Broadening Ph.D. Experiences to Enhance Your Career

Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan describes how grad students can pursue career-building strategies beyond the required curriculum.

November 14, 2022
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Graduate work in general—and doctoral work specifically—can be a narrowing experience rather than a broadening one. Yes, we learn more and gain new skills, but do we take the opportunity to expand how we might use those skills? We should seek out learning experiences outside the classroom that can provide connections to our research and expand the skills and experiences that we can bring to our first job position.

My research examines the issue of building and supporting career pathways for graduate students. In my doctoral journey, I explored how higher education scholars and graduate school administrators can understand and provide support systems for such students. In this essay, I’ll describe to graduate students how they can broaden their graduate experience to enhance postgraduate opportunities, offering several strategies that I used and discovered during my own graduate study. Those opportunities can be both exploratory, to test your interest in something or not, and intentional, to help you lay a foundation for a future and perhaps not-yet-identified career.

Independent Studies

My doctoral program required courses and electives that were thoughtfully designed to prepare me for my future career options, but a lot could have been added to deepen my expertise and knowledge. That’s where specialization areas came into place for me. Different institutions may call these areas different names, but at my institution, one of those avenues was through independent study, for which I had to write a proposal on a topic I wanted to explore and work with faculty who guided me, proposed readings and tasks, and so on. At the time, my university was preparing for a five-year accreditation review, and it was a perfect opportunity for me, as an aspiring higher education leader, to learn more about higher education practices and processes through a hands-on experience, to gain experience and to be paid for the work.

So, working with my adviser and a faculty member who needed help with their assignment for the accreditation process, I completed an independent study, earning credits for my degree and gaining experience to add to my CV. The work experience part was equally valuable both for faculty jobs (if I were to have pursued that track) and for administrative roles (which I ended up doing).

If you’d really like to work with a certain faculty member but aren’t able to take courses with them, I recommend that you look into doing an independent study with them. I did one with a professor from a completely different department (and even college!), but we shared an interest in interdisciplinary work, especially around providing writing support to graduate students. The faculty member ended up joining my dissertation committee and remains a valued mentor and colleague. Don’t be shy to ask if funding is available to support the work you will do if it’s not only for your independent study but also for the university.


Another example of an expanded opportunity is an internship. We tend to think of an internship as simply something we have to do outside our university and as applied work, but we can do them at our own institution and make them highly relevant to our academic and career goals.

For instance, I took the opportunity to intern with a committee of deans and faculty members that the provost at my university had charged with examining interdisciplinary work at the institution. At the time, I was in the second year of my Ph.D., and I was still refining my research topic and trying to narrow down what my research question would be. I was interested in the topic of interdisciplinary work, so I knew I could use working with the committee to my advantage.

My task had a lot to do with reading reports and articles on interdisciplinarity and summarizing the information for the rest of the committee. Besides giving me practical experience in synthesizing reports and studies, that activity also turned into part of my dissertation literature review for my studies and provided great insight into how committees work. In addition, it was an invaluable experience in learning to write a major report, a skill I have used many times since—including, most recently, in my postdoc work. The opportunity to learn about the process of organizing and conducting a universitywide report from experienced deans and faculty members in action added value and context for my readings and seminars.

Think about different committees, working groups and other service-related options at your institution that could also be an opportunity for you to turn the service into course credits and/or work experience. One of the ways to find out about those options is through student organizations and groups or the graduate student senate.

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Mentors as Connectors

One of my favorite professional development opportunities was an internship funded by my institution’s graduate school that took place at Cornell University. While doing my Ph.D., I was a graduate assistant working on professional development for graduate students. This job included a wide variety of programming, including organizing and providing oral and written communication support programs like writing retreats for graduate students. The dean, my boss and mentor, was a member of the Council of Graduate Schools, as well as the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools. Through her memberships, she worked with a number of graduate school deans, including the dean at Cornell University Graduate School, who happened to be an expert on writing support for graduate students.

By that time, I had decided that my dissertation was going to be on oral and written communication support for graduate students. My dean arranged for me to go to Cornell and work with the dean on their writing retreat, where I would learn from her and bring that knowledge back to my university to organize writing retreats. My experience was invaluable—I got to learn directly from the expert on writing support, and I also got to network. And the Cornell dean was one of my key references when I was on the job market.

Adaptations of Course Activities

Another area of exploration is identifying class assignments that can help you move your work on your dissertation/thesis forward. Many graduate courses are set up in this way, but many aren’t, and I encourage you to always have conversations with your professors about how much an assignment can be tweaked so that it meets the requirements and, at the same time, allows you to do the work that will directly support your dissertation/thesis.

You might, for instance, be able to adapt the reading list for a literature review class so that you can target readings for your dissertation/thesis. For course projects, I encourage you to do pilot studies that will help you move along with your research and possibly provide you with data/materials you can use for your dissertation/thesis. Methods courses can be a particularly good venue for that.

Summer can be a great opportunity to do this kind of work, and if you already have summer funding, see how much flexibility you have in what you will do and where. If you are in the sciences, national labs are great places where you could gain valuable experience, be paid for the work and network outside your institution. For international students, this is an excellent chance to use the curricular practical training option.

What are the take-homes from my experience? Think about whom you know and, more important, whom your professors and mentors know. Identify the topics you’d like to learn more about and who are experts in those areas. Then talk to your professors and mentors and brainstorm how you might connect with those people. Finally, identify or create opportunities that will allow you to do the work for your dissertation/thesis that can be translated into job experience. Find a way to work not always harder but smarter.

Dare to Explore

I know that academe can sound and look very black and white, with not much room to do things differently, but thinking a little bit outside the box, you’ll realize that you have a lot more room for creativity, exploration and branching out than you may think. Timing is very important. In the early years of the program you may feel insecure about deviating from the beaten path, but I challenge you to explore new avenues.

The worst thing that could happen is that you’ll get a no, but that may not necessarily be the end of it. Asking questions often leads to other opportunities and options that you may not even be aware of. So don’t be afraid to have conversations with your faculty and mentors about how you can create experiences for yourself that will help you navigate the graduate school requirements and reach your ultimate goal of completing your studies and starting your dream job.

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Jovana Milosavljevic Ardeljan is the director of career, professional and community development at the Graduate School of the University of New Hampshire. She does research on professional development and communication skill development for graduate students and postdocs that supports their career diversification pathways. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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