There is a lot of talk about whether doctoral programs should do more to prepare students for careers outside of academia. When you think about it, most doctoral programs don’t even prepare you for a career inside academia.
Universities are not really in the business of training people for careers
Many of us roll our eyes whenever public debate about the value of degrees in Philosophy, English Literature or whatever are discussed in terms of the jobs they prepare you for. A degree in the humanities has intrinsic value. It broadens the mind. It teaches you to think. yadda yadda
So why do we think universities all of a sudden get in this business at the graduate level?*
*I’m going to leave aside the issue of professional schools and graduate degrees in Law, Medicine, and Business. I don’t know enough about them, and they are not really germane to this discussion.
Did you start your PhD for career reasons?
That’s not a rhetorical question. Maybe you had some vague notion that being a professor was a career option at the end of this but that’s not the same as doing a PhD to become a professor.
If you are going to do a degree primarily to prepare you for a career, I would assume you would do some basic research to determine what the career you have in mind requires in terms of preparation.
Did you research the job market and career possibilities before you registered?
Do you know the average starting salary of a tenure-track professor in your field?
Do you know what the completion rates are? Average times to completion?
Have you done informational interviews with professors in different types of institutions to determine whether you might be suited to an academic career?
Have you done informational interviews with people who have a PhD and work in non-academic settings about their careers?
The reality is that most of us probably don’t start thinking about careers until we are part way into our graduate programs. Many don’t start to think about it until they are either on the brink of quitting or almost finished.
Take control of your own career preparation
You are responsible for your own career.
Not the university. Not your school. Not your parents. Not the government. Or anyone else.
That is a scary prospect. What the heck do you know about careers?
The sooner you take control of your own career, the more likely you are to actually have a career that meets your needs.
Identify your needs
The first step is to identify what you want and need in a career. Lots of people will have been trying to tell you what you should want and need in a career, probably from a very young age. But you get to decide. This might be hard. You might need help. You might need therapy.
Figuring out what your ideal career/life looks like can help you figure out what directions might be worthwhile.
Here’s a list of some stuff that might be important:
- a certain standard of living (money, stuff, etc.)
- intellectual stimulation (you’re a graduate student, this is a good bet)
- to live near (or far) from family
- to live near particular geographical features (the sea, the mountains, the prairies, etc)
- particular recreational opportunities
- a particular kind of community (small town, big city, etc)
All of these things are legitimate things to want in a career. You might not get them all, but they are legitimate.
Also consider what is important to you in your academic life:
- the topic
- engaging in high level academic debates (esp. in print)
- creating knowledge that is useful
- inspiring a new generation of scholars/students
And the kinds of working environments that you thrive in
- how much autonomy do you need?
- how do you like to collaborate?
- do you need direction, deadlines, etc? what kind?
- do you want flexibility in your hours?
- do you want flexibility in where you do your work?
You don’t have to do this alone
Your university provides support, but probably not in your department. Use the career services. The people that work in that office know something about how to look for jobs. They can’t tell you what job you should get but they can help you figure that out, help you prepare solid application materials, give you guidance on interview techniques, and so on.
The alumni office (of your current institution or one where you studied for a previous degree) is also a good resource. Most alumni offices help connect alumni and keep records of what people are doing now and whether they are willing to talk to current students or other alumni. Finding out what other people who graduated with the same degree from the same institution are doing now can be really helpful. You will gain new insights into the possibilities if nothing else.
I also highly recommend the book What Color Is Your Parachute?. I don’t think it matters if you have the latest edition. Go borrow it from your public library. It will help you figure out what is important and prioritize your different wants and needs. That prioritizing thing is important because you need to be able to compare options. Do you want an academic job even if it is in a small town far from the mountains (where you could ski)? Or would you rather do something else so you could live in a big city? (Plug in your own needs to see how complicated these decisions could get.)
This post was edited June 30, 2015