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Note pinned to clothes line that reads "I almost have a Ph.D. but can't find a part-time summer job. Worth it."

The graduate school job market outlook is frightening. The top option when searching “PhD job market” online is an article titled “The Ph.D. Bust: America's Awful Market for Young Scientists.” That’s not very optimistic, and the article argues that not only will 35% of graduate students with PhDs not get a job, but the situation is getting worse each year. Another article, “12 Reasons Not to Get a PhD,” argues that the degree takes too long, has left almost 34,000 PhDs on food stamps, and the job prospects within or outside of academia are diminishing.

Despite this, here we are--pursuing our dreams and going for the graduate degree. With such a bleak forecast, how do we continue on? How can we prevent ourselves from becoming part of the 35% unemployed?  To begin with, we can develop our broadly transferable skills.

L. Maren Wood, in a recent Chronicle article, discusses the importance of looking beyond academia and developing transferable skills. “Most departments provide extensive training for the academic job market—how to write cover letters, create CVs, and prepare for conference and campus interviews. But few set more than an hour or two aside (if that) to help students consider ‘Plan B’ careers. Doctoral students need workshops on writing resumés, networking in the ‘real’ world, and conducting informational interviews.”

In an article by David Walsh on the History News Network, Alexandra Lord argued that “many people think of the PhD as the passport. It's not. It's the visa. You need to have the passport before you can use the visa. And the passport are [sic] the skills and the skillsets. That's what non-academic employers - whether we're talking about public history positions or non-public history positions - are looking for. They want certain types of skills and experiences. Not every PhD program is really geared toward encouraging their students to acquire this diverse range of experiences and skills.”

In other words, we graduate students need to be developing skills and tools that can serve us more broadly than our topic or region of study. To survive in this job market, we need to be creative and strategic. Here are some tips for doing this.

1.       Identify your skills and experience: The simple act of getting a graduate degree means that you are developing important skills and tools. Almost all graduate degrees require some form of research and writing, and being able to do them well is an important skill. Many graduate students have knowledge of various scientific or statistical methods, lab or fieldwork experience, special computer program competencies, or organizational abilities that they gain while doing research. Try to think about the skills you have learned in order to do your research, and I’m sure you’ll find some hidden abilities. University of Cornell’s Career Services has a great list of transferable skills. Some potential skills include:

  • Research and Analytic Skills: the ability to locate, analyze, and synthesize data from disparate sources.
  • Communication Skills: the ability to write clearly about complex problems or speak in front of groups.
  • Interpersonal Skills: the ability to lead a team in the lab or field, accept criticism, or handle different personalities.

2.       Advertise them: You need to be a little creative when writing up a resume or CV to find ways to highlight these broadly transferable skills. It’s best to begin thinking about potential career paths and the job search early on, and determine what abilities may be beneficial for the jobs you are applying for. Feature these skills in a separate area, and note the specifics of how you acquired them. Important experiences should also be summarized with information about what you learned and how this will benefit your potential employer. For example, you can state that you know how to use various statistical programs or have experience working with specific groups of people. FlexJobs suggests listing languages, computer programs, organizational, and interpersonal skills.

3.       Cultivate new skills: Check your university to see if there are extra programs that will help you develop broad skills and gain new experiences. Try to identify which skills will be helpful for your career, fit with your timeline, and aid in your research. Perhaps take a few seminars on teaching or get a certificate in safety training. Michigan State University has many resources for its graduate students and programs they can engage to gain these competencies. Check out your own graduate school to see if they offer workshops, certificates, or other help with developing skills. Some great ways to gain skills include:

  • Leadership workshops: these help you learn how to deal with groups of varying sizes and composition, maintain order, and solve problems.
  • Teaching workshops: many schools offer seminars and training for teaching assistants and graduate students, these are valuable skills for managing classrooms and creating courses.
  • Technology courses: learning how to use classroom technology, the basics of HTML or other coding languages, or broadly applicable digital methods are increasingly seen as favorable skills to have.

The prospect of facing the job market is a daunting one, but by being strategic and developing broadly transferable skills we can make ourselves more marketable and more versatile. One of the best ways to know what you will face is to chat with alumni and other PhDs who are out in the rat race right now both outside and within academia.

What advice do you have for preparing for the job market? What do you think are the best skills to develop?

[Photo by Flickr user Quinn Anya and used under Creative Commons License]

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