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I’ve always been someone who likes to be in charge. I was the bossy kid in ballet class who would point out if your pointe was off. (Wasn’t I a treat?) I stayed in Girl Guides forever so that I could become a leader, and I always ran for student government. In my Ph.D., I led our English department graduate student association, started up a scholarship application review program for people in my program and then, in a fit of wild dissertation procrastination, launched a peer-reviewed journal. (Any wonder my annual reports from my committee often said, “While Melissa is very involved and great at many things, we wish she’d focus a little more on her writing”?)

My version of getting involved is a little extreme, but it paid off when it came time to figure out what I wanted to do post-Ph.D. My first job was a hybrid of graduate professional development and research funding administration, and it turns out my student government, peer-review and scholarship-workshop leadership was crucial to me getting that job. It proved that I knew how to organize people and committees (a huge part of running scholarship and career development programs), I understood the graduate funding landscape, I knew how to write and edit, and I had a proven ability to effectively interact with all kinds of people across the organization.

When I left that job and moved to a hospital-based research institute where I do the same kind of work, I inherited a career development program, one focused on nonprofessorial jobs, that I love. What I love best about it is that it is largely student and postdoc guided and run, and it is a low-stakes but very effective way for my students and fellows to get involved. (To be clear, I love the program because of the opportunities it gives my students and fellows, not just because it means I’m not running the program solo. Although that is nice!)

I provide expertise and direction about what topics and programs the committee should focus on if they want to best meet the needs of folks at our institute who are interested in nonprofessorial careers, but they take that guidance and run with it. They book speakers, host workshops, put together alumni networking events, manage budgets, design communications campaigns -- you name it. The committee is big, so the workload is minimal for any one person (a much better choice than my admittedly excessive ones), but everyone is involved in decision making, event administration and the like.

And guess what? The people who serve on the career development committee are the ones, among my students and fellows, who seem to have the easiest time on the nonprofessorial job market.

There’s the Ph.D. student I’ll call Michael, who left for his dream job at a biotech company in Vancouver and hooked us up with his firm’s recruiter for a recent “ask a hiring manager” seminar.

There’s the Ph.D. student I’ll call Daniela, who parlayed her research and her work on the committee into a super-sweet job managing the research funding programs for the foundation that specializes in supporting her Ph.D. research area.

There’s the postdoc I’ll call Kavita, who is managing a huge lab across the street and starting up a career development program for her students and fellows.

There’s the postdoc I’ll call Lauren, who started out as a medical editor but parlayed her research background into a job helping organizations harness cutting-edge lab technology to solve health problems. And there are so many more.

For all of them, serving on the career committee didn’t just give them the exposure to career development information and networking opportunities that kick-started their post-Ph.D. careers. It also provided evidence of practical, essential skills -- managing people, money, budgets, time, events, caterers -- that made a difference when it came time to start looking for jobs. And that difference wasn’t only in how they looked as candidates to hiring managers -- it was in their confidence that they had what hiring managers wanted, beyond the huge and valuable skill set they’d acquired through their Ph.D. work.

So if you’re looking to ease your transition into the world of work post-Ph.D., get involved now. Need ideas of how? I’ve got lots:

  • Join your grad student association, postdoctoral advisory committee, whatever form of local governance exists for people in your grad program/school.
  • Volunteer for faculty committees in your department.
  • Join (or create!) a journal editorial board.
  • Help organize a conference.
  • Join a committee like our career development one.
  • Write for or edit your student newspaper.
  • Start a writing group or peer scholarship application review workshop.
  • Coordinate a running group.

Get involved! Just learn from my experience and don’t get so involved your committee wants to stage an intervention.

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