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As universities across North America become more sensitive to the precarious career prospects of their graduate students, they are increasingly calling upon faculty members to find new ways to prepare Ph.D.s for life beyond the academy. This is acutely challenging for faculty members who have secured tenure-track positions, many of whom did so in a very different labor landscape. With limited time, resources or context, it can be difficult for even the most committed academics to provide relevant and meaningful professional guidance for their graduate students in the current era of dwindling traditional academic job prospects.
Many faculty members and administrators turn to Ph.D. alumni to help fill the void by organizing events such as “Careers in UX” or “Careers for Historians.” While those forms of professional development support offer vital insights and visibility, they continue to conceptualize professional pathways as “tracks” when, as most Ph.D.s working outside the tenure track will tell you, few careers beyond the academy are as structured as the one we are taught to pursue within it. Career panels are a useful point of entry into more expansive thinking about professional development and opportunity, but they fail to capture the true diversity of experience, thinking and scholarship that many Ph.D.s discover after they graduate.
To address this situation, both of us—along with our colleagues Jillianne Code, Kieran Forde and Zahira Tasabehji—are participating in an ongoing research partnership between the University of British Columbia and the Hikma Collective that uses quantitative and qualitative methods to explore the relationship between scholarship, agency and professional identity for Ph.D.s who venture beyond the academy. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, our work offers some insights and data to reframe the ways doctoral students are supported at every stage of their professional development.
As Leonard Cassuto and James Van Wyck write in The Reimagined Ph.D., “The elision of non-professorial careers shows how advisers have construed the cultural work of the Ph.D. too narrowly for too long—and how they’ve taught their students to do the same.” In our study, one participant told us they had hoped they would “come out of the black box of the Ph.D. and … drift by osmosis into some faculty position” and how astonished they were to learn in the eight to 10 months after getting their Ph.D. how much they did not know about “the world of white-collar work.”
In hindsight, even Ph.D. grads who had secured a few academic interviews regretted the time and energy, “practically and emotionally,” that they had dedicated to pursuing the tenure track. One participant “survived a year out of the Ph.D. knowing that I didn’t want to continue looking for academic work. I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Some Advice for the Advisers
Based on the research we’ve been conducting through our partnership, we can offer some advice for those faculty members and administrators who are asked to provide professional guidance to Ph.D.s. The next time you think about assembling a panel of every alum of your department with a job in publishing or management consulting, instead consider these low-barrier steps you can take to set your graduate students up for professional success in any context.
Teach your graduate students to seek informational interviews. Asking thoughtful questions is a core part of the scholarly experience. Encourage your graduate students to leverage that strength for conversations with people they admire in a wide range of professional contexts.
Networking is often viewed as exploitative and inauthentic, mining connections rather than nurturing relationships. Introduce networking as a practice of engagement rather than extraction by encouraging your mentees to focus on cultivating connections through meaningful conversations. Networks that are driven by substantive, shared interests—both scholarly and personal—will be more authentic.
Make introductions when you can, and, even when you can’t, reframe networking as a way of building relationships and learning about new contexts so that graduate students can make informed decisions about their next steps.
Create a LinkedIn profile. Remember your college roommate who works at that interesting social impact firm? Your cousin the artist, who landed that creative marketing job in Charlottesville? Chances are, your professional network is much broader than the subset of academic specialists you had drinks with at your last conference.
By creating your own LinkedIn profile, you normalize the experience of making professional connections and give your students the opportunity to ask you for the introductions that may not have occurred to you without prompting. Let the algorithms help you foster new connections so that you can share access to your relationships with your students and the advanced career professionals who might hire them.
Humanize the giants. As tenure-track positions become more and more exclusive—and elusive—the stakes of engaging with advanced-career scholars can be overwhelming for emerging Ph.D.s. Talk about your own challenges and model collegial relationships with the stars in your midst so that students can recognize communities, not just credentials.
Show your graduate students that your high-achieving colleagues are more than the sum of their citations by facilitating personal introductions. For many graduate students, the pressure to say something inspired to an intellectual hero can make it difficult to see the person behind the publications.
Make an effort to personalize the interaction by identifying shared interests and experiences. Instead of prompting your graduate student to deliver their elevator pitch on cue, ease the process by saying, “You are both exploring topic X” or “You might be interested in their recent work on …” or even, “They also love hiking in the Poconos.”
Ask your graduate students what they need from you. Part of fostering professional agency among your graduate students is guiding them to be their own best advocates. As an academic adviser, you train your advisees to identify their own problems and seek out appropriate solutions. The same mind-set applies to helping them discover opportunities beyond the tenure track.
At every advising session, ask your graduate students what they need, prompt them to articulate their next steps and hold them accountable for investing the time and reflection in those actions. Talk about the theory and research questions but also foster a project management mind-set by talking through the nuts and bolts of planning and executing research and writing. Also talk through career goals and follow up with relevant introductions.
Faculty members and administrators can play a key role in the success of their graduate students by acknowledging and amplifying the enterprise of self-determination. Cassuto and Van Wyck write that doctoral advising “should focus more on the agency of the advisee, who is the CEO of their own graduate education.” While some CEOs lead massive corporations with teams to schedule their meetings and answer their emails, graduate students are more like start-up founders who act as their own executive assistant, marketing director and solver of clients’ problems.
Finally, enhance your own mentorship efforts by helping students make inroads with formal and informal support networks. Communities and cohorts play a key role in building graduate students’ confidence by showing them that they are contributing to a shared enterprise. Consider the professional and personal communities that have given you access to shared experiences, mentors and resources. Where are your students most likely to thrive?