By John Paulas
Now that we have covered job searches focused on the classroom, broadly understood as the faculty roles in all levels of education, we come to the pursuit of work beyond those roles. Because the PhD careers covered in this section are myriad, I provide in the following pages ideas, inspiration, facts, and general advice about careers beyond the classroom. This section is a protreptic to identifying and building your professional community in any career area specific to you and to changing the process of navigating your professional life for the better.
ἀρχὴ γὰρ λέγεται μὲν ἥμισυ παντὸς ἐν ταῖς παροιμίαις ἔργου, καὶ τό γε καλῶς ἄρξασθαι πάντες ἐγκωμιάζομεν ἑκάστοτε· τὸ δ᾽ ἔστιν τε, ὡς ἐμοὶ φαίνεται, πλέον ἢ τὸ ἥμισυ, καὶ οὐδεὶς αὐτὸ καλῶς γενόμενον ἐγκεκωμίακεν ἱκανῶς.
You know how they say the beginning is half of the whole job and how we all are full of congratulations every time we see a job well begun? The fact is, as far as I am concerned, that the beginning is really more than half, and no one has ever been in the position of praising well enough what’s started off well. (Plato Laws 753e-754a, author’s translation)
Once a student is thrown into the wonders and joys, as well as the trials and tribulations, of graduate studies, the cultural immersion process begins. In the U.S., there are classes to take, seminar papers to write, talks and conferences to attend, new people, and usually being in a new place both physically and mentally. In all of this activity, do carve out a little time from the very start for professional development beyond that faculty path that will become more and more the assumed outcome, both in your mind and in the minds of those around you.
As I mentioned in the introduction, understand from the start that your path is simply that: your path. Although this seems self-evident, it is not. The irresistible power of enculturation can overtake anyone, and the implicit cultural expectation that your professional outcome will be in the professorate will become your expectation, and you may come to judge your personal professional success on this outcome.
As you go through graduate school, cultivate work experiences that you are drawn to. Develop experiences and networks broadly related to an area of plausible employment that is not a faculty job. If it is the only activity you do outside your school and personal life, it will be well worth it. For some, it is a fact of life that, with high costs of living in many areas near research universities, gainful work to make ends meet must be done on or off campus and beyond classroom gigs (which, by the way, I do not count as productive for this category). Classroom teaching is part of professional development, but for our purposes it is adjunct, if you pardon the pun, to work done beyond the campus or on campus in non-classroom roles.
The truth is you are probably working in ways on campus and off that do qualify as excellent non-classroom experience and that you probably enjoy. Simply do them with the knowledge that it is far more likely that your future career path is found in these work situations than in the faculty roles you see in your department.
Summers are particularly good times to get this work experience in lieu of or alongside teaching. At the very least, you simply need to carve out little bits of time to do something that is not teaching, not working on qualifying exams, language exams, your dissertation, and not watching streaming TV shows, unless of course you have an entertainment blog that you are cultivating to make a name for yourself as a cultural critic.
There are so many ways to cultivate these work activities. Contract or freelance work provides valuable experience and connections in areas where companies and organizations have need. You need not even get a paid gig. If you volunteer in an area of interest that helps you develop new skills and networks, you are already on the right track. In fact, in your community there are probably volunteer opportunities that will offer you surprisingly high levels of responsibility. For example, if you are in a leadership role in a local club, you will need to manage and understand the budget, an important skill in most any position you will aspire to. Just keep your eyes on the prize and know that your side gig may end up being a job and will definitely help you get a job one day, so if you find it really uncompelling, accept it as a learning experience and see in what ways you are compelled to work outside the classroom.
While you are a graduate student enrolled at a research institution, you most likely have access to resources on campus from professional school classes to free legal advice for operating as an entrepreneur. Take advantage of these in areas of interest to you. At the very least, you will make some new friends and broaden your horizons.
Connecting with a professional school of interest on your campus or an affiliated campus is a good idea. As examples, I use business schools and schools of information. I single out these two schools because they connect you to new professional communities and expose you to skill sets that are different from those in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Business practices and information systems and technology are major parts of your working future, no matter what that may be. You will benefit immensely from learning something about, say, financial statements and getting to know some business people in a business school class or learning in the information school what an API is and meeting people who have designed them.
You can of course see what resources the law school, medical school, school of public health, or of public policy have for you too. If you are interested specifically in professional training for legal or medical practice, keep in mind that you also can be a JD/PhD or an MD/PhD, so if you feel compelled to do both and are ambitious and well-heeled enough to do so, by all means, do so.
When it comes to PhD job outcomes on campus, many career services offices do not yet have the professionals in place with outlooks, strategies, and connections to guide, inform, and place PhD students. Some career services and affiliated units, such as graduate divisions, and even some departments, however, definitely do, and if your campus is one where a professional in PhD careers offers their services or sets up internships, externships (job shadowing), and the like, then take advantage of these great opportunities! It is one more strategy in your arsenal in this fight for gainful and satisfying employment post-PhD and during the PhD. Be on the lookout for career-related programming of interest on campus and sign up for job-exploration opportunities that campus representatives offer to set up. There are a lot of pearls of employment wisdom to be gathered by these means and many people to meet on campus and off.
Career PhDs Right Near You
Talk to PhDs who work on campus beyond the classroom. Most PhD professionals working on campus will be thrilled to talk to you, and one may even be very happy to mentor you even though it is not at all part of their job description.
Peer pressure is powerful. In the world of PhD careers, I learned the full implications of this when I was working at UC Berkeley. At a graduate student organization professional development meet-and-greet, Aileen Liu, then a PhD student in the English department, now an English PhD alum of Berkeley and, at the time of my writing, academic policy coordinator at UCLA, stood up and frankly stated that it was all well and good that we were talking so much about faculty attitudes but what was being done about changing the attitudes of students. Students, she said, were responsible for a great deal of gatekeeping around career success in her experience. After this observation, I thought about my own graduate career and began to observe the situation more closely and talk with students more about what other students said to them about careers and what they said to themselves. Aileen was right.
We can all start changing this culture by simply “living and let live.” That change begins with your attitude towards yourself. It is hard, but the difference and beauty, I think, of the humanities is that it takes as an object of study the unique, the individual, the outlier, the different, the unexpected, the anecdotal, not the generalization or the generic. Each PhD has a unique existence, you know that, and although it is easier to make a mental mold and try to cram everyone’s livelihood into it, resist the temptation and suspend judgment.
Let us support ourselves and our colleagues whether alums or students and allow each the ability to follow the path they need to.
Let us not talk of either pursuing a faculty position or “selling out” by going after whatever job you believe will be putting yourself in a professional direction that you feel compelled to go. Endeavor to filter out any negative feedback as well from family, friends, and strangers alike if you know you are compelled to do something that is satisfying to you and gainful or leading to that, even if it seems to them “not befitting” your degree. Remember: a PhD job is any job you have as a PhD.
An active step you can take on campus is to seek out roles in the graduate professional development scene. Organizations, such as the not-for-profit Beyond Academia founded and run by UC Berkeley PhD students, offer students the opportunity to organize major career conferences and events that create fruitful relationships with PhDs working in a wide variety of pursuits. Beyond running an organization, students learn along the way professional practices from building a résumé and networking to informational interviewing and entrepreneurship.
One of the best ways I have seen to get experience managing often surprisingly sizeable budgets and working with various campus stakeholders collaboratively is getting involved in campus governance or campus organizations that represent the interests of students. As a student government member you can do a lot of good for yourself and your fellow students. For yourself, that means being able to point to meaningful work with budgets and teams on your résumé. Whether you work for a non-profit, in the private sector, or the public sector, you must be aware of or manage a budget at some point in your work life. Knowing about budget planning will not do any harm to your personal finances either.
As a member of student government you also learn how a university functions, who operates in what way and how, who the stakeholders are and, most important, how to work with them in a professional way. Collaboration is essential to nearly any job you will have in the future. The people skills you begin to learn and develop now will forever benefit you.
Research universities are complex organizations with lots of moving parts with overlapping and complementary functions. Understanding how to navigate these waters can apply to any organization or company in which you will work in the future. If you are able to give your time to student government and have the inclination, the career rewards of it are tangible.
If, however, there are really no roles on your campus that interest you, then the most beneficial thing to do is to create one for yourself. When, as a graduate student, you take an active hand in shaping the PhD professional development scene on campus or any scene on campus that involves skills and experiences that relate to career work, you of course are doing something very good for yourself and your future, and you have a greater impact on the culture. How? Graduate students, as soon as they are initiated into the dominant university culture of resignation and hand-wringing about its future, replicate this culture unconsciously and reinforce it with one another. By refusing to be resigned about the flourishing of PhDs in the future and actively working to promote this flourishing in word and in action, you and like-minded colleagues create a powerful new cultural impulse that others will respond to. Keep up the good work and you will see the big changes that will happen for your campus, for you, and, frankly, for all PhDs.
Because learned-society and foundation leadership can see that our PhD community is broadly employed in a wonderful range of professions, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Modern Language Association (MLA), American Historical Association (AHA), American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS), and, for those of us who are classicists, the Society for Classical Studies (SCS) have made major contributions and commitments to helping PhDs find their way forward. If you are a historian, then you perhaps have seen some of the AHA’s efforts. I will highlight the MLA career toolkit for departments as a reference for faculty in the next section. As for classics, in recent years the SCS has been making strides to increase the visibility of the PhD community in careers beyond the college and university professorate.
One signature community-building activity that I have designed and facilitate at institutions around the country in my role as president of PhD Matters Ltd. is a “speed-dating” career networking event. In the case of the SCS version, the society, teaming up with the Paideia Institute and PhD Matters, invites a group of classics and archaeology PhDs working in a wide variety of job roles to take part in a fast-paced networking activity with SCS members who are looking to figure out their own ways forward. This activity not only showcases the possibilities and incredible variety of work paths for PhDs, but also gives job-seekers access to a network of people whose experiences were similar and who want to see PhDs succeed in their career lives.
Talk to faculty…if you can…you know what I mean….
One of the most difficult decisions graduate students often face is how open to be with their dissertation advisors about career planning beyond the tenure-track. One fear is that a faculty member, your only lifeline in the world of references for faculty jobs, will turn on you and write lackluster letters, thus cutting off any hope you had for those jobs. Another fear is that any support for you in your dissertation writing will vanish with dire consequences. Last, but by no means least psychologically, you may fear that a faculty member might simply say, “Why would you want to do that?” For some, those unfortunately may be very real outcomes. In many cases, the opposite is true. On a personal note, my committee members happily suggested career possibilities they saw which might be of interest to me personally, and they were right! Do not discount the voices of those who are actually acting with care for you.
It is in your best interest simply to negotiate the politics of your situation in the way you know best, but act with an awareness of the fact that in the US the German labels for your committee chair (Doktorvater or Doktormutter) can very much reflect the reality of your relationship with them. Your relationship with your chair and your committee members is from the start a kind of familial relationship with all that entails in your attitude towards the situation. Nonetheless, do not let that situation prevent you from discovering or exercising your intentions to have a gainful and satisfying livelihood that is uniquely your own and not someone else’s.
MLA faculty handbook
If your faculty committee is particularly receptive, have them take a look at the MLA Connected Academics faculty toolkit. In it, they will find tips on mentoring students for careers and other great resources.
In graduate school, PhD students often develop an aversion to contacting and meeting with people. It is not, I believe, out of any misanthropic intentions or even introversion, but rather out of self-preservation. If you ask for a meeting with your dissertation advisor, you fear you may be asked, “How is that chapter coming along?” or, worse, “Is that chapter coming along?” when it is not.
This tendency must be resisted in pursuing a career. Try asking someone for a few moments of their time to discuss their organization’s work and your own intentions. An offer to buy someone coffee or even lunch is a very nice idea but given the added time commitment that entails for some, you might consider asking first simply to stop by the person’s office to meet.
There is only one rule of informational interviewing, and that is you are not asking for a job. You are asking simply for a meeting. As résumé expert and career transition coach Jared Redick quite powerfully observes: any interview, whether informational or an actual job interview, should be simply understood as a meeting. The person will provide their professional history and experiences and ask how they can help, and you will ask for advice on working in their field.
Although asking a person what their average day is like is often recommended, I suggest that you think of better questions. Why? Although it is of exceeding interest to shadow a person and witness a day in the life, asking them to recite their daily set of tasks is boring for both you and them; besides, the answer for anybody and everybody is probably going to involve some combination of emails, texts, phone calls, and in-person meetings.
Do, however, ask, in the end, if there is anyone that they would recommend you talk to.
Do express that if you can be helpful to the person in any way, you would be happy to do so. If the person sees some way you can, great, but do not expect them to do more than thank you kindly. Certainly, do not phrase your offer of reciprocating their kindness as an overeager demand to do something for them.
Don’t forget to follow up! Drop an email note to a person thanking them for their time.
There is absolutely no substitute for being on people’s radars when it comes to getting hired in any particular area. Consequently, being visible as a current or future member of a community is essential to your career going forward. The good news is that the vast majority of people I have met in the course of my work truly enjoy being helpful to others, so that is something in your favor already.
ImaginePhD is the premier online PhD career assessment and planning tool. The Graduate Career Consortium designed the website's wide range of resources and content with input from leading career services and industry experts. The best part is that it is free to sign up and use.
Apply widely in areas of interest but be focused; your professional identity is for the time being only going to go in one direction which may not be readily apparent at first. You cannot plausibly be convincing as a film producer, museum curator, management consultant, academic administrator, writer/editor/publisher, high school teacher, and tech guru all at the same time, nor do you probably want to do all things equally right now. But do not worry, the right next direction will appear to you once you get some feedback and see what applications stick, what interviews worked well, etc., all coupled with a lot of self-awareness and careful listening to what others notice about your work identity. Once you have a clearer sense of how you read to others and what you want, apply to any job of interest that you learn about through the network of people you have or that you find on a company or organization website.
You may have heard the saying that applying for jobs is itself a full-time job, and this statement is very close to the truth. The reason it is so labor intensive is that jobs require tailoring of materials, first and foremost your résumé and cover letter, to highlight the ways in which your experiences, competencies, and skills are in line with the needs of the job and the business or organization hiring you. The critical piece of advice here is not to apply in a scattershot way, but intensively with the help of people in a specific professional community as referrals to jobs that are open or will become open to you. If you are sending out hundreds of applications with generic or, more likely, confusing materials, you will quickly see that the returns on your investment of time are low.
Since you are not going to be hired to do a generic job, but rather a specific one at a specific place, you should approach all of your materials, from résumé to cover letter, with intense focus on the specific job. Yes, this applies to every job. Each industry and each sector have specific expectations about your résumé. The best way to find these out is through learning from people in that sector. As an example, the strictest standards for what language to use and how to account for experience on a résumé that I have seen are for jobs in the U.S. Federal Government. If this form of public service is your interest, then please ask around to find someone to talk to at a federal agency.
The first rule of PhD career searches is that the résumé is not an academic CV and the cover letter is not the cover letter you used to apply for that faculty job. Craft these materials following this first principle: relating your specific competencies and skills (e.g., communication, research skills, analytical skills) to the organization and position at hand is essential.
Yes, this means notwriting about the specific content of your dissertation research on the poetry of Lucan or Periclean Athens. In reading a résumé or cover letter, professionals can tell someone who is a fit for the job in less than 10 seconds and Lucan analysis per se is just not an industry, I am sad to say.
However, while we are on the topic of dissertations, you absolutely dowant to look closely at your dissertation and research for recurring themes of interest to you because there is something in the broad intellectual content of the work you have done that will be important, even essential to your career when you reflect on it.
Please also in the cover letter, résumé, and interviews never be “transitioning.” A bad piece of advice that is constantly repeated to PhDs is that they should think deeply about and be prepared to explain the issue that they are “transitioning out of the academy.” In order to be a fit for a job, you need to show that you are already there, not about to be there! If your interviewers are truly concerned about your fit for the role, you probably are not going to convince them with a speech even if you are the second coming of Aspasia or Cicero or John Chrysostom. If asked about faculty roles, it is best simply to be positive about your past experiences and show your happiness about having moved on to the next step. You should develop a clear professional identity in the area in which you aim to be gainfully employed so that this academic background is seen as nothing out of the ordinary or even an added value.
You know that you look at people profiles online and others do the same. As you see where your professional interest is, your professional profiles online should become clearer and honed towards one professional area at a time. Endeavor to minimize complexity. We are all complex beings, but no one really hires for that beautifully complex identity, people hire for fit for a specific job at a specific company. You simply cannot send mixed messages by trying to cram into your profile every possible career path you imagine you have or might have. This kind of profile only shows confusion to others and shows you that you are confused yourself and need to get clear about where you want to be professionally. This is also why you should not apply scattershot and, instead, should develop a clear profile in a particular area of work and a network of people in that particular area.
More detailed information about the format of the professional résumé is available in the final section of this guide on résumés and CVs.
Being in the Right Place at the Right Time
Life is about timing. Whether, to your mind, this is purely accidental or part of a Stoic cosmic plan, use this knowledge to be ready to act when opportunity presents itself. If you really want to get a foot in the door, and someone offers you an opportunity to do work that you might like, do it. You will be gainfully employed in that industry in no time. Promise.
We live in a digital age, but do not discount the advantage of having a physical footprint in the area where a job is. In fact, my observation that PhDs working in a new role, sector, or industry get hired where they live rather than in far-flung places may very well be a function of our digital age where it is just too easy to discover and casually apply remotely for jobs located around the world from Hong Kong to Lausanne to Canton, Ohio. Think about it: why would an employer bank on someone who is thousands of miles away being serious about moving for a job?
It is a simple fact of life that if you are going into a field of work in which you have a relatively slim professional profile, you simply are not going to have much interest from employers across the country and globe. Consider also that while you probably have a lot of friends and family members who work from home once a week, you may be hard pressed to name a friend or family member who telecommutes full-time and who is new to an industry. Even if you do not put your address on your résumé, it will be clear where you operate simply from the work history. Yes, you may get that “perfect” position in a new industry far afield. It happens. But for the most part, you are going to need to live in the area where you work.
I can be even more specific. Being there sometimes means being in an organization already, an internal hire. That is why it is essential for you to get a foot in the door in any new industry or sector where you are, by any means necessary. The hierarchies of business are not the same as the academy, so if, at the start, you are a bit lower down the rung than you expected, know that the room for professional growth at the company or in that field of work is substantial. As a PhD, you can expect to have an accelerated timeline to positions of greater responsibility.
As soon as possible after the job is posted, get your materials ready and submitted. Time is of the essence. There are will be sufficient applicants for that job, any job, with the result that stragglers are often simply going to miss the ferry.
When a new job comes up in an organization that you are interested in and have applied to before, apply. Because a lot of sweat and tears are put into applying, there is a misperception that somehow individuals’ applications or even an in-person meeting was unforgettable to the organization and its people. This is frequently not the case and the assumption should always be that reapplying to an organization is applying for the first time.
Operate from Strength rather than Desperation
This next piece of advice is a corollary of the extensive-not-scattershot approach. Operate from a position of strength. You are probably in a desperate situation financially and in regard to healthcare here in the U.S., and, if you are not able to permanently remain in the U.S., your situation is even more desperate. But in whatever way you can, give yourself the confidence to allow only the situation to be desperate and not to embody the desperation. If you allow this to be the case, when you apply to jobs and meet with potential employers, you will not give off the air of “I need this job, please, I am begging you!” That air is best let out in a private moment alone or with a patient loved one. While out in the world, work on embodying confidence and self-possession.
When I was in a Catholic high school, the liturgical music teacher would breath in deeply and gesture expansively from his diaphragm and tell us to imitate him and sing with afflatus, by which I think he meant inhaling the breathy image of divine spirit that the Roman African Christian thinker Tertullian described. I did not understand the philosophical underpinnings of this embodied theology at the time, but physically it meant to me, and still does, to breathe in deeply and fill yourself with the poise you need to project self-assurance. PhD programs are humbling experiences, mostly in really bad ways that we try to repackage as virtues. We learn to forget that we are highly competent human beings and that the world’s bar is set very low indeed when compared to the level of expertise we expect of ourselves. Keeping in mind that you are trying to get over a very low bar like any other gainfully employed human being, give yourself a break and stay strong. The path to gainful and satisfying employment is often a winding one and, like any garden path, needs constant tending and benches to sit for moments in order to take it all in and to take stock of your next move.
An employer is impressed by your application and would like to talk. That is wonderful news. Now it is time to focus.
The first and best piece of advice again is Jared Redick’s: the interview is just a meeting. You and the people hiring are getting to know one another and to find out if the fit is right. Think of it as a first date and not a marriage proposal.
The New Interview
Whether it is permanent trends in the nature of employment or whether new technologies make it possible to do more and different things, you might very well be asked to send a short PowerPoint presentation, complete various competency tests and exercises online, etc., even before you meet person one at an organization. These can be time consuming or time sensitive and will feel pressure filled, but the best bet is to turn them into a test for yourself of your interest in a position. If you are not a grouchy person or a contrarian and do not have at least a modicum of fun, exhilaration, and piqued interested working on these materials, then you are not going to like the job and you learned something about your career self. Odds are, however, that you will enjoy something about the task, which is what the hirers suspected. Revel in that enjoyment and don’t get bogged down; being able to do a task with a light touch and with some expediency is the key to any work that you will do in the future as an expert in your new job.
Review your experiences. This is a good time to have a list of everything that you have done related to the position and stories to illustrate that experience. Talk with someone about it. Take a look at the job ad and any materials you produced.
Please do not be surprised if in interviewing for a position you learn that the priorities are slightly different from the job advertisement. It is best not to expect a job advertisement to be the Bill of Rights. That “other duties as needed” section is often more important than you think!
As you embark on employment in a new sector, or even in a familiar one, you will want to determine what room for growth there is at a particular organization. However, you do not want to appear to have already moved on to a different position in the company before you actually demonstrate your abilities in the position for which you are applying. Keeping in mind that the interview is a meeting of discovery, you should listen closely to the career paths that your interviewers describe within the organization. See if people tend to stay with the organization, a good sign that the organization is doing something right, especially in these days of employees’ choosing to have short tenures in particular jobs or at one company.
Most important, do not express how “really, really excited” you are about everything. Despite the claims of life coaches, no one hires for or believes demonstrations of passion. Imagine embodying polished brass tacks: be sharp, be to the point, show you get the job done, and done right, and have confidence in your abilities to get it done with expediency. Remember your imagined bar of required competence is set at expert level for everything thanks to your PhD training. It is a nice standard to strive for, but understand it is an unrealistic measure for your skills and competence in all job functions and scenarios.
Dealing with a question about your education
If you are dealing with an industry far afield from the academy, most people are not going to have a sense of the scope of the PhD or even know what the degree means or involves. Yes, questions may sometimes dwell in the back of the minds of people who remember that their professors had PhDs: Why don’t you work at a university or college or something? Why do you want to work here in this industry? Just stay positive about your past experiences and focus on why this job makes perfect sense for you. If it does, and it is a fit, it will come across. If this question implicitly means the door is already closed in the back of someone’s mind, then onward and upward to something else!
Congratulations, you were offered the job! Please consider carefully both the offer and your needs and priorities in terms of negotiation. Although it is a huge relief to be offered gainful employment, accept the job from a position of strength, thinking about yourself, rather than out of desperation.
If you were not offered the job, then θάρσει, do something fun, and keep on truckin’. You are in it for the long haul. From my experience with PhD job seekers, I recommend you allow yourself 10 months to get to the light at the end of this professional tunnel.
We began this guide with idea that there is not and probably never will be one monolithic career outcome for PhDs. The fact is that you will have multiple jobs in your lifetime, in addition to the multiple work roles you will have in your life outside of your paid employment or business. If you are able to understand better the gainful work that you can and want to do, you will move on to different and wonderful opportunities that will model for future PhDs what a PhD career looks like. Take care of your career self and see you in the future!