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From PhD to Life

A culture of career transitions support is needed for grad students

Kara Brisson-Boivin created a program at Carleton University that plants the seeds of career transition early in the PhD process by weaving it into the curriculum, as well as professional development training.


This is a guest post by Kara Brisson-Boivin, graduate student transitions mentor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University.

We as grad students feel and work at our best when we have a sense of purpose, a plan in place, or a role to play. For many, the structure of graduate studies with its programmatic milestones and relatively straightforward progress – do A, then B, then C – is comforting because it gives us a sense of direction. That is, until we hit that spot of the PhD, which is typically around year four, when the reality of the job search and the dread regarding our entry into the job market and its accompanying uncertainty, hits. And, as the genius Joni Mitchell put it: “don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got ‘till it’s gone?”

In my world of social sciences and humanities, grads left to fend off these feelings of anomie on their own enter a sort of post-academia survival mode, taking on all manner of precarious work to keep themselves (and their families) afloat. To make matters worse, us grads are often ill-prepared for a career transition since the necessary skills and knowledge are not built into our graduate programs. This is not only unfair; it’s illogical. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When I completed my PhD in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, I took part in an incredibly important conversation about the need to create a culture of career transitions support in our department. I vocalized my fears and anxiety around having to navigate job searches, CV writing, and interviewing. Many of my colleagues echoed my concerns. The department knew that we needed to do something. After several weeks of research and many conversations with faculty, administration, and students, I developed the Transitions Mentor Program.

Operating within the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton, and at no added cost to our students, the transitions mentor (that’s me) offers students and recent grads both individualized and structured disciplinary-specific career support. This includes managing social media accounts to circulate relevant job postings and connecting grads to potential employers. One-on-one meetings with students and graduates help them review specific job or postdoc applications; write CVs and resumés; prepare for campus visits and interviews; and facilitate a certificate in a career development course.

The career development course provides grads with the knowledge and skills to manage their career transitions both within and beyond academia. We work on becoming comfortable with job search engines, CV and resumé writing, informational interviews and formal job interviews, networking and collegiality, and marketing the skills we’ve obtained in our grad studies in a variety of different fields. More importantly, participants see examples of successful applications and have opportunities for face-to-face interactions with recent MA and PhD grads who have made a successful career transition.

We are in the second year of the Transitions Mentor Program and its success cannot be overstated. By that I don’t just mean in the number of our students who now have jobs (which they do!). Our grads also feel that the department cares about them and their career outcomes.

I characterize this program as providing our grads with a continuum of care: we not only offer students the supports needed to get into our programs and to meet the requirements of their degree but to successfully make a transition out of the program and into a career. Currently we are working on expanding the Transitions Mentor Program into other departments across campus, as well as securing transitions support for those at the faculty level.

This program plants the seeds of career transition much earlier by weaving it into program curriculum and the professional development training of our grads. It also provides a supportive community for grads and alumni who, especially at the end of their degree, can feel isolated and alone. The Transitions Program allows grads to make a plan in an often unplannable time. It provides grads with the assertiveness and self-confidence they need when entering the job market. It reminds us that it is absolutely not unreasonable to expect that our hard-earned degrees will lead to meaningful, gainful employment.

Recently, I came across a commencement speech by Australian comedian, composer, and director Tim Minchin and what he said regarding transitioning really struck me. Minchin says: “Don’t rush. You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life . . . if you focus too far ahead you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye.” Transitioning after graduate studies is a complicated balance of looking ahead and looking out for the “shiny things” right in front of us.

But if we are to live in the present, not rush things, embrace change, and all other variety of often unhelpful platitudes, we need to be supported in structured, meaningful ways in order to avoid the angst that can accompany the transition from graduate student to working professional. With these supports in place, successful career transitions will happen. I’ve seen it. I’m experiencing it myself.

More universities need to institutionalize a continuum of care for graduate students and recent alumni, especially in social science and humanities programs, because the marker of success for any healthy graduate program is happily working graduates.

Kara Brisson-Boivin, PhD, is the graduate student transitions mentor and an instructor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University. She earned her PhD in sociology from Carleton in 2016. Watch Kara’s webinar below as part of the Beyond the Professoriate Research & Innovation Series to learn more about the Transitions Program and hear from participating students. You can also connect with Kara on LinkedIn.

Institutionalizing Support for Grads Transitioning from Student to Professional

Maren Wood
L. Maren Wood earned a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel hill. Maren delivers interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search. In addition to her research, Maren provides one-to-one career coaching to PhDs.
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