a source for job ads, too. It’s an important tool for networking, informational interviews, and really for anyone who is looking for a job now or down the road.
Even if you prefer to strictly limit your time on LinkedIn, use the contact information in your profile to direct people to other spaces where you are more active. Through your page, your students and colleagues will still have a space to connect.
Know a little something about job documents. No one expects you to be an expert on CVs, résumés, cover letters, and the like. But you should know enough to keep your students from doing something foolish, like talking too much about their faculty career ambitions or their dissertation in a letter for a staff position (we’ve both seen that happen), or failing to write effective bullet points for a résumé.
And we have to say, we are often surprised at how bad graduate students can be at writing cover letters — even those in the humanities where you would expect a certain level of writing skills. To write a good cover letter, you must do a close reading of the job announcement itself and then carefully connect your background to the position as written (not as imagined).
You can’t write their cover letters for them. But if you’re working with a student who is applying for many types of jobs, help them understand the importance of taking the time to write good cover letters — or be sure to connect them with someone who can help. Although cover letters aren’t essential for all jobs, many of the openings in and out of higher education will require them to submit a good one. And for applicants who are unusual in some way, as many Ph.D.s are, an effective cover letter can persuade a hiring manager to take a chance on inviting them for an interview.
Your university’s career-services office most likely has some online resources on the basics of various job-application documents (even if the target audience for those tips is undergraduates). Feel free to borrow advice liberally from your university’s M.B.A. career office or other graduate programs; they, too, often have useful resources for Ph.D.s.
Remind yourself that students have lives beyond scholarship. Traditionally, the academic job market hasn’t given space to any considerations that aren’t about “the job.” Even especially strong candidates aren’t allowed to have any geographic preferences for where they want to live; they can just barely have a preference for the type of institution they want to teach at. Seeking a tenure-track job is like throwing a dart at a map and praying it lands in a place you want to be.
But an intellectual life is also a psychological, physical, and emotional life. Your students may have partners with careers of their own. They may have children, or want to have them. They may have aging parents or other family members they need to support. They may have visible or invisible disabilities or other very specific health needs. They may be (openly or not) a member of a historically marginalized group that is more accepted in some places than others.
Those are all legitimate considerations (and hardly a comprehensive list) as students try to figure out how various career paths, academic or otherwise, fit in with their lives. As their adviser, you may be aware of some of those factors, but you should not assume you know everything. Your students are the ultimate experts on their own careers and lives.
Get serious about reforming doctoral training. We have focused here on steps each of you can take in your advising relationships with individual students. But the truth is that your graduate students are also affected by systemic problems in how and why we train Ph.D.s. So beyond improving your one-on-one advising, consider advocating for changes in your department’s doctoral curriculum and program structure to truly train students for a capacious range of career options, and not just to be a professor.
In writing this piece, we reached out to Jenna Lay to see if she wanted to update her advice from 2015. Besides better individualized advising, she said, “we also need institutions (and full professors!) willing to rethink Ph.D. education in more radical ways.” In that essay, she mentioned “the need to create more flexible graduate programs.” That need, she said, is even more compelling today: “It’s not enough to help individual students when larger curricular and funding models are built on decades-old ideas about what Ph.D. education is for.”
What might serious doctoral reform look like? Among other things:
- Modify the “Intro to Graduate Studies” course to include information about careers outside the professoriate.
- Revisit the exam structure and eliminate or streamline requirements.
- Introduce courses on public or applied work in your field, perhaps even co-taught with practitioners.
- Allow students to submit dissertations in formats other than a proto-monograph.
- Make your department’s pedagogical training and support more rigorous.
- Encourage students to find internship placements and work to find ways to compensate them with funding or academic credit.
- Advocate for institutional resources to be put toward career advising and programming for graduate students.
None of those things can be accomplished by a few professors acting on their own. You will need to find allies — in your department, in other departments, and in the administration. Yes, this feels like a big lift, but you don’t have to do it alone. And in fact, there might already be efforts underway that you can lend your support to. If not, we suggest that you begin by talking with colleagues who will be most open to the idea, and with your students, who may become enthusiastic allies. Even though the wheels of change turn slowly in higher education, knowing that you are serious about advocating for them can make a world of difference to your graduate students.