A Crash Course in Career Development

Universities must do a better job helping Ph.D.s find their first nonfaculty job and obtain the skills they need to transition into a variety of meaningful, well-paying careers, writes Melissa Dalgleish.

August 26, 2021
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It was 2011, and I had become sure I didn’t want a tenure-track job. I started my Ph.D. in the throes of the 2008 recession, and the tanking job market meant there were few postings in my minuscule subfield. But academic job scarcity wasn’t the primary reason I no longer sought a professorship. Too many aspects of the professoriate just didn’t suit me: departmental politics made me uncomfortable, I didn’t love teaching (and loathed grading), and I couldn’t imagine going through the wildly onerous and fraught (interview on a hotel bed?) academic application and interview process.

This recognition, growing stronger as I got closer to my defense date, posed a problem. After all, I'd been training to become a professor since I started my master’s degree, and I had no idea how to apply this training to another field. I’d have to find a job, but I didn’t know what employers would be willing to pay me to do or what skills they were looking for. I needed help getting from where I was (panic and despair) to where I needed to be: post-Ph.D. employment that paid the bills and, ideally, would let me do meaningful, impactful work.

I looked around my department in vain for help. My graduate program focused solely on academic careers. People who quit before they were finished and started work outside the academy, and people who finished but still took nonacademic jobs, were never heard from again. Certainly, faculty and administrators weren’t keeping track of where they were going and what they were doing -- or at least they weren’t sharing that information with students. And everyone knew that the career center only served undergrads.

Not finding what I needed where I was, I went looking for support and information outside my university. I found forums, books and online communities for Ph.D.s interested in pursuing nonfaculty careers, including VersatilePhD#alt-ac Twitter, “quit lit” and So What Are You Going to Do With That? I went from feeling like the only one in my situation to recognizing I had a substantial and generous community, one that understood my struggles and could help me get where I wanted to go. I set my sights on a career in research administration and planned to kick off my job search in earnest as soon as I had a defense date.

I was going to be OK. But what about all the other graduate students and postdocs who either didn’t want or wouldn’t be able to get a tenure-track job? What was my institution doing to support them? Was it truly nothing, or was I just not able to find it?

It turns out it was a bit of both. I discovered this when my graduate school hired me, on the basis of the work I’d done to educate myself as a soon-to-be Ph.D. job seeker, to research what was happening in the world of graduate professional and career development. Administrators commissioned me to craft a white paper that would inaugurate what they hoped would become a new centralized graduate and postdoctoral professional skills program aimed at providing the kind of support I’d been unable to find.

My job was to talk to everyone on campus who was providing professional or career development support to graduate students or postdocs to get a handle on:

  • how much support actually existed;
  • what gaps in support, accessibility or comprehensiveness we could identify;
  • what students and fellows wanted;
  • opportunities for harmonization, centralization and better communication;
  • how we stacked up against other universities in Canada and around the world; and
  • what we’d need to do to get to a level we’d be happy with.

And I found out that my university was actually doing a lot to support people like me, even before it had a formal, centralized program. I didn’t know about the efforts my institution was making partly because I hadn’t been looking closely enough. Like many North American universities, my institution offered workshops, seminars, events and experiences aimed at providing graduate students and postdocs with core research, teaching and professional skills to support their successful transition into a variety of careers. On offer was everything from a dedicated graduate career counselor to workshops on social media, project management, clear-language communication and many other career-oriented skills.

But most of those opportunities were difficult to find and not equally distributed and accessible across the institution, as they were dispersed throughout different academic and administrative units. Events were poorly promoted and offered to a graduate student body that was often not on campus (we were all holed up at home reading for our comprehensives or writing up our research), hard to reach and afraid of admitting to ourselves, our peers and our professors that we were interested in, or at least curious about, something other than the professoriate.

The white paper assignment turned into a full-time position, as I was charged with launching a centralized, visible and comprehensive Graduate and Postdoctoral Professional Skills program that benefited every graduate student and postdoc at my university. This work led to a career: I now run a similar program for 1,200 STEM graduate students and postdocs at a teaching hospital-affiliated research institute, and I also consult with graduate faculty and administrators interested in building their own programs.

The End of the Apprenticeship Model

Universities need to do a better job helping Ph.D.s find that first nonfaculty job and providing the tools and skills they need to transition into a range of meaningful, well-paying careers. In a report on GPPS programs in Canada, Marilyn Rose notes that universities should prepare graduate students in ways that “ensure the mobilization of their knowledge and skills and the realization of their potential in a variety of workplace settings.” She calls Ph.D. career preparation an “ethical imperative.”

Training Ph.D.s for diverse careers is also pragmatic. Professional and career development programs are exceptional recruitment and retention tools -- universities will attract talented students. And once those students graduate, they’ll go out into a range of professional spheres, confident that their Ph.D. training equips them to be intellectual leaders, coveted employees and valued ambassadors for their institutions and disciplines.

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Maintaining the current graduate population is only ethical, however, if universities apprise prospective students of the academic placement rates of their programs and encourage incoming students to keep their options open throughout the Ph.D. And the shift has to be more than simply informational: graduate programs must provide meaningful and accessible opportunities to develop skills that will serve Ph.D.s in a range of careers.

Graduate school has largely been a period of training during which graduate students apprentice to the craft of becoming a professor. Yet studies show that students are not being adequately trained even for the skills the professoriate requires. An 2001 study by Jody D. Nyquist and Bettina J. Woodford found widespread dissatisfaction among faculty and administrators responsible for hiring Ph.D.s as new faculty members.

Despite the wishes of hiring committees and employers, core graduate studies curriculum and activities still teach graduate students how to become subject-matter experts and skilled researchers, and not much else. Graduate school doesn’t teach them how to budget their grants (or do business finance), supervise their lab staff (or become a hiring manager), or run an undergraduate department (or coordinate business operations). The struggles of new faculty to situate themselves in their new roles are a major drain on their research productivity and overall well-being. Students need more training in pedagogical, supervision and communication skills -- all of which are crucial to succeeding as a professor or principal investigator. Yet many if not most of these skills are not exclusive to the professoriate.

Graduate students should be doing more than just taking comprehensive exams and writing their dissertations. They must develop professional skills that will help them in or outside the academic job market. Professional skills are essential to any post-Ph.D. pathway, including the tenure track: a study of over 1,600 academic job postings in English and the modern languages showed that over 75 percent listed skills typically associated with nonprofessorial careers.

A useful way to think about the 21st-century Ph.D. is as a fixed-contract job that pays graduate students to read, write and research and affords opportunities to acquire a range of transferable skills that can be used in a faculty or a nonfaculty job. The opportunities offered by GPPS programs help graduate students make the most of their time in graduate school and set themselves up for success in whatever career they choose upon graduation. Never again will they have access to such a wide range of free, tailored professional development opportunities.

More graduate schools should work to establish or strengthen their GPPS programming. They need not reinvent the wheel; two professional groups are dedicated to these issues: the Graduate Career Consortium in the United States and the Consortium of Canadian Graduate Student Professional Development Administrators in Canada. In addition, The Reimagined PhD: Navigating 21st Century Humanities Education, from which this essay is excerpted, brings together the latest research on, and best practices of, such programs.

As I found out myself, when you start researching GPPS, you’ll discover that it is a vast, growing world of activity and research. If you pursue it on behalf of your own graduate students, you’ll be able to help them design a personalized professional and career development curriculum that meets their needs while supporting your institution’s mission and goals.

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Melissa Dalgleish is program manager at the Research Training Centre of the SickKids Research Institute and president of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development network. This article was adapted from The Reimagined PhD: Navigating 21st Century Humanities Education, edited by Leanne M. Horinko, Jordan M. Reed and James M. Van Wyck, with permission from Rutgers University Press.

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