In 2017, the University of Waterloo’s centre for career development created the PhD job shadow program. The goal? To help PhDs explore and broaden their career options beyond a tenure-track faculty position. The program achieved this by having PhD students shadow U of Waterloo non-faculty staff (or “hosts”) who hold an advanced degree. The students would then write up a case study relevant to that staff member’s department, which has included projects like designing a survey, contributing to workshop ideation, or creating a report based on document review. Participating staff members work in departments such as graduate studies and postdoctoral affairs, the centre for extended learning, the office of research, and the centre for teaching excellence.
In 2023, the program was revamped to give students greater agency when choosing a host based on student, host and program staff feedback who all found that student-host matching didn’t always meet student needs or expectations. We asked students to create a list containing up to five U of Waterloo staff of their choice (we included a video on how to research and find campus staff and a list of past hosts). From students’ submitted lists, we then recruited staff and paired them with the student.
This significant change was a success: by implementing a student-led approach to program design, PhD students received a stronger, more intentional mentorship experience.
A better match = a better mentorship experience for mentors and mentees
Creating space for agency in the selection of hosts played an important role in this mentorship experience. The research process itself involved the students actively reflecting on their own interests and skills and why they wanted to join the program, which resulted in greater engagement: “I read their job descriptions in advance, reflected more and found some questions even before I met hosts,” a student noted. This active effort to find common ground with their hosts created a more meaningful relationship and allowed for higher satisfaction with the interactions during the program.
Learning also happened bidirectionally in this mentorship experience. Students had a learning-in-context experience through one-on-one meetings, team meetings and workshops. Hosts found in students a “source of innovation”, as students’ ideas and expertise allowed hosts to see their daily challenges in a new light. One host pointed out, “Sometimes you get ideas from students like ‘Oh yeah, that’s a really good idea! I should do that.’” Whereas a “shadow program” suggests a passive experience where the student observes and is “silent”, both sides had a lot to offer to each other in our program.
Skills and knowledge translation in the right context
Choosing their host and doing research around their role allowed students to be better prepared to contribute to a specific department through the case study. One student claimed: “So I found that in general it was a direct match… There are parts that I would have to learn, but the background structure of what I’ve been doing it directly translates.” This is particularly relevant since PhD students may finish their program feeling prepared for academia, but most PhD programs do not provide support or training for jobs outside of tenure-track positions.
Students have mentioned how the impostor phenomenon settles in when facing the idea of not having the relevant expertise for the non-academic job market. This lack of confidence becomes especially daunting when students get close to finishing their PhD and do not know how to proceed with their careers. Learning how to translate skills gains more relevance when this is related to roles that interest students, as one student said: “I was able to break out of imposter syndrome. I often thought I should have prepared my next career earlier and I was not really ready to do something else. However, I learned that I had lots of transferable skills (maybe I am ready to take other roles!).” Being able to translate their skills in the right context allowed them to tackle impostor syndrome and re-gain the confidence needed to find a job.
Removing the notion of a “plan B” and building community through work-integrated-learning
Mistakenly, the tenure-track is considered by many as the only way to successfully conclude a path in academia and any other paths are “plan B,” which can give feelings of being a “failure”. When students get the opportunity of experiencing what they enjoy about their research in other non-academic or research-related role, finding an equally meaningful career outside of faculty roles becomes clearer and more possible. As one student commented: “It made me realize that the administrative aspect of academia is deeper, richer and more meaningful than what a lot of people assume.”
That deeper connection and understanding of campus staff roles is a major rationale why we kept the program within the university: the mentorships built within the environment of their PhD program give students a deeper connection to the campus community, broadening their chances to explore potential career paths while doing their PhD. When leaving the job shadow program, students don’t leave the “workplace”; they continue their PhD in the same environment with access to mentors and with greater confidence in knowing who to reach out to and how to do so.
Special acknowledgements go to out to Dinuka Gunaratne for contributing the idea of the “lead list” in the early planning stages of the PhD job shadow program, and to Trang Le for making the lead list a successful reality.