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Emily Roberts received a PhD in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 2014. She is the founder of the websites Grad Student Finances, PhD Stipends, and Evolving Personal Finance. Connect on Twitter with @GradFinances.

A screenshot from the Think Beyond Internships website.

In my final year of graduate school, I participated in a leadership program at my university. In the course of this program, all the participants worked on group projects, the subject of which was how to improve graduate student and postdoc career development. My group decided early on that we would focus on how trainees could participate in internships to gain work experience.

Instantly, our group uncovered a culture clash: I was coming from an engineering program in which internships were fairly encouraged and some students even consulted or started their own companies. Two other group members were in the biological sciences, where the farthest you were allowed from the bench was Woods Hole, MA. The fourth group member was in a humanities program and insisted that 100% of his classmates got tenure-track teaching positions and therefore would be totally uninterested in any career development aside from teaching (a claim the rest of us found dubious).

Ultimately, we were able to agree on a project that helps students gain relevant experience outside of academia by thinking beyond internships to volunteering, part-time jobs, freelancing, launching new programs, taking courses, etc. The process of collecting testimonials on these career-developing experiences opened my eyes to the many ways grad students can advance their careers, even if their advisors or programs frown upon it.

Since I’m a money-minded person, I was particularly interested in the examples of grad students who earned money from their career-developing experiences. That really seems to be the best of all options—gaining relevant work experience and some extra cash, of course in balance with dissertation work. Internships are the most obvious way to accomplish this, since they often pay more than assistantships, but I found that many grad students had strategically chosen a variety of non-internship experiences that also fit the bill.

Below are a few examples of students who landed or created career-developing work experiences that also paid them. These examples are drawn from our Think Beyond Internships project from last spring (not specifically paid experiences, but many are) and my new series on side jobs at Grad Student Finances (not specifically career-developing experiences, but many are).

1) Summer intern

Alice completed a paid summer internship at a medical device company doing work related to her dissertation research, which confirmed for her that she wanted to pursue an industry career after her PhD. In addition, she gained “great contacts and references,” and “it was also really helpful to see the way PhDs were viewed at a big company … and understand the corporate mindset.”

2) Weekend consultant

Kathayoon created her own consulting practice evaluating zoos and aquariums, which was in line with her dissertation work. She found her first client through a mentor, and then more clients approached her; she traveled on weekends to complete the evaluations. Consulting helped her “build a lot of important skills … make connections to people in [her] field who acted as study subjects for [her] dissertation, and … get a job after graduation.”

3) Part-time analyst

Adam worked on a part-time, hourly basis as a research analyst for an investor relations firm, writing reports and updates. Not only was this a paid position that “made [him] realize how underpaid [he] was as a graduate student,” but he took a full-time job at the company after he finished his PhD. He said, “The best part was that I had an opportunity to try out my job before starting full-time. How else do you know if you want to launch a career in a certain field?”

4) Freelance editor

Julie and Amy freelanced for a scientific journal article editing company as contract editors. They edited articles related to their fields of study on a pay-per-assignment basis. Because of this this experience, Julie “read much more widely than [she] ever would have on [her] own and… [thought] more critically about what [she is] reading.” She also noted the networking benefits to working for her company. For Amy, “the contract job was perfect because [she] learned a lot and could do as much or as little as [she] wanted.”

5) Semester-long science policy fellow

I participated in the Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellowship after I finished grad school, but many of the other fellows in my class were current graduate students. We worked at the National Academy of Sciences for 12 weeks, learning about careers in science policy, gaining relevant work experience, and networking like crazy. The fellowship was designed to give graduate degree-holders a taste of science policy; they know that some of the fellows will pursue careers in science policy, but others will take their experience back to academia or into other sectors. My mentor agreed to serve as a reference for me for future positions, and many of the other fellows were able to stay on at the Academies after the fellowship or landed other science policy positions in DC. We received a stipend for participating in the fellowship.

I hope these examples have excited you about the possibility of finding paid work that also advances your desired career path. Before I conclude, I offer three tempering notes:

1) Some graduate programs explicitly disallow outside work in their assistantship or fellowship contracts, so you should check whether being paid will get you in hot water with your funding source or advisor. However, I think the spirit of this exclusion is more important than the letter. The point as far as I can tell is that your program wants you to make progress on your dissertation at a reasonable pace and not get distracted by outside commitments. But are a few hours of paid work a week really any more or less of a distraction than many other activities graduate students engage in (socializing, hobbies, self-care, raising children, etc.)? I think you should use your own judgment in how to balance your main goal of completing grad school with your side job and other pursuits and discern when you might need to refocus more or solely on your graduate work. In my own observation, some programs that state their students are not allowed outside employment will actually encourage work that is related to the student’s thesis topic.

2) All of the examples above and most in Think Beyond Internships involve students in STEM disciplines. I am hoping that is selection bias because the vast majority of my group’s contacts were STEM grad students and that students in other disciplines are also able to find paid, career-advancing work. I would love to hear from some non-STEM graduate students who have engaged in this type of work in the comments below.

3) Even if you aren’t able to find a job that combines both purposes of advancing your career and paying you, you can still achieve the goal that is more important to you (or both, through separate experiences). You can volunteer your time in such a way that advances your career (there are plenty of examples on Think Beyond Internships), or you can earn some extra money from unrelated work.

I wish you all the best in both setting yourself up for your post-grad school career and generating some extra cash flow!

Did you have paid outside work during graduate school, and if so what did you do? How strict is your department in disallowing students from working? How have you advanced your career during graduate school, aside from your dissertation work?

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