In the six years I’ve been a graduate student, I have yet to regret my decision to become one. As someone who loves to research, write about theory and practice, and do fieldwork, I am in my element. But as academic institutions continue to push for more contract teaching positions at the expense of full-time, secure, tenure track jobs, I feel the push, perhaps more than ever, to explore career options outside of the academy.
In an effort to learn more about my non-academic career options, I recently attended a workshop hosted by Carleton University’s Co-op and Career Services. The workshop was geared towards graduate students who are interested in exploring work in the private and public sectors after the completion of their degrees. The workshop began with an icebreaker activity that encouraged students to share their thoughts and experiences about applying for non-academic work. Divided into small groups, we discussed our anxieties and the anticipated challenges of looking for work outside of the academy. One participant shared advice she had received from a peer, who recommended she only list her Bachelor’s degree on her resume, and not her graduate degrees. The peer’s rationale was that including graduate degrees hurts job seekers’ prospects because they will appear overqualified. In response, one of the other participants shared her frustration with this advice, suggesting that by not including graduate degrees on a resume, one seems less qualified because it looks as if there is a gap in employment. When it came time to regroup and share discussion points, the majority of the participants shared similar concerns regarding the best practices for seeking non-academic employment.
While the rest of the workshop attempted to alleviate our concerns, focusing on aspects like accessing the hidden job market and conducting informational interviews, I had one driving question in my mind: where are the resources and support for graduate students who seek non-academic careers? Throughout my graduate experience, I’ve received a substantial amount of advice about how to pursue an academic career. There were workshops on how to give job talks when applying for academic positions, and how to write research articles for journal publication. I had done intensive research design courses to prepare research grant applications. These resources are incredibly useful when pursuing academic work, but what about work outside of this realm? In my experience, doctoral students who were interested in working in public and private sections were provided with scant resources. On more than one occasion, I found myself defending my choice to work outside of the academy to professors in my department.
It shouldn’t be surprising that doctoral students are seeking employment outside of the university. Although almost 40 percent of PhD graduates in Canada are employed in post-secondary education, these positions are often temporary, or worse, precarious. More than 60 percent of PhD holders are employed in other areas, including non-profit organizations, government, and industry.
With 3 out of 5 PhD graduates seeking employment outside of academia, why aren’t graduate programs doing more to prepare their students for non-academic careers? An article published in The Globe and Mail articulates these concerns:
Yet questions have been raised about whether the skills that doctoral students learn in university are preparing them for the jobs they are most likely to get, in business, non-profits or government. The Conference Board study had recommended that universities help grads to better market themselves to the private sector.
Universities shouldn’t be the only ones on the hook, however. The non-academic sectors also need to gain a better understanding of the value that PhD graduates hold:
Business also has to understand how advanced degree-holders can drive innovation, experts say.
“Canada is not a world leader in utilizing PhDs,” said Brad Nelson, an associate dean at Concordia University’s School of Graduate Studies. “We have to educate Canadians on the incredible value they represent.”
PhD holders have largely been the ones to take the initiative when it comes to finding non-academic work. This can be challenging when trying to write a resume versus a CV. A useful tip, shared in a recent #withaPhD chat hosted by Jennifer Polk of From PhD to Life, is to focus on the transferable skills developed while completing a degree, rather than the specific content of the degree itself. This is a big change for PhD holders because our degrees and specializations are our identities when in the academy. As I work to overhaul my CV into a resume for a non-academic career, I’ve been making a list of my key skills that are valuable for private and public sector work. In the spirit of the popular “top five” lists, I present: five reasons why PhDs are worth hiring.
- We have experience in project management.
PhD holders learn to develop and manage research projects throughout their time as graduate students. Before we’re even accepted into our programs, we are required to prepare statements of intent that often include descriptions of research projects we plan to undertake. We learn how to pitch ideas, but more than that, how to create feasible projects that can be accomplished within set time frames. In my PhD program, I prepared a detailed research proposal that outlined various components, including the scope of the research, methodological approaches, and research site. I also had to write a separate application in order for my project to be approved by the university’s Board of Ethics. After many thesis committee meetings, revisions, and a proposal defense, I was given approval to start the research project. For 16 months, I carried out participant-observation and interviews. I also wrote detailed notes for writing up my research at the thesis stage. I learned essential skills for project management during this time, including how to build relationships with different groups, such as non-profit organizations and social service clients. PhD holders know how to create a project from scratch. We can take big ideas and design them into projects that can be executed well. We’re aware of the various factors that can affect a project’s completion -time constraints, funding, group conflict – and we adapt to these changes.
- We can research and synthesize material across various sources.
PhD students gain valuable experience in doing an extensive amount of research and bringing it together into a cohesive analysis. Whether completing research proposals, comprehensive exams, or theses, PhD researchers evaluate the existing literature in a field and prepare detailed reviews. This goes beyond a mere summary; the research and literature are analyzed and critiqued carefully. Strengths and weaknesses are assessed in relation to broader socio-cultural, economic, and/or political concerns. Our knowledge of the literature informs our own research projects, and impacts how we respond to these issues. We come into regular contact with ideas that contradict or oppose our own understandings, and we welcome these challenges. This makes us valuable assets for agencies and industries that are driven by research and innovation.
- We know how to find the money.
Applying for research grants is synonymous with being a graduate researcher. In order to carry out the projects we are passionate about, we need to find the resources that will enable us to do this work. This involves researching different funding options to assess if our research fits within an agency’s mission and values. This process is competitive and can determine whether or not a project gets off the ground. When I applied for a doctoral fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), my application went through many gatekeepers before it was even considered by the Council. My application was ranked according to the other applicants in my program and department. The department selected the top ranked applications and forwarded them to the university’s faculty of graduate studies, where they were ranked once again. Only a fraction of these applications were passed on to SSHRC, where they entered into a Canada-wide competition. During this process, the applications were read by an anonymous committee that determined whether or not the proposed research project would be granted funding. I was told by a faculty member that only 50% of the applications SSHRC evaluates for their Doctoral Fellowship are successful. Needless to say, the competition is stiff and requires that a student have a strong application that includes exceptional reference letters and a well-written Program of Study. Many students spend months drafting a Program of Study, receiving feedback from professors and peers. This process teaches us about the hard work that goes into applying for funding and resources, both academic and non-academic. We have the ability to do the “leg work” to get the funding that’s needed.
- We have strong communication skills.
Related to the point above is that we have strong communication skills, both oral and written. Throughout the course of a PhD program, our research is prepared for different audiences: thesis committees, undergraduate students, conference participants, research boards, funding groups, community organizations, and government agencies. We learn how to communicate our research across many sectors. We deliver academic lectures to undergraduate students as part of courses, and public lectures about our projects to community members. We talk to the media about the impacts of our research, and lead seminar presentations about graduate course material. We write ethnographies, journal articles, research reports, proposals, and undergraduate course content. We write and speak across many mediums, always honing our ability to communicate effectively. Our communication skills are beneficial in non-academic sectors because we are conscious of the diverse ways that information can be conveyed.
- We know how to facilitate groups and mentor others.
I’ve linked the last two points together because I feel they often go hand in hand. Many PhDs teach during their time as graduate students. In addition to our own course requirements and research projects, we take on jobs to educate undergraduate students. This usually involves delivering weekly lectures on course material, leading discussion groups, preparing learning activities, and grading assignments. I’ve led several tutorial groups of 40+ students and it’s not without its challenges. It can be tricky getting the shy students to speak up, especially when other students tend to overtake group conversations. Or when sensitive topics arise (e.g., sexism and racism), and the conversation needs to be handled delicately to ensure that the class environment remains respectful. These experiences have taught me how to facilitate a positive learning environment for students. In addition, I’ve also learned how to become a mentor to students. One of the most valuable experiences I have gained as an educator has been working with students one-on-one. I enjoy evaluating students’ needs and finding the best solutions to help them move forward. These skills are essential in any environment because they encourage supportive relationships with peers, co-workers or clients.
So, while I’m nervous to think about what life will look like outside of academia, I need to remind myself that the skills I’ve gained through my PhD program are relevant and valuable elsewhere. It’s exciting to think about potential job prospects, particularly after chatting with others who made the transition in the Surprising Jobs & Careers #withaPhd chat. Learning from others’ experiences has helped me to move forward with my goals, and feel a little less worried about what lies ahead.
Photo by Craig Garner.