What Am I Qualified to Do With a Ph.D.?

This is one of the wrong questions that students often ask when they consider career plans, writes Christine Kelly.

December 14, 2015

I’ve recently met with three clients who all asked me similar questions: “What can I do with my Ph.D. in _____?” and “What am I qualified to do with a degree in _____?” Those discussions came on the heels of a meeting I had with faculty and staff members who work with graduate students about creating a career road map app for graduate students. The common theme in all these meetings was the desire to get from A to Z without having to recite all the letters in between.

Those of us who are career counselors for graduate students find that some students come to their first meeting with the goal of leaving with the ideal career match for them -- they want to skip to the end. They want us to tell them what careers they are qualified to do or what careers others with their degree have done so they can get on with the job search. While I’m happy they are considering their career plans, I find that they are asking the wrong questions and are often frustrated when I tell them they have to start at the beginning.

So, if you, like they, are a graduate student concerned about your career, here is a primer on how to figure out what you’re qualified to do.

If you ask a career consultant, “What am I qualified to do with my degree in____?” you’ll hear some version of, “I don’t know, what do you know how to do?” One problem with this question is the assumption that your degree gives you qualifications for certain jobs. The reality is that your degree and your qualifications are very different things. Your degree is a credential, but the activities you did and specific skills you developed before and during your degree program are what will make you qualified for a job. In other words, it’s not about the degree, it’s about the skills.

Thus, the first step in figuring out what you’re qualified to do is an assessment of your skills, interests and values. And you need to do this even if your career goal is academe. A difficulty with Ph.D. programs is the notion that you are being trained for a career as an academic. In the conversation with faculty and staff members whom I mentioned before, one of the faculty members said, “We do a good job of preparing students for academic careers but not for other career paths.” I had to disagree. In my own experience, and conversations with some recent faulty hires with whom I’ve worked, once you get a faculty job, you realize graduate school was inadequate preparation for the wide variety of activities you have to perform to be successful.

So even if you think you know what career path you want, you still need to do a thorough self-assessment. That is not an easy process and may take a while. First, you have to take the time to really discover what skills you have, your level of proficiency in those skills, which skills you want to use in your career, and where your skill deficiencies lie.

And you have to be realistic in your skills assessment. I find some Ph.D. candidates are too critical of their skills proficiency and others are not critical enough. When you do this homework assignment, be careful not to underestimate or overestimate your proficiency. Research the career(s) you want to enter and find out what skills are required so you can do a proper gap analysis and create a plan for gaining the necessary skills. Finally, don’t ignore the issue of skills you want to use in a job. You may have excellent bench skills but no desire to do bench work.

Evaluating your desire to use particular skills is the part of your self-assessment that concerns what most interests you. When you do your interest assessment, don’t just think of what interests you about your graduate studies. Think about what interests you in the broadest sense. Ask yourself what you would do if money were no object. What do you like to do in your free time? (If you have neglected free time activities during graduate school, shame on you. Go do something you really like to do that’s not related to scholarship.) What nonacademic topics do you read about?

You may also want to consider how your research topic aligns with the world outside academe. I know someone who earned her Ph.D. in religion and now works for an organization of which she was a member because its work aligned with her research interests. If you really love your research topic, it may be challenging for you to think about other interests, but it is a necessary step in the process.

As you consider your interests you also need to consider what is practical. You may love your subject area but that may not lead to a career. In fact, I cringe a little when I hear career advice suggesting that you should do what you love. That’s setting the bar extremely high and can lead to frustration and disappointment.

Career fulfillment comes in many shapes and sizes. People often think they love a particular career option until they do it and realize it wasn’t what they thought it was. I’ve worked with a few tenure-track professors and heard of many more who discovered that the reality of tenure-track life is less pleasant than they were expecting. And even if it is your dream job at 30, it may not be at 50.

As you move through life, your interests and values will change, so rather than trying to find the one job you will have forever, see your career as a series of interesting positions. Think about it as a meandering path rather than one long straight road. In academe, that path is linear, but outside the Ivory Tower, people change jobs and career paths much more frequently. When considering your first job outside academe, don’t ask yourself, “Can I do this forever?” Ask if you can do it for two or three years.

The final part of your initial self-assessment is to assess your career values. Some of the graduate students I meet are looking at nonacademic jobs because they discovered their values don’t align with a professorship. If you want the freedom to choose where you live, you dislike teaching, you want to work in a team structure or you want to earn a high salary, then academe is probably not the right environment for you. You’ll want to clarify your values before exploring careers so you can eliminate the ones that clash with those values. Ultimately, the better you know yourself, the better able you will be to identify career options that are a good fit for you.

Exploring your career options can be challenging, but fortunately there are people with experience guiding Ph.D. candidates through the thicket. So go seek help. But in your first career counseling meeting, don’t ask “What am I qualified to do?” Ask, “How do I figure out what I want to do?” And be prepared to do some homework.


Christine Kelly is director of career development at Claremont Graduate University.


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