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We often hear from faculty members who want to better advise their students, both undergraduate and graduate, about career options. If that's you, we have a challenge for you.

In 2019, once a month, meet with someone on the campus who works in a nonfaculty role. Start by taking the office administrator of your own department out to lunch or coffee. Then, broaden your reach to other offices. Tweet at us and let us know how it's going.

In our own work, we regularly interview Ph.D.s who work beyond the professoriate. We've learned so much about jobs and careers, and those conversations rarely fail to energize us -- giving us new ideas for our own work and making us better advisers and mentors of our community members. Faculty members can do the same.

The idea with this challenge is for you to research and learn about diverse career options by interviewing people in the academic and broader higher education community. And you don't even have to leave campus to do it.

Your undergraduate students will go on to work in a wide range of career fields, related and unrelated to what they learned from you and your colleagues. The same is true of master's and doctoral student graduates, as well as students who leave your programs without earning degrees.

Most of the Ph.D.s whom we interview work in jobs that don’t require a doctorate. (There aren't many different kinds of jobs only open to doctoral-degree holders.) They work as directors, managers, coordinators, researchers, teachers and writers of all kinds, across all sectors. Our interviewees tell us that they have rewarding and interesting jobs.

Here is a list of offices commonly found on college and university campuses. If you're interested in learning more about career pathways of Ph.D.s specifically, you can choose to only interview people with this credential. But we encourage faculty members to talk with people with all different kinds of educational backgrounds. We've listed some of the professionals you might approach in these offices, in addition to managers and directors:

  • Admissions and student recruitment (area representatives, recruitment coordinators, transfer specialists);
  • Advancement and alumni services (fund-raisers and donor relations experts, alumni outreach professionals, the alumni magazine editor);
  • Athletics (events coordinators, marketing managers, compliance officers);
  • Campus bookstore (buyers);
  • Conference and event services, or housing and hospitality (events coordinators);
  • Continuing, extension or corporate/executive education (program advisers);
  • Communications, media/public affairs or marketing (writers, digital content creators, the publications team);
  • Community and government relations, the international affairs office (policy advisers, local government advisers, special projects officers);
  • Facilities and property management or the real estate office (real estate officers and analysts, portfolio managers, project managers);
  • Finance and business operations, including the student financial aid office (advisers, analysts, accountants);
  • Human resources, including employment equity (diversity and inclusion experts, employee relations specialists, recruiters, talent developers, ombudspersons);
  • Information and technology services (instructional designers or online learning specialists);
  • Institutional research and planning (researchers, analysts, evaluation and assessment professionals);
  • Library and archives, the campus museum or art gallery (research librarians, archivists, curators);
  • Research services, including the ethics office (grant writers/facilitators/administrators, knowledge mobilization experts and tech transfer or commercialization officers);
  • Student services, including a wide range of services (career educators, academic advisers, counselors);
  • Teaching and learning center (learning specialists, faculty developers); and
  • The university press (acquisitions and other kinds of editors).

At the end of the year, consider interviewing the manager or owner of your favorite coffee shop or lunch spot on campus. You’ve spent a lot of time in their space, after all. Why not learn a bit about their business operations, too?

You can focus on people who work at midsenior or senior levels if you prefer. They can reflect on years of previous work experience and knowledge and can talk about what skills, attributes and experience it takes to succeed in their current field. They have hired and fired, and can therefore speak to what hiring mangers look for in job candidates.

To set up this coffee conversation or informational interview, you should write an email that is short and to the point. Why are you reaching out to them specifically? And what are you hoping to learn? It can be as simple as, “Many students come to me looking for career advice, and I'd like to be able to provide them with concrete suggestions. Would you be willing to meet with me for 30 minutes to talk about what it's like working as X in Y department?”

In just 30 minutes, you can learn so much about what it takes to succeed in professional careers. You'll discover that some people share your interests and motivations but have found avenues to express those in careers very different from your own. You'll meet other people who have jobs that sound terrible to you but that they truly love.

Some questions you can ask include:

  • What is your educational background?
  • How did you get this job?
  • What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
  • What other kinds of jobs did you have before you got this one?
  • What energizes you about the work you do?
  • What advice do you have for graduates interested in this field?
  • What has surprised you about your career?
  • What is next for you, careerwise?
  • Optional: I'm interested in learning more about X; who else should I talk to?

Additional questions to ask graduate students whom you are interviewing, if you're a Ph.D. adviser or mentor:

  • How does this job relate to your graduate education?
  • What did you have to learn in a hurry to be successful in this role?
  • What advice do you have for advisers and mentors?

In the future, when a student -- whether undergraduate or graduate -- comes into your office and asks for career advice, you'll have a deeper understanding of different kinds of professional careers, certainly within higher education. You can ask your student similar questions: “What energizes you about your studies? What drains you?” Help them think beyond subject matter: “Yes, the 18th century (or protein synthesis) is awesome, but what specifically do you find interesting about it? What specifically about your educational experience do you really love?”

Based on your student's answers, you can suggest they go talk to Mark in HR, who runs diversity training for new employees. Or talk with Meredith, the person who heads the marketing department for the university press, to learn how she uses her English degree to inform the world about new scholarship. Suggest that your student use your name when they request an informational interview. They are more likely to get a positive response that way.

Informational interviews are a key part of job-search success for professional careers. By doing such interviews yourself, you can share with your students how enriching those conversations are, and what they can learn by asking smart questions to the people around them. Your career center probably has a handout you can give students on how to do informational interviews.

By building up your knowledge of people, roles and careers, you'll be able to provide strong mentorship to students when they need it the most. By building partnerships between your department and other offices on the campus, you may even find internships and part-time opportunities for your students.

Really, we can't find a downside to this challenge. You can build community, learn more about the people who are on your campus with you every day -- about what they do, what skills they use to in their jobs -- and create opportunities for your students to explore career options.

Faculty members are not responsible for finding students jobs or careers. But as mentors, they can provide guidance, encouragement and advice. It is so important to students, especially graduate students, to feel encouraged by their professors to explore career options and to hear from advisers that fulfillment and success can be found beyond the professoriate.

The only risk is that you may find a job you like better than the one you currently have!

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