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From PhD to Life

Four different ways institutes can prepare the next generation of PhDs for career success

All of the advice stems from the common thread that institutions, now more than ever, must do something to train students for a variety of career fields.


This past academic year at Beyond the Professoriate, Jen and I set out to learn more about what institutions in the United States and Canada were doing to help graduate students prepare for their careers. Our Research & Innovation Series is for faculty, administrators, staff, and senior leadership who are interested in learning and sharing best practices for preparing the next generation of PhDs for career success. Visit our website to watch past webinars in this series.

We had a great start to 2019 with four seminars covering very different areas of graduate student life — but what they all have in common is the recognition that institutions, now more than ever, must do something to train students for a variety of career fields including those beyond academia.

Each seminar participant approaches this goal differently, and we’re sharing some of their insights below.

Center for the Humanities in Practice

David J. Staley, director of the Humanities Institute and Center for the Humanities in Practice (CHiP) at Ohio State University, says their center formed out of a concern for thinking about the future of the humanities students, and in particular the future of humanities PhDs in alternative careers. After speaking to alumni who were now employed in diverse careers and gathering data from local employers in Columbus, the centre found that employers didn’t have a bias against the humanities as much as a concern over lack of practical experiences. To address this, the centre wanted to provide students with the “alternative” professional experience they needed during their PhD that would help bring out tangible skills to future employers.

How did CHiP set out to achieve this? By offering three graduate research assistantships where students were placed with partner organizations to work in different roles (similar to an internship). Placements have occurred at non-profits, state organizations, and for-profit businesses. Zeb Larson, for instance, is a PhD candidate who held a fellowship with the Columbus Historical Society where he acted as a strategic management consultant. In his role, Zeb helped the organization plan and develop a new strategic plan. Zeb was also part of CHiP’s founding committee.

CHiP is still growing, but David sees the value of CHiP as two-fold: it provides PhD students with diverse professional and career development, and it also provides a platform for bringing the value of humanities PhDs into the public and professional sectors.

Industry needs social science

Melissa Vogel, professor and director of the business anthropology program at Clemson University, knows that industry needs social scientists. Tech companies such as Intel, Microsoft, and Google are already hiring social scientists, and more industries such as fintech are realizing the value of anthropological expertise. The business anthropology program and professional certificate at Clemson addresses this growing need and is meant to create an opportunity for students to gain the professional skills needed in areas such as UX research, market and consumer research, and design anthropology.

Why take a certificate like this, and why exactly does industry need social science? Melissa gives three main reasons:

  • Because business is ultimately about people. It’s about people’s needs, behaviours, and experiences. Industry needs experts in human culture.
  • Because big data needs thick data. There is lots of quantitative data in the business world, but much of it is meaningless without qualitative insights.
  • And because globalization requires an interdisciplinary approach. There is no such thing as being a separate economy anymore.

In the certificate program (open to industry professionals as well as students), students take courses in business anthropology and qualitative methods, both project-based. The certificate ends with a capstone seminar that focuses on business strategy, creating productive teams, and being an effective leader. As Melissa says, the certificate can also help you think about careers in a wide range of industries where understanding consumer research and organizational behaviors are increasingly important.

Professional development academy

The Professional Development Academy at University of Nevada, Las Vegas has come a long way. Valarie Burke, executive director of graduate student services, and Katelyn DiBenedetto, PhD and postdoctoral scholar, note that the academy first started with just non-academic advising and a few workshops. It has since grown to include four academic certifications, six programs, over 60 workshops, and partnerships with almost every department on campus.

The academy is still in the process of building and strengthening its programming. To assist with this, they’ve identified core “pillars” that guide their mission in: research, teaching, mentorship, communication, career prep, and wellness. This busy academy covers a lot of ground, but here are a few of the programs they offer graduate students:

  • Four certifications in teaching, research, communication, and mentorship. These are academic support certifications.
  • Grad rebel programs: Six different programs that work with grad students to expand their networks, professional experiences, and career development opportunities. For instance, there’s opportunity for involvement with alumni, donors, mentorship opportunities with undergraduates, mentorship for career development, and much more.
  • A post-master’s career pathways program, which has been very successful and they hope to expand to doctoral programs soon.
  • Workshops such as “Polishing your Networking Skills and Elevator Pitch,” “Private Foundation Grant-Writing Advice,” “Negotiating a Job Offer,” “Cultivating Resilience Through Mindfulness,” and “Stress Management.”

State of theatre and performance studies

As director of graduate studies in theatre and performance studies at Tufts University, Noe Montez, PhD, thought it important to understand the state of the job market for his students. To do so, Noe focused on understanding what trends were emerging from academic job postings, what programs were placing students in tenure-track positions, and whether there were commonalities between programs succeeding in helping their students find post-PhD work.

Noe and his team have put together some incredible data on the state of theatre and performance Studies PhDs, and while we can’t go over it all, here are some highlights:

  • The study looks at data from 2011-2017, which shows a fairly consistent trend of producing between 85-95 theatre and performance studies PhD holders a year in the U.S.
  • Out of the 632 PhD holders in the field, Noe’s team found current data for 621 PhDs. Thirty-eight percent are now in tenure-track positions, a quarter in contingent positions, and 16 percent are employed outside of the academy in a wide variety of fields.
  • There are 55 or so tenure stream positions listed each year, many of which will lead to failed searches or lateral moves. Half require applicants to participate in department productions.

Noe’s data is rich, and there are a lot of takeaways in the information his team has put together. Going forward, Noe suggests the field is at a critical point and needs to incorporate professionalization that encourages students to realize their skills are transferable to other career sectors, too. At Tufts, for instance, Noe teaches a professional development seminar that requires students to spend time interviewing PhDs who work outside the academy.

We are looking forward to sharing more great insights from researchers, educators, and practitioners across Canada and the United States. If you’re researching career pathways for PhDs and the academic job market, creating programs to prepare graduate students for successful careers, or a conducting related work, let us know. Contact [email protected] to find out how you can get involved.

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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