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Graduate Matters

The importance of initiating conversations about careers

Why you should investigate how your preferred graduate program can help you with your post-graduate plans, whatever they may be.


Graduate school is a career stage in and of itself; it is also often a step towards the career path you will pursue after you get your degree. Of course, as you research and assess what graduate program to pursue, it may be difficult to know what types of work will be most appealing to your future self. Graduate school, and education in general, is meant to help transform you, and it should come as no surprise if your desires and ambitions are transformed along the way!

That said, conversations about career options can still have an important role to play in the selection of a graduate program. The relationship between graduate studies and the work you subsequently pursue is highly variable and individual, as well as subject to differences across disciplines and degree level. If you know what type of work you are interested in pursuing after you complete your studies, you will definitely want to investigate how your program connects to that field. If you already have work experience, and see graduate studies as a way to enhance your professional qualifications or pivot into a new line of work, you’ll want to clarify how the program will meet those needs. If you’re pursuing graduate studies with the intent of clarifying career goals along the way, the manner in which a program offers flexible and versatile preparation for a diverse range of fields may be your uppermost question.

Whatever your situation, here are some possible action items for investigating and initiating conversations around careers as you prepare to enter graduate studies:

  • Look for precedents. It’s worthwhile to have a sense of what recent graduates from the program have typically gone on to do. That’s not to say that you couldn’t pursue a totally different path, but this information may offer clues as to the skillsets graduates possess when they complete the program, and also what networks the program may be tapped in to. Many programs will offer information about alumni and career outcomes on their website; if this information isn’t readily available, consider asking during information sessions or campus visits.
  • Do your research. You’ll want to have a clear understanding of the program structure and content for many reasons, including assessing how it will help you develop your skills and networks. What courses are mandatory and how in-depth is the coverage they provide? Is there an opportunity to take courses at other institutions, work on collaborative projects, or attend conferences? Will the program give you the opportunity to gain experience in different contexts (for example: teaching opportunities, internships, co-ops, industrial partnerships, community based research?) Does it facilitate opportunities for reflecting on and communicating the transferrable skills you will gain from your graduate training?
  • Think contextually. It typically takes a village to raise a career-ready graduate. Look beyond the specific department you are applying to, and consider what programs, initiatives, and supports are available at the faculty and university level. A lot of valuable career and professional development support, as well as additional training and networking opportunities, may well happen outside of your specific program through services like interdisciplinary graduate professional development programs, teaching support services, and skill development workshops and courses.
  • Trust your instincts. Speaking with faculty, staff, and current students about a prospective program is almost always enlightening, and asking about career options is no exception. Especially if you have an idea of what work you might want to pursue. What reactions do you get when you mention post-graduation career prospects? Do these reactions seem to be aligned with your own goals and values? Plenty of students go on to successfully forge careers in fields not usually associated with the discipline in which they studied, and a department that offers a supportive attitude towards students with a broad range of career interests is a great launching pad, especially if your goals end up changing over the course of your studies.
  • Broaden the conversation. In order to assess how well a graduate program will prepare you for working in a given field, you’ll need to know what the expectations of that field are. See if you can arrange to speak with a few individuals doing relevant work and ask them what they see as the most valued types of skills and experiences. Then, you can cross-compare these outputs with what you’ll gain from a given graduate program in order to look for the best match.
Danielle Barkley
Danielle Barkley completed her PhD at McGill University, and now works as a career educator and adviser for graduate students at the University of British Columbia.
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