It was early 2012, and I had become sure that I didn't want to go down the tenure-track career path. I'd been training to become a professor since I started my master's degree, and now I had no idea about how to apply my training to another field. I’d have to find some kind of job after I defended my Ph.D., but I didn’t know what an employer would be willing to pay me to do. I needed help getting from where I was (total panic and despair) to where I needed to be: in a post-Ph.D. life that at worst paid the bills and at best let me do meaningful work for good pay.
It didn't seem like that help existed in my immediate environment. My graduate program talked about nothing but academic careers. Everyone knew the career center only served undergrads and the graduate studies faculty were good for nothing but signing forms and creating rules.
So I went looking outside my university and found a wealth of resources for people like me who were interested in nonfaculty careers (although fewer than the endless number there are today, five year later): VersatilePhD, So What Are You Going to Do With That?, #altac Twitter and “quit lit,” to name a few. I went from feeling as if I were the only one in my situation to feeling like I had a large and generous community that understood what I was going through and could teach me how to get where I wanted to go.
But what was happening at my institution to support graduate-trained job seekers who were looking off the tenure track? I was clueless until my faculty of graduate studies hired me to research graduate professional development activities on the campus. The administrators there asked me to write a white paper that would kick off their Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Skills (GPPS) program.
It was only through that research that I discovered a huge variety of support for graduate students seeking to enhance their skills and explore a variety of careers. It included everything from a dedicated graduate career counselor to excellent workshops on social media, project management, clear-language communication and any other professional skill you can think of. When the white paper assignment turned into my first full-time position, I got to launch that GPPS program and make sure that every graduate student and postdoc at my university knew how to access it.
A Panoply of Possibilities
Graduate studies is a crucial period during which you need to be doing more than just taking comprehensive exams and writing your dissertation. You need to be developing professional skills that will help you on or off the tenure track, because graduate school doesn’t teach you how to budget your grants (or do business finance), supervise your lab staff (or become a hiring manager), or run an undergraduate department (or coordinate business operations). You don’t need to be the version of me from five years ago, the one who didn’t know how to move into another career or how to build the skills that would let her do it easily and successfully. You should be the me I became while working for my university, the one who used the skills development opportunities offered by the career center and a host of other units to help her get that first nonfaculty job.
What supports are available near you for graduate students and postdocs depends on what program you're in, if you're at a large research university or a smaller college, if you're in a field where taking a nonacademic job is an expected career path or one where the culture is still tenure track or bust. Here’s how to find and leverage the range of skill and career development opportunities that are likely on offer right where you are.
Figure out what you need. What skills will you need to succeed in your post-Ph.D. career? Answering that question is the first step in effectively taking advantage of skill-development opportunities on your campus. One way to do that is to identify what career you’re aiming for and the skills you’d need to succeed in it. (Informational interviews, figuring out where graduates of your program now work and self-assessment tools like those found in So What Are You Going to Do With That? and Strengthsfinder 2.0 are good places to start.)
Another approach is to work on developing the skills you are most likely to use now and then determine how they line up with career paths later. Conveniently, many colleges and universities organize the workshops, seminars and events that make up their GPPS programs within a skills framework that explicitly identifies the ones you should have to succeed in faculty and nonfaculty careers.
This advice applies to all career paths. If you’re interested in becoming a professor, make sure you talk to your faculty friends and mentors about the skills they find most essential in their jobs. They’re probably not just the ones that first come to mind.
Figure out where to get it. Find out where skill and career development programming for graduate students is advertised and offered on your campus. Depending on your institution, you might discover it:
- Embedded in the core curriculum of your graduate program (often in methods courses or something similar).
- Offered as an additional professional development workshop program by your graduate unit (perhaps as a graduation requirement).
- Advertised (and often offered) by your school or faculty of graduate studies or career center -- both frequently act as central coordination sites for universitywide GPPS programs offered by multiple units.
- Provided by different units across your campus that may include (and these all go by various names): the teaching and learning center, the career center, the academic skills center, the knowledge translation/mobilization office, the research services office, the student wellness center/counseling office, or the library.
Build it if you can’t find it. What if you want to develop a skill, but appropriate programs are not offered on your campus or are only offered to fit the needs of undergraduate students (which is very common)? You have other options. You should:
- Reach out to the person offering the undergraduate version and ask if they have or can offer something tailored to graduate students. People are often willing to do this if they realize there’s a need.
- Find the person or people on your campus who, like me, are responsible for overseeing and coordinating the work of other professional development units. See if they know who is (or isn’t, but would be good at) teaching what you’re seeking to learn.
- See what professional development support or funding is available through graduate studies or the career center. Many colleges have discretionary money specifically earmarked for professional development (or that could be used for it) that can fund course development or hire external facilitators if no one is offering what you’re looking for.
- Identify the people on your campus who know what you want to learn and ask them to teach it. Do you know of a professor who is aces at academic social media? Chances are she’ll be willing to run a workshop. Want to learn more about project management? Talk to the folks responsible for project management who work in administrative departments at your institution. (Again, people generally like to be helpful, especially people who work in any kind of student service. Don’t feel weird about asking.)
- Look at other colleges or organizations nearby. If you’re at a smaller college but not far from the nearest research university, it might be possible to snag a spot in some of their workshops. Just ask! If you’re affiliated with a research institute like the one where I work, know that it almost certainly offers research training and career development support for affiliated graduate students and postdocs.
Never again will you have access to so many free, high-quality opportunities to develop your skills and career potential, opportunities that would cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars as a professional. It’s up to you to take the best advantage of what your campus offers during the graduate school and postdoc years.