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Careers Café

How to talk about your PhD

It’s reassuringly self-aware – and frankly, exciting – to hear someone reflect on how part of their career path made them who they are.


People entering the non-academic job market with a PhD or with ABD status (All But Dissertation) often work out how they’ll address their academic history with potential employers. That’s certainly a worthwhile process, though employers’ reactions may not be what you expect – no matter what reaction you’re expecting. A University Affairs panel from earlier this year reveals some pretty mixed reactions. In my own job searches, the employer I thought would be wary of my PhD was thrilled by it, whereas the one who was initially trepidatious was at a university.

Whatever the reaction, having a compelling story at the ready is useful. If you have access to a university career services office, they may well give you feedback on your story – or suggest ways to help develop it.

When you’re trying to figure out what to put into the story, always think about what will be most relevant to the employer for the role you’re applying for. But that doesn’t mean your story needs to be an impersonal list of bullet points. An alt-ac friend of mine recently shared that she always tells people who are contemplating a PhD to do it. Her take is, “It’ll change who you are as a person.” Your story can be about that change – a point I missed out on in a previous post (and which David Seljak neatly captured in his comment).

Graduate work isn’t the only transformative experience to be had, but if you have done it, it’s okay to draw on the very richest experiences when talking with employers. It’s reassuringly self-aware – and frankly, exciting – to hear someone reflect on how part of their career path made them who they are.

You can still be brief (those painful efforts to explain the significance of your research in a 100-word field will pay off). You can tell people that, though you’re pursuing career X because of reason Y, you’re indebted to your graduate experience, because of how it changed you. Maybe it gave you the drive to persevere with a complex solo project, despite minimal feedback. Or maybe it revealed a level of resourcefulness you wouldn’t otherwise have known you have.

My boss mused last week that a goal of higher education is to offer meaningful ways to help people change the core of their being. Answering how your grad experience changed you is a useful, and profound, place to start.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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