The Entrepreneurial Grad Student

Doctoral students need to think about branding, opportunities and adaptability, writes Christine Kelly.

May 12, 2010

The other day a colleague and I were discussing how to best prepare graduate students for life after graduate school. On many occasions we’ve discussed the job market graduate students face and how many are unprepared. In our discussions we keep coming back to a common theme: today’s graduate students need to be entrepreneurial in their approach to their studies.

In my work with Ph.D. candidates I’ve found they can be grouped into two broad categories. Category I includes those who are focused, determined and have a clear vision of their career path. Category II holds those who are lost, confused and rudderless. Both groups are comprised of students seeking academic and non-academic positions, so the career path is not the mitigating factor. Some have very involved advisers and others have hands-off advisers, so effective mentoring is not the mitigating factor. So what accounts for the difference? I believe it has to do with the students’ ownership of their career path.

The students I meet in Category II tend to have taken a more passive role in preparing for the careers they wanted, following the path of least resistance, waiting for things to happen, relying heavily on their advisers to provide them with all the answers and thinking their degrees would be enough. Many of them have known for a few years that they were unprepared for what comes next, but they waited and hoped things would work out in the end. The students I meet in Category I are what we might call the entrepreneurial graduate students. They created a plan for success, followed the plan while it worked, made modifications when necessary and had multiple mentors to help them create their career plan. They know the key to a smooth transition from academic life to a professional life is having plans — Plans A, B and C. If you’re considering a Ph.D. program, or are currently in one, you definitely want to be an entrepreneurial graduate student. There are three principles of entrepreneurship that graduate students should adopt: 1) brand yourself, 2) seek opportunity, and 3) adapt.

Brand Yourself

To be successful both inside and outside academe you need to build your brand, defining yourself and your unique qualities in all you do and say, so when someone hears your name they know what you are about. If you think about it, a Ph.D. program really is about branding yourself. You specialize in a particular subfield and search for a topic within that area where you can shine. At the completion of your program you should be a content expert in your area and, if you branded yourself well, everyone in your broader field will know who you are and what you study. An effective branding campaign begins with knowing who you are and what you do exceptionally well. Unfortunately this can be a challenge for many graduate students. Many of the students I see who want to seek nonacademic employment lack a clear sense of their strengths. I constantly hear Ph.D. candidates tell me they have no skills. I understand this because I felt the same way the first time I began my search for a nonacademic career. If you are in this situation, try taking Gallup’s Strengths Finder. It’s an online assessment that will help you identify your top five strengths. The book Career Distinction by Arruda and Dixon comes with an online workbook of exercises designed to help you build your brand.

Once you’ve developed your brand, look for opportunities to share it with a wider audience. Within the academic community you can accomplish this by attending conferences, presenting your work and publishing. To connect with a nonacademic audience you can develop a blog, write nonacademic articles for publications in your field of interest, or give presentations to groups that might be interested in your area of expertise. Consider including elements of your brand in your communication. Create several elevator-speech versions of your brand you can use when you meet people face to face; consider using elements of it in your e-mail signature, and seek other ways to promote your brand.

A successful brand should focus attention on your unique characteristics rather than pigeonholing you into a narrow career track. And if you want to keep your options open to both academic and nonacademic careers, you may need to target your brand to each audience. For example, your academic brand might closely mirror your dissertation topic and your nonacademic brand might not. Like the Ph.D. student who became an expert on the history of colonial education in West Africa for his faculty brand and an expert in improving teacher’s classroom performance for his non-faculty brand -- who is now an instructional development specialist at a research university. Or the Ph.D. in microbiology with academic expertise in radiation research who is developing her industry brand as an expert in regulatory affairs. For many fields it’s unlikely you’ll find a nonacademic position that allows you to research the same topic as your dissertation, so think more globally about the contribution you want to make and start exploring opportunities in that area.

Seek Opportunity

The more successful students I’ve worked with are those who have taken advantage of opportunities presented to them and have sought out additional opportunities on their own. Those who are successful in their academic searches tend to have experiences beyond the typical TA and RA positions. Many college campuses have teaching centers that offer opportunities for pedagogical development to help you be more competitive for teaching-focused colleges. These experiences may also give you more qualifying experiences for positions within a teaching center at a university. And if you enjoy teaching, try developing specialized workshops as that will give you some credibility and possible opportunities to teach other faculty or business leaders. For example, some of the hot topics in both higher education and business are e-learning, learning organizations, and leadership development. Look for opportunities to present on those topics to graduate students in your institution’s education department, or to faculty at a local public school. Or if you’re a scientist, consider creating a workshop series about how to communicate scientific principles to a lay audience. Find a community group to speak to or try proposing a short course on the topic at a professional conference.

Graduate degree holders who are more successful in their nonacademic pursuits held internships and or volunteered so their work history included more than just academic work. One student I recently met was involved with campus outreach programs and community and civic engagement. These experiences helped to build her credibility for academic jobs on campuses with strong service learning programs, and for non-faculty positions within centers for community engagement and service learning on university campuses. And her volunteer work and internships were with nonprofits, giving her the credentials to attain a good position in nonprofit and governmental sectors.

If you want options in business or industry you must get experience. It’s not uncommon for Ph.D.s looking for that first industry job to discover they're considered overeducated yet underqualified. You might even be able to get industry experience that advances your academic career. At my university, as at many, there are partnerships between faculty and industry, so when choosing your advisor you might want to seek out a person who has broad connections and opportunities for you to branch out beyond academe. And if your advieor doesn’t have those connections, find another faculty mentor who does. Look around your campus to see which businesses have ties to your university and approach them about opportunities. For example, I worked with a student who got her Ph.D. in French literature and philosophy and is now the product and development manager for a video game company because she was open to applying for a position the company advertised on our campus for someone to translate video games from English into French. Or the social ecology Ph.D. with a specialty in environmental analysis and design who actively pursed nonprofit and governmental agencies conducting climate change research until she successfully landed a position with the National Research Council as an associate program officer/study director.


The job market will continue to change. The key to success is to remain open to the possibilities that are out there. For example, I’ve heard stories that physics and mathematics Ph.D.s were highly sought after by financial companies to do modeling, but that was pre-recession. And last year the academic market was hot for Ph.D.s who studied Chinese and African history, and there were several stories suggesting that was a growth area. But since it takes five to seven years to earn a Ph.D., what was hot when you entered your program might not be in demand when you’re on the market, which is one of the reasons your brand shouldn’t be overly focused on a single subject specialization (of course, the degree of specialization that’s “too” focused will depend on your discipline.)

A good way to increase your adaptability is to analyze your current transferable skills and explore where you need skill development. This exercise is important for both academic and nonacademic job seekers. Develop a wide range of skills while you’re still in a graduate program so you’ll have more options when you’re on the market.

If you’re entering academe and aren’t well-versed in educational technology and e-learning principles, you need to develop skills in those areas. More universities are offering online courses and need people who know how to effectively teach in that format.

If you’re interested in nonacademic careers, you need to identify jobs of interest and discover the skills required for those positions. You also need to keep up with current innovations and trends in your desired field. You can use online sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics to track industry trends for nonacademic careers. And the Occupational Information Network is a good resource for exploring and researching different occupations. There are also professional organizations for nearly every career, and their publications/newletters are good sources for tracking trends and seeking open positions.

Traditionally Ph.D. candidates have been encouraged to trust that their advisers will guide them through their program, prepare them well for their career path and “place” them in a tenure track position at a good university. But many graduate students have discovered too late that this is more myth than reality. Career success comes from taking ownership of your career path, and you never want to leave something that important in someone else’s hands.


Christine Kelly is a graduate career consultant at the University of California at Irvine.


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