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Facing radically unstable futures, graduate students are an especially vulnerable population within the neoliberal academy. A diminished tenure-track job market is one reason that graduate students should think and behave more like entrepreneurs and less like apprentices.

In many corners of academe, this shift is already in effect. More and more Ph.D. students are finding ways to carve out varied and rewarding career paths for themselves. “Redefining the Humanist Entrepreneur,” a “Connected Academics” panel at this year’s Modern Language Association convention, featured an eclectic group of Ph.D.s who’ve gone on to fascinating careers.

For example, Bradford Taylor discussed his experience founding a wine shop and noted that he’s found ways to put his doctoral research (which focuses on aesthetics and food from Hume to Adorno) into practice. He does this through a newsletter as well as in the day-to-day rhythms of the shop. Taylor’s career path is but one example of just how far we’ve come from the days of academic departments “placing” students.

While some MLA attendees may have shuddered to see yet another term from the business world on the convention’s program, I think “entrepreneur” is a useful way for graduate students to think about themselves. For one thing, they already have a lot of qualities that we associate with entrepreneurs. Richard Cherwitz, a professor in the rhetoric department at the University of Texas at Austin, describes intellectual entrepreneurs as those who “take risks and seize opportunities, discover and create knowledge, innovate, collaborate, and solve problems in any number of social realms.”

Graduate students need to apply to their career preparation the same entrepreneurial spirit they apply to their academic research. By thinking more like an entrepreneur (or a professional, CEO or revolutionary) and less like an apprentice, graduate students can better prepare themselves for a range of fulfilling and meaningful careers. Here are some steps you can take to do that:

Begin by evaluating your relationship with your graduate adviser. One of the most radical shifts in graduate education needs to take place at the level of the mentor-mentee relationship. Graduate students are still, by and large, treated like apprentices, working with advisers supposedly able to usher them into prescribed, defined careers. As the tenure-track job market dissolves, such a model becomes increasingly untenable. You should break free of the apprentice mind-set by moving past the outmoded single-adviser model.

Even if you have the best of advisers, she can’t help as much when it comes to alt-ac or compatible careers. And chances are she can’t place you in an academic career. Try as they might, graduate mentors can’t get up to speed quickly enough to train you for careers other than the ones for which they themselves were trained.

For the most part, graduate students have to find -- or create -- careers for themselves. Now that the majority of graduate students are headed for jobs that are nothing like those held by their adviser, it’s clear that even the most well-intentioned individual can’t give you the variety of career advice you’ll need. So you need to run your career search with the help of multiple advisers -- an informal board of directors, if you will.

Make sure such a board has a strong contingent from beyond your academic institution. Seek out career-service counselors, administrators, career coaches, corporate types and graduates who’ve gone on to alt-ac jobs. Do your best to develop multiple mentors for yourself, and keep in touch with them as best you can.

If you’re a graduate adviser, you must learn to cede authority to a plurality of advisers. Better yet, learn how to advise and mentor as a part of a team that includes members from various corners of the university, as well as those from beyond it.

Reject any discourse that figures your career using static metaphors. When trying to picture your career, you should see the Northern Lights -- not placement in a track. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not academe or bust. The idea of careers inside, outside or even beyond higher education may not make sense when you’re in the middle of your career.

At the “Connected Academics” panel at the MLA, Eric Wertheimer, associate vice provost of graduate education and professor of English at Arizona State University, noted that universities of the future will not police their boundaries “quite as piously as we do now.” So even if you do decide on a career beyond academe, don’t burn any bridges, and don’t assume your graduate training has no bearing on the work you’ll do beyond the professoriate.

Be aware of career choices made by osmosis. If you only hang with one group, you’re likely to absorb the norms of that group. So do a quick diagnosis: Whom do you associate with on a regular basis? Are they a diverse bunch with varying career goals? Do you pick the brains of those farther down the career track? Are you making assumptions about the kinds of careers you would enjoy? Have you done a self-assessment like the Clifton StrengthsFinder?

Learn to engage with people outside your field and the university setting. Compared with any other degree-holding group, Ph.D.s have the lowest rates of unemployment. But they also make up such a small percentage of the workforce that employers -- with exceptions that include scientific industries and consulting agencies -- may never encounter a Ph.D. as a prospective hire. If you are going to strike out in new directions, you’ll need to get used to interacting with people who may never have thought of hiring or collaborating with a Ph.D.

You can begin to familiarize yourself with organizations and people with whom you might like to work by regularly setting up informational interviews. Depending on your schedule, you might aim for one a month. As you establish contacts outside of academe, reach out and make small “touches” with potential partners/employers throughout your time in graduate school.

Don’t only shift your attitude -- act like an entrepreneur. Allow for more career possibilities by adjusting your habits, expanding your networks and diversifying what you make.

Look up key characteristics of an entrepreneur and then cultivate a checklist of ideas that make sense for you and your discipline. Have a big-picture list, with long-term goals like:

  • Get comfortable with pitching ideas, especially outside of academe.
  • Imagine and implement a crowdsourced project.
  • Get paid to write and think in public.
  • Cultivate a donor for a project you care about.
  • Actively seek out leadership opportunities.

Once you have these larger goals down on paper, you can then look into acquiring or honing the skills that will allow you to accomplish them. Map out a schedule of activities to do each week, each month, each year. Little steps can set you up for a variety of careers after (and perhaps during) graduate school.

Adding any activities to the already overloaded schedules of graduate students may seem cruel. But you needn’t do it all at once. And though it seems counterintuitive, when you spend a little time away from the specialized training that you’re getting in your grad program, you just might help yourself stand out in the tenure-track job market. One thing is for sure: the confidence you get by succeeding in multiple arenas outside higher education will help you fend off the deepest insecurities brought on by impostor syndrome and give you a sense of the many possibilities beyond academe.

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