Introducing Carpe Careers

Experts who help graduate students prepare for a range of careers explain their new column.

September 22, 2014

To introduce this new column, the authors asked Inside Higher Ed to pose some questions for them to answer to explain where Carpe Careers will be headed.

Q: Who writes this column?

A: The authors for Carpe Careers are members of the Graduate Career Consortium (GCC). The mission of the GCC is to help members provide career and professional development for doctoral students and postdoctoral scholars at GCC member institutions. The GCC provides national leadership and serves as a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development.

Q: Publicity abounds about career centers for undergraduates, or for professional schools like business and law. Where do graduate career centers fit in? How many are there? How do they compare to other career centers?

A: There is no one model for what a graduate career center looks like. Whether housed in a central career office, a graduate school or a stand-alone unit, the distinguishing characteristic of a graduate or postdoctoral career center is a deep appreciation for graduate education and commitment to helping people translate their experience to careers in academia, industry, government and nonprofits.

Thirty years ago, only a handful of campuses had staff dedicated to working with this population. Now, the Graduate Career Consortium includes members from over 110 institutions, demonstrating the increasing commitment that universities are making to the career development needs of graduate students.

Graduate and postdoctoral career centers help students improve their application materials, prepare for interviews and connect employers and students — similar to career centers for other populations. However, staff at graduate career centers have experience with careers and the job search for graduate students with specialized skills. For instance, when working with graduate students it’s important to know how to help them to reframe their specialized skills for a non-academic audience, such as when someone with a Ph.D. in physics applies for a management consulting position. They may also need help presenting themselves effectively for academic positions at teaching-focused universities. The significant advantage to having counselors dedicated to working with these populations is that we understand that applying to work in academe is not like applying to work in industry, nonprofits or government positions. The annual meetings of the GCC have always been a rich place for sharing expertise and learning from others about this specialized population.

Q: How do GCC members view the split in their work between those seeking academic and non-academic careers?

A: We all have different approaches to this, depending on the setting, the field and the student. We all help each individual student create a job search strategy for their needs and interests. Some students focus on academic positions and some focus more narrowly, for instance only on positions at particular types of institutions. Other students choose to apply for jobs in multiple areas, for instance assistant professorships and research analysts. In some fields, the majority of doctoral students will seek positions in industry. Some people choose to move farther away from their academic training, and this process can include significant career exploration.

Our goal is to help people understand their options and help them become competitive applicants for their desired field. We’re agnostic on the best jobs – that’s a choice for the students to make.

For all fields, the hope is that there remains a fertile pipeline within which new scholarship is both discovered and advanced. Traditionally, this has been accomplished through the academy in many fields. However, with fewer funded research opportunities available and the employment landscape outside of the academy opening up, many graduate students are seeking opportunities outside the professoriate where they can continue advancing their research. These opportunities demonstrate that career options are broader than the often referenced academic/non-academic binary.

As we advise students, we are sensitive to the types of support they are receiving from their advisers and other mentors. While some faculty are supportive of their graduate students seeking a wide variety of career options, others have a very specific idea of what is a “good” job and what is not. We help students consider their options and develop a strategy for finding support. In some cases, students discover that their advisers are more supportive of their career paths than they had expected.

In helping students prepare for the faculty job search, we do not consider ourselves substitutes for the faculty and disciplinary expertise. Many of us have Ph.D.s or had faculty careers and all of us have effectively prepared graduate students to succeed in the academic job search at institutions of all types. When we meet with faculty to discuss how we can support their efforts to help graduate students get academic jobs, it’s important that we demonstrate how we are working as a team towards the same goal: helping the student maximum their chances on the job market. Career advisers can advise on clarity, emphasis, tone and self-presentation as well as provide an outsider’s perspective on their documents.

Q: Most disciplines are reporting tough academic job markets. How bad does it seem on the ground?

A: The reality is that there are not enough tenure track academic jobs for everyone who wants one. Also, many people entering the job market focus on research universities, in part because of their familiarity with that environment. We encourage students to learn about careers at colleges and universities with different missions since 90 percent of the professoriate are outside of research universities.

When we meet with students considering academic employment part of the discussion does center on their strategies and alternatives. The reality is that some students will get a tenure-track position their first time on the market and others may be successful only after two or three attempts. All of us see our role as supporting the student in their pursuit of an academic career, but also helping them put reasonable parameters around their search (how many times do you want to be on the market or how long do you want to be part time before pursuing other options).

Q: What do you see as the major concerns from new Ph.D.s (or those about to be Ph.D.s) about their careers?

A: Number one is probably, “How can I get a job?” Not only is there negative news coming from the academic market, but there is negative news coming from industry about too many Ph.D.s and too few jobs. Some doctoral students have had limited experience with job searches and need to learn about the process and expectations. We also get a lot of questions about what career options are available. There’s no universal answer, but we help students research career options and identify skills that translate into these settings. Learning to describe skills and experiences effectively increases the competitiveness of a candidate.

Q: How do you see the split of responsibility for new Ph.D.s between the graduate career center and the department? What should departments be doing?

A: Ideally providing career and professional development for graduate students is a coordinated effort between all interested parties -- faculty, academic departments, career services, graduate schools, teaching centers and even the few graduate resource centers that exist. Each have valuable perspectives to add, and they can complement each other well to provide a wide range of experiences and services to help graduate students. There are some universities that have this integrated model in place.

One thing we encourage all academic departments to do is open the dialogue with their students about career planning and support all possible career plans. There is still too much secrecy about pursuing non-faculty careers. Students don’t know who they can talk to and some fear they will lose support and funding if they reveal they are considering careers outside higher education. Students should be encouraged to explore all career options without fear of reprisal.

Additionally, departments should refer students to other campus or community resources to help when a department lacks expertise. For example, a department in which no faculty has experience in a career outside higher education may be at a loss to help students prepare. Career services can step in and provide targeted and tailored programs and advising.

Departments who refer or partner with career services send a strong message of support to both their students and faculty. Students feel more supported and have clear “permission” to work with the experts in the career center. We’ve all had students who were concerned that their adviser would learn they met with us, and look forward to a swift change to this culture. 

Finally, departments can also encourage students to attend events that are broader in focus since sometimes it’s beneficial to connect with others outside your field who are going through the same career exploration process.

Q: What are some of the issues you hope to address through this column?

A: We will provide career and professional development information that is useful to both faculty and graduate students. We want to create a dialogue and bring issues surrounding career development out into the open. Our topics will cover both academic and non-academic issues since we all help students prepare for careers in all areas. We may also discuss issues related to being a graduate student. Some students enter Ph.D. programs unfamiliar with the ambiguity inherent in the process and they often feel like they are the only one experiencing confusion and frustration with the lack of clarity.

We hope to normalize the experiences graduate students have so they can feel supported. We also want to maintain a positive tone. Students often come to us dejected after reading blogs, articles and wikis that have a tendency to highlight the negative over the positive. And finally, we may respond to other issues that arise that overlap with our areas of expertise.


The members of the Executive Board of the GCC are: Victoria Blodgett of the University of Connecticut; Christine Kelly of the University of California at Irvine; Alexis Thompson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Amy Pszczolkowski of Princeton University; and Mike Matrone of Scripps Research Institute, Florida.

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