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Career Advice

Why grad students should engage in alternative, non-academic career activities

Participating in activities outside of your graduate work, but still tied to your interests, will help enhance your skill set.


Whatever your final career goals are once you receive your PhD, the development of academic and non-academic skills serve to reinforce one another. Ultimately, students can augment their skill set by participating in activities (paid or not) that are of interest to them, but not necessarily directly tied to their graduate work. With that said, I think there are three considerations that will help students find these opportunities:

  1. pursue opportunities that build your CV in new ways
  2. pursue opportunities of interest (not just available ones); and
  3. pursue opportunities with your post-graduate goals in mind.

My experience

Early in my graduate career, I decided that I would take the time to pursue paid and non-paid work opportunities on- and off-campus, primarily in student government, student advising, communications and special projects roles. As a result, I have gained a considerable and varied set of professional skills. More specifically, I have worked in a university environment as an executive member of a graduate and professional student government, working closely with international graduate students, and I advised students through academic and non-academic concerns and goals.

In these roles, I learned the importance of active listening, of advising and tactfully advocating for graduate student needs with various stakeholders, and of working within organizational structures that require regular meetings and reporting. I have also taken on event and fundraising roles, both on- and off-campus, that have sharpened my communication, networking, organizational, time management, and computing skills. While engaging in these opportunities, I have often felt that I do not fit the mold set out for most graduate students. I have, however, always felt that developing additional professional skills has given and will give me a competitive edge in the contemporary job market.

Three considerations to help grad students engage in alternative, non-academic career activities

  1. Be strategic and pursue opportunities that build your CV in new ways. I have, for example, a colleague who enjoys mountain biking, and she applied for a grant to map out a new bike trail east of the city. In light of the fact that she is undertaking a degree in human geography, mapping is a wonderful way to build degree-related and professional skills, such as networking and time management, in a way that interests her. My own foray into student government provided me with some key communication skills, including emotional sensitivity and diplomacy.
  2. Be selective and do not pursue opportunities just because they are available. The availability of activities, as well as perceptions about what makes a good graduate student (to our academic colleagues, supervisors, etc.), does not mean that students should pursue just any activity. I understand that sometimes the pay is appealing, even if you are not particularly interested in important facets of the position. However, not only do graduate students have limited time, but I would also argue that you will not live up to your full potential by taking on activities that do not challenge you. Not only will you disadvantage yourself by choosing activities that do not suit your interests, but you may also disadvantage other individuals, either that you support through the position and/or that apply with more care for the same role. Your CV should not be filled with empty placeholders.Furthermore, pursuing activities that do not interest you limits motivation and dedication, and keeps you from doing your best. During my undergraduate degree, I developed an interest in events work. I practiced these skills in volunteer and paid work positions during and after my undergraduate degree program. Currently, I work in a communications and special projects position for an on-campus organization where I continue to fine-tune my interpersonal, computation and networking skills.
  3. Do contemplate your post-graduate school career and life goals. Although it may not feel like it, you will eventually graduate, and therefore, you should choose opportunities that support long-term career goals. Not only will this decision increase your job market competitiveness, but it will also make academe a far more interesting and happy place. It may be difficult to know what career you would actually like to pursue in (insert number of years here) from now, so remember to actively follow your interests. I worked for the graduate and professional student government for five years because student needs and goals were (and are) important to me. In applying for these roles, I related developed skills, such as my organizational capabilities, to position tasks to both obtain and further my career in these positions. Ideally, once I graduate I would like to obtain a role where I can support student academic and non-academic success in significant ways.

Non-academic career activities can give the brain space to think more deeply, and can help you to make more connections between your research and “real-life” contexts. This makes learning and research meaningful and enjoyable. Choose to build your CV in new ways, select opportunities that suit you best, and consider your post-degree goals in the process. You will not regret it.

Rebecca Pero is a PhD candidate in the department of geography and planning at Queen’s University.

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