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In the past few years, we’ve seen more Ph.D.s applying their training in ways that go beyond the traditional academic convention. Recent Ph.D.s are becoming more versatile in their professional and career development than ever before.

The precariousness of the academic job market has, in part, driven this trend, but higher education institutions have also provided increased opportunities for students to explore diverse career pathways during graduate school. More colleges and universities are reconsidering the multifaceted career potential of the Ph.D., including within different university administrative departments.

In this article, we discuss an important channel through which current graduate students can hone and develop skill sets that will increase the impact of their education: experiential learning. In addition, we explore the advantages that graduate student voices could bring to various administrative departments.

Resources for Graduate Students

Many valuable resources are available for graduate students who are curious about or determined to pursue careers outside academe. These commonly include speaking to a career adviser, attending professional development workshops and career panels, and networking with alumni and other industry professionals. Often overlooked, however, is engaging in experiential learning, which offers a more hands-on opportunity that allows a student to explore a particular field in more depth.

Just as graduate students hone their academic competencies, such as research and teaching skills, through experiential learning -- including, for example, lab experiments, fieldwork, teaching and the like -- the learning-by-doing approach of this method can also be effective for their career and professional development. As Audra Van Warte and other scholars note, “Experiential learning opportunities … allow for the trainee to be immersed in the actual (or simulated) work environment, acquire and apply skills needed in particular careers, and complete hands-on projects directly related to that profession.”

Having the opportunity for more tangible work experience could help a student confirm or redirect their career interests. At the same time, it can give the student the benefit of gaining new skills or polishing existing skills by applying them in new ways, which helps diversify and improve their career prospects.

Internships are the most well-recognized type of experiential learning. Although completing an internship can be invaluable for career and professional development, not every graduate student can pursue an internship for various reasons. For example, an international graduate student might be enrolled in a Ph.D. program where an internship credit course is not available. In some departments, graduate students might be expected to commit their summers to ongoing lab research projects.

In these situations, we encourage graduate students to explore short-term, project-based experiential learning opportunities in a campus unit outside an academic department. Many colleges and universities are now creating administrative internships or fellowships to provide opportunities for graduate students to explore the operational side of higher education institutions. Various departments on campuses, such as museums, research and technology service offices, teaching and learning centers, and academic presses, often offer summer internships. Career service centers can guide students to explore or secure such opportunities.

A Win-Win Scenario

Campus-based experiential learning can be a win-win strategy for both students and campus professionals. Students can gain mentors, develop new skills, acquire work experience, expand their network of professional contacts and access new resources to facilitate their professional development in a certain area. College and university administrators, too, can benefit from the insights and contributions that a graduate student can bring.

For instance, graduate students have the inside knowledge of the general mood of the student body at a given stage of the academic year, which would help in planning and scheduling certain events and programming. Graduate students also have an insider understanding of departmental or campus cultures, which can inform best practices in terms of connecting across departments. Graduate students are also the link to bridge different campus offices, since they are exposed to all the different events, news and opportunities in ways that other campus partners may not be.

We have found that graduate students can contribute significantly through their visibility in programming efforts, such as presentations, outreach efforts and panel discussions. For example, having graduate students as event panelists can create a safe learning setting where student attendees are not only able to resonate with the experiences and outlooks of their peers, but also feel more comfortable to share candid insights and ask questions. Graduate students can also play a key role in certain outreach initiatives, particularly those that rely on inside knowledge or connections, such as alumni communications within a particular department or lab, or department-specific programs.

Firsthand experience has been identified as one of the most critical factors when graduate students make their career choice. (See here and here to learn more about relevant research findings on this.) Such direct experiences can help graduate students recognize their existing skills and abilities and discover various new ways to apply them outside academe. In addition, other major stakeholders, such as faculty members and other campus partners, can also benefit from the wide array of skills and mind-sets that graduate students unlock through experiential learning -- in ways that go beyond traditional academic contributions.

Even if a student ultimately decides to stay and pursue a career in academe, such hands-on experiences can enable them to better understand the diverse aspects of higher education administration. These skills will also make them better researchers, instructors, advisers and mentors, and members of the campus community at large.

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