It’s Not a Side Gig, It’s Job Experience

In a job search, don't make work experiences outside your home department during graduate school sound less important than they are, warns Laura N. Schram.

February 24, 2020

The Council of Graduate Schools' 2017 report on lessons learned from the next-generation humanities Ph.D. consortium contains an excellent section on new inclusive language for talking about careers for Ph.D.s. Such shifts in language are important as we seek to change the culture around Ph.D. career diversity and affirm the many careers that Ph.D.s choose to pursue after their degree completion.

For example, the report encourages us to say “job markets” rather than “the job market,” “pathways beyond the professoriate” rather than “alternative careers” and so on. In the spirit of expanding this important conversation about changing the discourse on career diversity, I’d like to make a case that you refer to any job experience you gain outside your department as something other than a “side gig.”

Let me explain my concern about this particular phrase. In my role, I regularly facilitate career panels and convenings related to career diversity for doctoral students. After more than five years in my role, I’ve hosted hundreds of Ph.D. professionals working in diverse careers -- industry, government, nonprofit, higher education and more -- for conversations about career trajectories and career advice for doctoral students. In those conversations, a clear pattern emerges from the many professionals who come back to talk with our graduate students. I estimate that over 90 percent of those folks refer to a part-time position outside their department that they had during graduate school that later became pivotal in their trajectory to their first post-Ph.D. position.

My own story illustrates this trend well. I went to graduate school desiring a faculty position at a teaching-focused institution like my own undergraduate institution. My interests in pedagogy were fed most deeply outside my home department at my campus teaching and learning center. Being a teaching and learning center geek, I applied to and secured a part-time paid position at the center. Through that part-time position, I served as an instructional consultant to other graduate students, facilitated workshops related to teaching and attended and co-presented at the national conference for educational development. I connected with an amazing mentor who led the graduate student instructional consultant group, introduced me to key people in her own network and advocated for me to get connected to strategic projects at the teaching center.

All that resulted in deep relationships, both locally and nationally, with educational developers and a shift in my career interests. When I shared with my university’s teaching center director that I was interested in educational development careers, she knew the value I would bring and advocated for funds to hire me as a postdoctoral fellow. Within less than a year of starting the postdoctoral fellow position, a full-time position opened up, which I landed. This job outcome was easily traced back to my part-time job experience at the teaching and learning center during my graduate career.

Validating the Full Spectrum of Professional Experiences

My story is like hundreds of others I have heard from Ph.D. professionals who present to our students. They cite the jobs they held -- paid and unpaid -- in libraries, museums, public radio stations, language resource centers, service learning centers, archives, community foundations, graduate employee unions, career centers, multicultural organizations, publishing houses and many more organizations on and off the campus as helping to land them their first positions after the Ph.D. Those professionals have reported that they took on such jobs for a range of reasons, including financial necessity, intellectual interests, value commitments, desire to engage in their communities and/or the need for social connections outside the department. Regardless of the motivations behind why doctoral students pursued “side gigs,” those job experiences proved to be crucial for helping many folks to see how their scholarly skills translated to new settings, to develop new skills and to expand their professional networks.

And this is not just about jobs beyond the professoriate. As is so often the case, skills and experiences that help Ph.D.s succeed outside academe are also vital for faculty careers. For example, other graduate students who worked at the teaching and learning center alongside me reported how valuable this experience was in marketing themselves for faculty roles at teaching-focused institutions. Liberal arts colleges and community colleges look for evidence of teaching commitment when making a hiring decision, and a part-time position at one’s campus teaching and learning center is a clear demonstration of a scholar’s deep commitment to pedagogy and student learning.

Yet despite how critical to securing employment after the Ph.D. these part-time positions are, I almost invariably hear current students refer to such experiences as “side gigs” or “side hustles.” The terms “alternative careers” or “backup options” imply that careers beyond the professoriate are somehow less worthy than faculty positions; similarly, referring to jobs outside your home department during graduate school as “side gigs” makes them sound less important than the valuable experiences you gain in your department as a research or teaching assistant. I realize that we regularly hear about the “gig economy” these days, but notice that the terminology is not “side gig economy.” The term “gig economy” emerged after the 2008-09 financial crisis to refer to the increase in contract-based and project-based labor during a long period of unemployment and underemployment. As the many career trajectory narratives that I have heard demonstrate, such contract-based and project-based job experiences are both intellectually engaging and key to many doctoral students securing their first positions post-Ph.D.

Therefore, even if you pursued work purely out of financial necessity during graduate school, let me suggest that you say “job experience” instead of “side gig” when talking about the work you do outside your home department. This is not just about validating such important professional experiences, although we should, in fact, validate the full spectrum of professional experiences you gain within and beyond your department during your graduate education. This language shift is also critical in your job search. In job interviews, if you respond to questions about your qualifications for a position by talking about your “side gig” during graduate school, I assure you that your interviewers will hear this as dismissive and a confirmation that you’re not the right candidate for the job.

For example, at a recent Ph.D. alumni conference held by the University of Michigan’s history department, Jamie Hart recalled that when she applied to her first position in government consulting post-Ph.D., she was bluntly asked whether she was genuinely interested in that position or was just “a historian who can’t get a job.” She cited her part-time job experience during graduate school in instructional consulting as evidence that she was sincerely interested in and qualified for a consulting job. She noted that how she talked about that part-time job experience and marketed herself was strategic -- and ultimately landed her the position.

Start being deliberate now in how you talk about the value of your many job experiences by using language that reflects the skills and experiences you gain in your part-time work during graduate school. Just like professional titles exist to describe the work you do in your department (e.g., teaching assistant and research assistant), if you have a “side gig,” explicitly clarify with your supervisor what your job title is. Are you an instructional consultant, project coordinator, consultant, intern or something else? The clarity of the language you use to describe your professional roles within and beyond your department will show you’ve been intentional in cultivating your intellectual interests in a range of professional settings to help build the skills necessary to be successful in your first job post-Ph.D.

Talking about the work you choose to do outside your department as a “side gig” diminishes the value of that work, as if it’s secondary to your work in your department. Whether you are serving as a volunteer for an organization you are deeply committed to, applying your expertise in a different space on your campus or working as a teaching assistant in your department, you are learning and applying critical skills as a scholar. All of this work is valid and valuable, and you should use language that clearly communicates that value when talking about it. Your work in a range of settings demonstrates how you contribute as a scholar to solving problems within and beyond academe.

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Laura N. Schram is director of professional and academic development at the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


Laura N. Schram

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