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From PhD to Life

Lessons learned from departments that support career readiness of grad students

What has and hasn’t worked at institutions that support career development and professionalization.


Over the past several years, Jen and I have interviewed hundreds of PhDs about their career transitions. We consistently hear is that PhDs have what it takes in terms of education and skills to move into meaningful careers beyond the professoriate, but they often struggle to land their first position. Employers may perceive PhDs as “overqualified” for junior positions but lacking in direct industry experience or knowledge to qualify for advanced positions. This is the dreaded overqualified but under-experienced conundrum.

Last academic year we set out to learn more about what departments and programs in the United States and Canada were already doing to help PhD graduates prepare for their careers. We highlighted a several programs in our Research & Innovation webinar series. We wanted to create an opportunity for those supporting graduate student career development and professionalization to share their experiences with each other.

So far we’ve hosted twelve seminars, with more to come! Here’s some of what we’ve learned over the last year.

Continuum of care

When the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University decided to developed a program to provide career support to students, they began with a survey of current students and recent alumni. Recent graduates reported feeling isolated. The lack of community and access to resources impeded their job search both in and beyond academia. Current students wanted help exploring career options and understanding how to leverage their education after the PhD. They wanted this information to come from their department instead of the career centre or graduate school.3

To design and develop the program, the department hired a recent graduate, Kara Brisson-Boivin. The position was partly funded as a visiting lecturer, with Dr. Brisson-Boivin teaching undergraduate courses. The department allocated additional funds so that part of her time could be dedicated to the implementing the career preparation program.

From day one of the program, recent alumni were included in all seminars and career activities. The department also negotiated library privileges for recent graduates, which enabled alumni the opportunity to continue researching and publishing.

As a recent alumni herself, Dr. Brisson-Boivin was connected to both students and recent graduates. She understood the discipline-specific advice her colleagues needed and wanted. She pulled in resources from across the university, but the program was based out of the department.

In addition to leveraging existing on-campus resources such as career services, Dr. Brisson-Boivin invited outside speakers and guests, and created networking opportunities within the department. She included workshops on how to network, write resumés and cover letters, and develop portfolios for faculty positions and postdoctoral fellowships.

The program fostered community and solidarity among students and alumni, while also providing networking, socializing, professional development, and peer support. It curbed post-degree anxiety among graduate students and recent alumni, and was a selling feature for retention and recruitment of new students.

Preparing future professionals

Assistant professor Nathan Vanderford wanted students at the University of Kentucky to know that there were options for them other than working as a professor. For much of his career, Dr. Vanderford has worked in academic administration, a path he found rewarding. Only about 10 percent of biological and life science PhDs secure tenure-stream appointments, and he believed it was critical that graduate students explore their career options beyond the professoriate.

Dr. Vanderford designed a course to help students develop crucial skills and identify important resources. The course begins with an overview of the current academic job market to inform students of the realities for PhD employment on and off the tenure track.

In his 16-week course, students develop an action plan to implement during graduate school and in the immediate months after graduation. They explore career options, identify transferable skills, and determine ways to improve upon identified weaknesses. They conduct informational interviews to build connections with people who have their ideal career path and to learn networking strategies. The students also learn how to put together job application materials, such as resumés and cover letters. Throughout the course, students engage with guest speakers and present their findings to each other. The course is designed to promote student-driven discussions.

Dr. Vanderford is given a small stipend to design and teach the course, similar to that given to others who teach adjunct courses on top of their other administrative duties on campus.

Universities and departments interested in designing similar programs might consider employing a staff member with a PhD to teach the course. Many PhDs who remain in higher education do so because they enjoy working with students, and many teach classes; they are an underutilized resource.

Publicly-engaged scholarship

Humanities departments and students face unique challenges in helping students prepare for non-faculty careers. When surveyed, over 80 percent of humanities students say they want to be professors. The reality is that less than half will secure employment on the tenure line.

The Humanities Institute at the University of California, Davis wanted students to develop skills that would allow them to move more readily into non-academic employment after graduation; however, seminars on careers beyond the professoriate were poorly attended. This is a common challenge at many universities.

The institute secured funding from the Mellon Foundation to build a Public Scholars Program. This program set out to help students imagine how they could leverage their scholarship to engage with the public in new and innovative ways.

Each summer, 10 students from humanities and social science programs receive a few thousand dollars to develop projects connected to public scholarship. Many of these projects are connected to community engagement or public education and outreach.

Five of the spots are open to students who have designed their own projects. Social science students tend to be better able to identify opportunities than humanities students who struggle to imagine what this kind of work would look like. To help humanities students, the institute reached out to partner organizations to develop predefined projects that students can apply to, such as a project with the California department of education.

In the spring, students are required to take a seminar that discusses the intellectual foundations of public scholarship as well as build skills. This provides an academic and intellectual component to the program. The projects are completed in ten weeks over the summer. Students are required to work 20 hours each week, which leaves plenty of time for them to work on their dissertations. In addition to connecting students with communities beyond academia and the university, the program provides students with much-needed summer funding. (Learn more about the program here.)

In Canada, graduate programs could similarly work with partner organizations, such as Mitacs, to develop public scholarship opportunities for humanities students, helping students see how their skills have broad application beyond academic teaching and research. Humanities PhDs who work beyond the professoriate tend to remain in and around higher education, moving into staff and administrative positions. Humanities departments could work with offices and centres on campuses to develop public scholarship opportunities to help students gain linear work experience and explore options right on campus.

New research and innovation seminars

This year, we continue to feature innovative programs through our research and innovation series.  All webinars are free to attend, are recorded, and will be available on our website.

Watch past presentations here and sign up to attend upcoming webinars on our website.

November 1, 2018, 12 p.m. ET

Motivating INformed Decisions: An Experiment on Effective Career Development Interventions for Life Science PhDs
Gabriela C. Monsalve, program director, Motivating INformed Decisions (MIND) Program, University of California, San Francisco

November 15, 2018, 12 p.m. ET

Mitacs Research & Training Funding Opportunities for Students and Postdocs
Forough Khadem, business development specialist, Mitacs
Eva Reddington, manager, research collaborations, Mitacs
Amanda Rossi, business development specialist, Mitacs
Kaitlyn Shannon, manager, international research awards, Mitacs

November 29, 2018, 12 p.m. ET

Changing Department Culture around PhD Careers: A Foreign Languages Case Study
Evan Torner, assistant professor, German Studies, University of Cincinnati

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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