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.