Expanding the Doctoral Job Search

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You’ve spent the last several years working toward your goal: the PhD. Once you have the degree in hand, you may be curious about career options beyond academe.

Why look for a post-academic career? Perhaps you have a spouse or partner to consider; maybe you want to stay in one part of the country; possibly you have discovered that parts of university work excite you, while other aspects of your job as a graduate student (and future faculty member) aren’t as fulfilling as you would like. Whatever your reasons for widening your search, there’s some great news: your degree makes you uniquely qualified for work beyond the university’s walls. Take the time to explore those future careers now to make your transition to the post-academic world easier.

With just a bit of work (and the help of a few tools), doctoral students can identify and pursue a myriad of careers—the equivalent of discovering infrared and ultraviolet light at both ends of the spectrum. They may be invisible to the naked eye, but with a bit of searching, potential is unearthed.

Preparing for the Job Search

So how do you begin that search? In “So What are You Going to Do With That?” A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s, Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, two PhD recipients from Princeton University, outline the job search for the post-academic crowd. To discover your interests and possible fields of employment (as well as your marketable skills), they suggest taking inventory of what you love and hate about academia. Pick a few of the “loves” to focus on (examples might include intellectual engagement, mentoring students, or working in archives), and ask yourself how these might transfer to the work world.

Another exercise: to give yourself an idea of your various marketable skills, list all of the activities you engage in when completing scholarly work. Narrow the list to the three or four things that interest you most, and add the various tasks that go along with each activity. Then write the skills associated with each task. An example of such a list:

Activity: Running lab experiments on mouse genetics

Tasks: Supervising lab assistants, designing experiments, recording and analyzing results, tracking data, ordering and operating lab equipment

Skills: Management, long-term planning, attention to detail, computer modeling, complex problem solving, analytical skills (see Chapter 2 of “So What are You Going to do With That?” for additional helpful exercises)

Beginning the Job Search: Informational Interviews

Sharon Milgram, Director of the Office of Intramural Training and Education at the National Institutes of Health, spoke recently at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln about post-academic employment opportunities for doctoral candidates and postdocs. She encouraged postdocs to be proactive in their job search by conducting informational interviews to network during the job search.

Take charge of your job search by contacting anyone who might be willing to help: relatives, neighbors, and alumni from your undergraduate and graduate institutions are a great starting point. Make a list of people who are in fields or who work for companies you are interested in, and schedule an informational interview.

An informational interview provides you with more information from the inside of an organization. An informational interview is not a time for you to ask for a job—it’s a chance for you to sit down with experts and ask how they got where they are, what they look for in potential employees, and what sort of work their company does. It’s also an opportunity for you to get feedback on your resume (for more on how to make your CV into a resume, see the resources, below).

Practice your two-minute introduction. You may want to briefly (in one or two sentences!) mention what your dissertation topic is about, what your background is, which skills you’ve acquired, and finish with explaining that you wanted to meet with this person because their field/job interests you and you wanted to learn more.

Before you go, research the employer so that you are ready to ask pertinent questions. After all, the informational interview is not about you, but about the person you are interviewing. Some helpful questions include:

  • How did you get started in your field?
  • What excites you most about your work?
  • What’s your average day like?
  • What skills are important to have in this field?
  • Can you suggest other people I can talk to? 

After your informational interview, make sure to send a thank-you note with specific references to your conversation. Remember—only one in five informational interviews may lead to a job tip. The informational interview is not a job interview, but research. Like your academic work, finding a job that fits you and uses your skills takes time and research.

Take heart! You’ll find the right career path for you. Here are a few resources to guide you:

Alternative Careers in Science edited by Cynthia Robbins-Roth

Outside the Ivory Tower: A Guide for Academics Considering

Alternative Careers by Margaret Newhouse

What Color is Your Parachute? A Practical Manual for Job-

Hunters & Career-Changers by Richard Nelson Booles

Adapted from Basalla. S. & Debelius. M. (2001). “So What are You Going to Do With That?” A Guide to Career-Changing for M.A.’s and PH.D.’s. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.