Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook

I recently attended a “lunch and learn” session at my university on how to talk to graduate students about non-academic careers. The session was led by Anne Krook, who spent seven years as a professor at Michigan before moving on to a successful career at Amazon and other companies. What follows are my edited notes from the session. Any errors, omissions, etc. are mine.

We also have a series of guest posts from ecologists who’ve gone on to non-academic careers, the first of which is here (and as an aside, if today’s post is at all of interest to you–and frankly, even if it’s not–you should do yourself a favor and read that old post as well. Seriously. Read it. Leading candidate for best post we’ve ever published.)

The most important thing a department can do for its graduate students in relation to non-academic careers: at the start of every semester, everyone (the chair, the faculty, the grad students) should sit down together so that everyone can hear the chair say “we know many of you graduate students will not get or don’t even want academic jobs, or will get academic jobs and then later decide to leave academia. Which is totally fine–we support you in your choices.” (My comment: in an old post [sorry, can’t find it now] I said in passing that it’s your life, you should live it as you want. No career path is intrinsically “better” than any other. So you are not failing or settling for second best if you decide at any point that academia isn’t for you. You aren’t wasting your degree if you don’t go on in academia, even if your non-academic career is “unrelated” to your degree. And you aren’t letting your adviser or anyone else down if you don’t go on in academia. I didn’t think anything of it–and was pleasantly surprised to get a really appreciative comment in response. So based on that admittedly-anecdotal experience, I second Anne on this. I make a point of saying all this to my own graduate students when they first start out. But I can see where it would be even better for the head honcho to say this in front of the entire department as well.)

The second most important thing a department can do for its graduate students in relation to non-academic careers: departments should track, and post publicly (e.g., in posters on the walls), the non-academic careers their alumni have gone on to. In response to my question as to how to start doing this most effectively (because this is something my own department has just started trying to do), Anne suggested first compiling a list of everyone who got a graduate degree from the department in the last 5-7 years. Then hire a work-study student to track those recent alumni down using the department’s contact records, Google and LinkedIn. Email them to ask if they’d be happy to be included in a database of what the department’s alumni have gone on to do. And obviously, you could also include in the database other alumni with whom someone in the department happens to still be in contact with.

Those first two things are important because graduate students looking to pursue non-academic careers have to stop thinking of “success” and “intellect” in narrow academic terms, and broaden their minds.

It’s critical to provide students with data on career paths. What do people with graduate degrees in this field go on to do? What do people who obtain graduate degrees from this department go on to do? The goal isn’t to steer students away from (or towards) academia, it’s just to make sure they have information to help them make informed career choices.

Sending students to the university career center at the end of their time as grad students is not helpful. Career centers are good at high throughput of lots of undergrads into entry-level jobs. Grad program chairs and career center staff should meet regularly and tell each other what they need, so both sides can learn to work together. You can’t just toss finishing grad students “over the fence” to the career center and expect a good outcome. (aside: my university actually has a couple of dedicated people in the career center who only work with grad students, and who themselves have graduate degrees.)

Never tell any grad student “you’re so good, you’ll succeed at getting an academic job”. You’re setting students up to adopt your definition of success (success=academic job), and so setting them up for a crisis of confidence and self-worth when they don’t succeed (as some of them won’t). You’re also keeping them from developing their own definition of success. (aside from me: I don’t think this advice implies that you should never try to give any graduate student an honest individualized assessment of their odds of obtaining an academic job, or that you should try to discourage every grad student from trying for an academic career. It’s about how you phrase individualized advice.)

In response to my question as to how students can train for two careers at once (academic and non-academic), Anne replied that there’s much that could be said, but the short answer is that it doesn’t take that long (5% additional time, maybe) to also prep for a non-academic career. You need to find ways to talk to people outside of academia, which is something you can practice. Start small–it can be something as small as introducing yourself a fellow grad student, or to a non-academic you meet at a party. Another tip: prepare a writing sample (~500-700 words) that explains your work to an intelligent non-academic adult audience; like an elevator pitch (aside: see here, here, and here for some old posts on elevator pitches). In many lines of business, you have to describe, analyze, narrate, and persuade. You’ve been trained to do that as an academic, but you’ve directed those skills very narrowly. We need to train students to have a broader view of “success” and the uses of “intellect”. The ideal reader to give you feedback on your writing sample is a recent graduate of your program who is now in a non-academic career.

A cv and a resume are different documents. No hiring manager is going to read a 7 page cv. Business values concision and precision, so you need to get away from the “list everything” mentality of a cv. Any university career center will offer workshops on resume writing.

Hiring managers will look at your LinkedIn profile, expecting it to cohere with the resume. They’ll also Google you.

Your resume initially will be read by software or an inexperienced junior recruiter. Your resume needs to describe how your skills will help the employer address its challenges, and that description needs to be understandable and compelling to the person reading it. Contrast a cv, which is read by an experienced person who doesn’t need help interpreting the latent information in the cv. This isn’t a matter of “dumbing down” your resume, though.

Anne’s website (linked to at the start of this post) has many useful resources and concrete tips. For instance, she has a blog post on how to translate from academic language to non-academic languange in the context of job applications. As someone with a graduate degree, you have a ton of skills and experience that employers really want–but you have to learn how to convey this in the language non-academic employers use.

There aren’t many academic jobs, relative to the number of people who want one—but the path to them is straight, narrow, and knowable. In a perverse way, that is comforting to many graduate students and makes them anxious about leaving academia. There are many more non-academic jobs than academic jobs, but there is no single, straight, narrow, knowable path to one. (My comments: This is me. I wasn’t conscious of it back when I was in grad school, but this is me. What attracted me to academia wasn’t just loving to do science and liking (or at least not much minding) the other aspects of being a prof. It was the fact that the path to being a prof was a well-defined series of steps. Which is a big reason why, had I not gotten an academic job (and I almost didn’t), I likely would’ve chosen a similarly straight, narrow career path: schoolteacher. And of course, the other attraction of academia for me was the job security of tenure at the end. Which was attractive to me not so much because I worried about losing my job, but because tenure would mean never having to find a job for which there is no straight narrow path. Another example of the perverse way in which an academic career path is very comforting to a certain sort of person.)

Don’t think of a PhD as a credential; it’s not. This is especially challenging for international students to wrap their heads around, because many come from countries for which a graduate degree is just a credential.

Recommended books for graduate students considering non-academic careers: Molly Weizenberg’s A Homemade Life. Partly autobiography, about why she left grad school and how she invented her own career (in her case, as a food blogger before food blogging was a thing, later opening a pizza restaurant). Very good for students who are thinking whether to stay in grad school. Elizabeth Samet’s Soldier’s Heart, by an English prof at West Point. West Point students know exactly what they’re doing when they graduate–a straight, knowable career path in many ways, and so like academia in that sense. What does it mean to teach English and philosophy in that context? Well, it means training future soldiers to deal with the variable, unknown, complicated, and ambiguous situations that they may suddenly encounter if they’re ever unlucky enough to be sent to war. Grad students who read this will learn about resilience and how not to be scared of the nonlinear and unknowable–such as the nonlinear, unknowable path to a non-academic career. The Checklist Manifesto: good for teaching you how to break complicated big problems (here,”find a non-academic job”) down to small, simple, manageable steps and make progress on them.

Starting on LinkedIn: add everyone you know from grad school. But also add in people you knew as a secondary student, people your parents know, etc. This is one small way to broaden your thinking and learn to value people who aren’t academics.

Learning how to network: Never Eat Alone is a good book. Also: watch how other people interact with one another, and model it. But pick appropriate models. Grad students tend to model their approaches to interacting and networking on senior academics, which is a mistake. Senior academics are spoken to differently than junior people, and already have extensive professional networks. Also: there are many “interaction styles” that work. Do what works for you. You don’t have to act like a used car salesman. And it gets easier with practice. Nobody is born knowing how to network, or how to get a non-academic job. (aside: old posts on why and how to network in the context of academic conferences.)

At my university, the graduate student association has a mentorship program that puts grad students in touch with someone in industry for 1 hour/month (usually phone call or skype) for 6 months. This sounds like a great idea to me.

Much of the above is specific to North America, or perhaps developed Western countries. Hiring practices in other countries may be very different. This is important to keep in mind for international graduate students who plan to return to their home countries after completing their programs.

14 thoughts on “Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook

  1. These are all great tips Jeremy. Thanks for posting them. I notice they mostly fall in two categories. 1) Normalizing non-academic careers for grad students which is certainly a good thing to do. and 2) Grad students making the transition/selling themselves in a business context, which is also good.

    I wonder if we’re not letting departments off easy though. For example, what should we be doing from a training/curriculum point of view? And what about placement (i.e. helping grad students make connections and finding jobs)?

  2. Grad school is mostly just a pyramid scheme where supervisors “train” graduate students (note: in many/most cases, not much actual “training” is usually involved), get them to publish articles that further the supervisor’s own career, and then send them out into a world where they are likely to remain underemployed because we’re living in a post-grad bubble. So not making the student feel bad that they aren’t going to find a career in academia is literally the least you can expect from a supervisor if they are a halfway decent person.

    A better solution would be to make sure every prospective grad student knows *before* they sign up what their job prospects actually are. (Hint: not good, especially given what’s likely to happen to American science funding over the next four years.)

  3. A few concrete tips based on the experience of a former PhD student of mine who entered grad school sure he wanted to go on in academia but who gradually changed his mind and is now a data scientist for a small business consulting firm:

    -He took a couple of classes on entrepreneurship from our business school during his time as a grad student. If memory serves, there was a tuition discount because he was already a student of the university, and he also got a scholarship to cover the tuition.

    -I think he attended at least one industry conference in the city, though I can’t recall the industry.

    -He drew on his parents’ professional network to arrange things like informational interviews. Which as an aside is not uncommon. For better or worse, the data I’ve seen indicate that a majority of people get their first job in the same company that employs a parent or relative, or at least in the same industry.

    • The other big thing I did was join the Management Consulting club (though I should have done this 2 years before graduation rather than 6 months). The club met once a week for a total of about 15 hours to discuss case-based interviews, which was very helpful as they are a very different beast from normal interviews.
      Some of the things I did are pretty specific to the industry I moved to but the general advice I would give is to find ways to get exposed to people in the industry as well as your “competition for jobs”. Being around business students taught me that (a) I could think about all the same stuff they did and (b) they have a different social etiquette (just ask for stuff! It is amazing how normal it is to just ask for completely self-interested things from near-strangers and have people give you their time and knowledge. Students are high-potential assets and people want to invest in them and build their network). Specifically, ask for lunches with people. Provided you can get yourself to their place of work, people are generally actively excited to sit down and talk about what they do and give advice. AND, you almost always get a free lunch (grad school motivations). I had an advantage through my Mom’s network but, if you are less shy than me, you really don’t need it other than for actually knowing who to try and talk to.

      • Thanks for this Stephen, this is very helpful. (Stephen’s the former student of mine I referred to in a previous comment, if anyone couldn’t tell.)

        Didn’t know you joined the Management Consulting club, or indeed that there was one!

      • And re: knowing who to try and talk to, my sense is that it’s difficult to go too badly wrong on this. These are informational interviews/lunches. I would think almost anyone you talk to who works in the industry you want to work in would be helpful to talk to. Yes?

      • Yes, definitely, you should talk to most anyone in the industry you can but it can be hard to identify people. I was advised to always end with the question, “can you suggest a few other people I would benefit from talking too?” A big part of informational interviews is learning about the breadth of opportunities, many of which you probably never considered.
        It is also important to talk to people at all levels. I found that lower and higher level people were the easiest to find and talk to (they tend to be the ones giving talks and informational sessions) but the middle people are the ones that decide who needs to be hired. One VP of a large company was really interested in hiring me but she couldn’t find any managers who were able and willing to hire someone without direct experience. Informally talking to people in similar hiring roles would have helped me clarify the immediately useful skills I could bring before these formal talks.

  4. One way to help students transition to non-academic careers is to put them in touch with relevant government or industry staff during their graduate program. This is probably easiest in applied ecology fields, but can advantage students by giving them a professional network outside of academia and help them understand the practicalities and challenges of working in government/industry. Many students like doing applied research and working closely with partners outside of academia to address tangible management questions, as they enjoy doing research that will be ‘used’ by someone. When they graduate, they will be able to use their partner from industry/government as a referee for job applications.

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