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From PhD to Life

Grad school is part of your career, too


Last week I participated in an event for engineering graduate students at McMaster University. I was interviewed over Google Hangout by three students. They asked me excellent questions about my career. It was a fun experience, and one that got me thinking.

I went “straight through”: high school, BA, MA, PhD. By the time I defended my dissertation in 2012, I was 32 years old. I remember one of my friends using the phrase “just out of school” to describe my situation. I didn’t fully grasp what that implied, namely, that I could either get myself a professorship or attempt to land an entry-level position in a different field, competing for jobs against candidates a decade younger than me.

After speaking with and reading the stories of hundreds of PhDs in a diverse array of fields, I know that those two options misrepresent the full range of possibilities. But it is true that the second option – entry-level work – is a reality for some.

One way of looking at this reality is to acknowledge that an individual who is changing careers may well lack basic, entry-level skills, especially ones that are particular to a company or industry. Knowledge of processes, technology, products and behaviour norms may be crucial competencies required by all employees in a company; that company may thus prefer to bring individuals in at a lower level and then move them up as they learn the tricks of the trade.

Raj Dhiman’s story is a case in point. After earning his PhD in chemistry and working as a self-employed tutor and consultant, he decided to seek out full-time employment. “I started out on the sales floor, making cold calls and selling to small businesses,” he wrote in his Transition Q & A blog post. “I devoted myself to learning the entire sales process from scratch then became very good at it. After six months, I was encouraged to apply for the sales training manager position and was successful in being promoted to the role.”

Raj’s experience highlights something that those of us who work in graduate professional development regularly tell our clients: Yes, you may start low, but your skills and experience – as well as your other life experiences – make it likely you’ll move up quickly. The lesson here for worried PhDs is “fear not.” Graduate school wasn’t a “waste.”

While this is a useful narrative for graduate students and PhDs changing careers now, I hope it’s also one that prompts professors, departments, professional organizations and universities to take stock of what they are doing for their students and match it against the needs of those same students. (I’m echoing Leonard Cassuto, a professor of English at Fordham University, whose recent book, The Graduate School Mess, I’m currently reading; review to follow.) I know that many of them are doing this, and here’s sending encouragement to them to keep at it.

As for those current students, I hope they can do as I didn’t. When I was a student, I spent little time thinking about and planning for what would come after. I was deeply unprepared for the world of paid employment. I was unprepared psychologically to transition to non-academic work, but I was also unprepared for the practical aspects of career exploration and job searching. I had never conducted an informational interview before. I didn’t have a resume. I had no idea that most applicants were networking their way to interviews, not simply applying cold. And I was just as unprepared for the socio-cultural aspects of non-academic employment: working 9-5 in an office with colleagues who understood, implicitly, how one comports oneself as a professional in that environment.

So, students: Take ownership of your career, now. Do your academic work but plant the seeds for a potential career change. See what’s on offer at your university’s career centre. Talk to people in professions that intrigue you. Failing that, talk to people in professions that don’t intrigue you – maybe you’ll learn that your assumptions were incorrect. Ask questions. Listen. Reflect on your values and priorities. Heed your intuition, but not your gremlins.

Graduate school may still be “school” but I encourage you to think of it as part of your career. That means you need to manage it, just like you would any other career.

And professors: Your students need to do this, sooner or or later. (Sooner is better!) Support them. Seek out ways that you, your department and your discipline can create places and spaces for talk of careers of all kinds. That includes talking about your academic career as a career. Connect with former students who’ve gone on to work in various fields. Ask questions. Listen. And feel free to reflect, too. It’s fun.

Jennifer Polk
Jennifer Polk is a career coach and entrepreneur. She earned her PhD in history from the University of Toronto in 2012. For more information and resources, check out her website:
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  1. Kayleigh Abbott / November 12, 2015 at 21:04

    I am currently completing my PhD in Psychology and recently wrote a post for a graduate student blog hosted by the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. This post outlined how graduate students are not receiving the push towards professional development to help us prepare for non-academic careers. Unfortunately, my post was not used, because they thought it painted an irrational and negative perspective of graduate studies. Reading this post re-energizes me to push harder and continue my fight for professional development opportunities in graduate studies.

    • Jennifer Polk / December 2, 2015 at 13:06

      Ugh, sorry to hear this, Kayleigh! Keep pushing. There are lots of us out here pushing in different ways, too. The recent Conference Board report will buttress any future posts you write.

  2. Pauline / July 22, 2017 at 23:27

    Different country, similar experience here. I was lucky to get my job in an environment where people from different walks of life had found work. Still, at times it was hard, I needed to learn many new skills, but I could use skills I learned while working towards my university degree.