What Can You Do With a Ph.D.?

Many graduate students haven’t given enough thought to how to leverage their knowledge, skills and abilities to get well-paying jobs outside the academy, writes Joseph R. Fitzgerald.

September 24, 2020
 
 
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What can you do with a doctorate in a liberal arts discipline? A look at my Twitter feed tells me that graduate students shouldn’t ask their faculty advisers this question because most of them appear to think that the only option is to pursue a tenure-track job. That is a real problem, given the paucity of tenure-track positions in the liberal arts -- a hard fact for students to confront especially when they’ve invested a lot of time and money into earning a terminal degree.

Who’s responsible for creating this disconnect between so many graduate students’ expectations and the realities of the tenure-track job market? Students are, and so are their advisers and other faculty members.

If you’re a graduate student who thinks you’ve got a better-than-average shot at landing a tenure-track job, then you haven’t done your homework about this career field. And even if you have, I get the impression -- again, via Twitter -- that many of you haven’t given much thought to how to leverage your knowledge, skills and abilities to get well-paying jobs outside the academy. Or you hadn’t done so by the time you pushed out that tweet about tenure-track job prospects.

If you’re a faculty member who isn’t intentionally preparing graduate students for this reality and helping them to strategize about what types of nonacademic careers they can obtain, you’ve got some improvements to make. You see, you’re already engaging in career advisement when you socialize your students to work toward the goal of having a career as a professor. But that is a hypernarrow form of advisement that doesn’t serve the needs of many of your students.

You needn’t worry about finding the answer to this problem because higher education already has it. Take, for example, Black studies. We routinely provide undergraduate students with resources that answer the question “What can I do with a degree in Black studies?” Faculty members in other programs do the same for their students.

Furthermore, many institutions, such as Cabrini University, where I work, have college success or first-year experience courses that cover the subject of selecting an academic major and then mapping it to career options. What is the result of those efforts? Students have a much better idea about the types of jobs and careers they might find fulfilling and that also allows them to pay off their student loans.

As educators, we can do more on this subject. I teach Pro-seminar: Applying Black Studies, a three-credit undergraduate course in which I guide students on how to use their Black studies training to prepare themselves for life after graduation. One credit of this course covers qualitative research skills; students work in groups and learn how to create and administer a survey to collect data about a problem facing people of African descent. They prepare for that by doing a literature review of the problem, and then they produce a formal report on their survey findings, which includes suggestions on how to resolve the problem. Employers desire such soft skills of interpersonal communication and collaboration in those they hire. In addition, the research and writing aspects are must-haves for students who want to go on to graduate programs, especially those in the social sciences.

The course’s other two credits are Your Career and Job and Graduate School Applications and Interviewing. For Your Career, students develop a personalized strategy for picking a meaningful career path in which they can use their Black studies degree. They work toward that goal by conducting a thoughtful self-assessment and then explore and plan possible careers with guidance from me and Cabrini’s Center for Career and Professional Development. Together, we strategize about what types of employment speak to each student’s heart and mind, and students actively seek an internship in those fields to gain experiences that either affirm or challenge their beliefs and desires about the types of careers they want.

In Job and Graduate School Applications and Interviewing, students hone the types of professional knowledge and skills they will need to have to be successful applicants for graduate programs and employment opportunities. Students also learn to think creatively and strategically about which graduate programs will be the best for them in terms of obtaining the training and credentialing they want and need for their careers. I also instruct students on how they should describe and discuss, both orally and in writing, their academic, professional and personal accomplishments so that graduate admissions committees and hiring managers view them as highly qualified applicants.

Such a student-centered and discipline-oriented career planning course could, and should, be replicated at the graduate school level. By no means am I proposing a one-size-fits-all solution. Each institution and program should leverage their faculty members’ specific expertise and competencies and sync them up with the offerings of the career office. Equally important, institutions should offer faculty development programming to train and enhance faculty member’s competencies in this vital aspect of their job, and faculty members should demand this programming.

The benefits to such training and career preparation are numerous. Graduate students will have a more realistic view of their futures and be more successful in pursing their goals. Many won’t feel like they got duped into spending too much time and money for an experience that they think has such a poor return on investment, both personally and financially. As a result, students will probably have a more positive feeling about their alma maters, which might then result in increased contributions to them going forward.

Faculty members will also benefit from this change in professional culture. Students who are well prepared for their futures are less likely to feel that their advisers let them down. Attrition rates will decline, as many students will have more incentive to finish their degrees as quickly as possible because they’ll have learned how to use their transferable skills -- independent and extensive research, technical writing, project management, and so on -- to land jobs in nonacademic careers. That would bring positive attention to the programs, especially when the financial demands of higher education cause administrators to look to cut those with low enrollment and graduation rates.

So, what can you do with a Ph.D.? As it turns out, a lot. As professors, we must become better at training students to see the myriad possibilities that await them upon graduation. They’ll be happier for it, and so will we.

Bio

Joseph R. Fitzgerald is associate professor of history and political science, and coordinator of the Black studies program, at Cabrini University. He earned his B.A., M.A. and Ph.D. in Black studies and has worked in professional licensing and certification exam development.

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