What to Tell Your Grad Students

Faculty members need to learn about non-academic careers and talk up those options, writes Christine Kelly.
April 13, 2011

In a recent column a professor talked about what he tells his graduate students. Mixed in with his good advice was an unfortunate comment that jumped out at me because it represents the attitude many faculty members have about careers outside the academy, and it's the main reason Ph.D.s have such a difficult time transitioning into non-academic careers when they don't land faculty positions. According to the author, "…if your dissertation topic doesn’t appeal to any job committees or employers, you could end up stocking the shelves at Barnes and Noble (not to disparage those who do that valuable work)." In that comment, the author disparages both Barnes and Noble employees and all the Ph.D.s who aren’t successful in the academic market. So I would like to suggest some other things faculty should tell their graduate students that would be tremendously helpful to those who have to, or decide to, seek non-academic employment.

First, tell them that even if they follow all your advice and build a strong C.V., the reality is there are not enough tenure-track jobs for all the Ph.D.s, so many candidates will not receive offers. Let them know that if they do not get a tenure-track job they are not failures. Too many Ph.D.s can't get past a feeling of failure when they don't land an academic job because their graduate program faculty reinforced this viewpoint. In fact, I've heard many graduate students tell me they hear faculty speak ill of those who land positions at anything other than R1 schools. So while you are doing graduate students a service by telling them how to prepare for the academic job market, do stress that not getting a tenure-track offer does not make them a failure.

Second, tell your students there are viable career alternatives where they can use their skills. Don’t suggest that their options are between a tenure-track job or a low-level dead-end job, regardless of the specific job title you pick to describe that (I’ve heard "barista" several times). Tell your students that while they prepare for their academic career, they should also explore their alternatives. While they are doing all the activities that may help them land a tenure-track job, they are also developing skills that will be useful in other professions.

And if you don’t know what those viable alternatives are, then either do some research or recommend the school’s career center. Look at VersatilePhd.com to see where some humanists have landed, or join LinkedIn groups such as Ph.D.s Outside Academia or Alternative Ph.D. Careers to see where STEM students land. Better yet, find out where your own Ph.D. students have gone. Some departments at my university post information about where their graduates land, but not for those who obtain non-academic positions. I can understand this may not be information you want to post on your department’s site, but at least collect that information to share when asked. If your department doesn’t know, contact your career center to see if they have data about where your students are. You need this information so when a graduate student approaches you to ask about alternatives, you can direct him or her to someone who made a successful transition.

Third, support your students' career exploration by allowing open and honest discussions about other career options. I meet graduate students from a variety of departments who are afraid to bring up the issue of non-academic careers in their department, either to faculty or to other students. It is often considered a taboo topic and a sign that you are not serious about your academic career. These students feel a need to hide the fact they are considering alternatives and often can’t participate in opportunities that would prepare them for a transition into a non-academic career, for fear their adviser will find out.

Show your support of options by inviting Ph.D.s in non-academic and non-faculty careers to speak to your students. I’ve invited several students I’ve worked with to come back to campus and talk about their non-academic careers and how they prepared for them. I'm also building a list of Ph.D.s in business and industry in my region so graduate students can see the wide variety of options open to them. I know there are a few departments on my campus that do this as well, and I applaud them for legitimizing non-academic career options. And I specifically mention non-faculty careers here to illustrate that you don't always have to leave the academy to find your career path. So far I've identified 16 people on my campus in staff positions (both student services and academic support), who have traditional, academic research-based Ph.D.s. If you look around your own campus you will find people like us, and we can talk about the non-faculty roles on a college campus.

Finally, tell your students they can find intellectually fulfilling work outside the academy. I’ve heard faculty tell students all the horrible things they’ll face outside the academy -- micromanagers, lack of freedom, lack of intellectual challenges, no job security, etc. Some students freely make a choice to seek non-academic employment because they don't want to be college professors. These students may be less influenced by this type of talk. But those who are making the transition due to a lack of available jobs may take this stereotype to heart, and it will make it hard for them to approach their search with an open mind. I have been able to dispel these myths when students ask me about them, but there are probably some who don’t ask because they implicitly trust what they hear from faculty.

The academic job market has been shrinking since the 1970s and it isn't likely to get better in the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean we should close down Ph.D. programs. What it does mean is that we need to envision a broader career path for Ph.D.s. Many of us who are in non-faculty positions are happy in our careers and use the skills we gained during our Ph.D. studies on a daily basis. Seek us out and suggest that your current graduate students talk to us about how we made the transition. Enlarging the range of respected career options for our Ph.D. students is an important change that can only strengthen doctoral programs, and it’s a step that faculty can help initiate.


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


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