Skip navigation
From PhD to Life

How to prepare for a future job search


In early January I travelled to Denver to attend the American Historical Association meeting. I went to represent Beyond the Professoriate — the professional development business that I run with Maren Wood, a fellow history PhD turned entrepreneur. We spoke with graduate students, recent PhDs, and other historians who are interested in non-faculty careers. Many told us they felt anxious about their chances of successfully landing meaningful, stable work, and wanted to know what they should be doing now to prepare.

The academic job market works very differently than most other job markets, in important ways, so we love speaking with PhDs about what they can do now because they may not realize what works best. For example, one graduate student told me about her surprise when a career counsellor at her university informed her that she shouldn’t be applying to jobs more than three months before she wanted to start working. (There are a couple exceptions, such as some government positions or roles in big consulting firms with graduate recruitment processes.) This student had no idea hiring happens much quicker outside academia than it does within it.

So, if you’re midway through your graduate degree — or working a multi-year contract and considering your options for afterward — what can you do before applying for jobs?

A successful non-faculty job search comes down to three main things: skills, networking, and professionalism.

The “bottom line,” says Katharine Brooks, author of You Majored In What? and director of Vanderbilt’s career centre, is that “employers hire a package of skills, not a specific major.” That means the specifics of your degree don’t matter as much as what you can do for an employer. Hiring managers are interested in whether you can actually do the work they need performed. They want to know that you can solve their problem.

For those of us used to searching for jobs targeting our research expertise, this emphasis on skills can take some getting used to. Credentials may be necessary for some jobs, but appropriate skills are crucial. Reflect on your skills — especially ones you enjoy using — and see what jobs might suit you. And remember that skills can be learned, particularly ones that build on existing strengths.

A small percentage of jobs are filled by applicants who apply “cold,” that is, without any existing network connections. A majority of successful applicants do have some connection, so make networking central to your job search strategy. If you’re unsure about what jobs might suit you after graduate school, do informational interviews to learn more. As you narrow your focus and meet people doing work relevant to your own endeavours, you can exchange information, ideas, and resources. Maybe you volunteer or take on freelance work that interests you. Then, when you’re looking for more regular employment, you’ll have a network of people who know you and can vouch for you — or even hire you directly!

Networking can help get you noticed in a big pile of applicants — and that’s important given how stretched for time most people are these days. But networking is also how you learn about opportunities, new-to-you industries and roles, and about specific workplaces. Networking is crucial to professional development because it’s the best way to keep informed about what’s going on in your (potential) profession and industry. That knowledge gives you greater power over your own career and can make you a more valuable employee.

This is a big category, including everything from quality job documents and interview acumen to understanding your target industry’s norms and etiquette.

Beyond skills, networking, and professionalism — all important to getting interviews for jobs you want — there are factors beyond your control, such as fit and timing. Those matter, but there’s not a lot you can do about them. I landed my first ongoing freelance gig back in 2010 in significant part because I was in the right place at the right time, and the boss liked my sense of humour. His was a small operation, and team members getting along was important to him. (We spend a lot of time at work, after all; better to actually like the people around you!)

Whatever stage you’re at in your academic career, if you’re thinking ahead, these are things you can do now that will help you later on. Think in terms of skills, networking, and professionalism, and take it from there. You can start building new skills, or you can conduct a few informational interviews. You can take a stab at drafting a general resume — not to show anyone else, but so you practice this style of writing. You can join LinkedIn groups and participate in industry-specific discussions. There are lots of other possibilities here.

Remember that you’re in charge of managing your own career. The earlier you recognize this and take active steps to build key skills, network with other professionals, and learn the ins and outs of your chosen field(s), the better off you’ll be when you need to search for a new job. Bon courage!

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:
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *