What Departments Can Do to Support Post-Ac PhD Students, Part 2

I got a question in my email inbox from a Director of Graduate Studies and I wrote my first post about how departments can orient themselves to support post-ac work more effectively.

As a DGS, I was wondering if you or your organization had advice for departments on how they can better support PhDs going into non-academic settings. Do you happen to have (or have seen) a sort of “best practices” that departments can implement?

More and more of our graduates are going non-academic, and I want them to feel supported — but also prepared and competitive for that market. What would be helpful for us to be doing?


In this article, I’m going to share some very specific and pragmatic things that would help alongside the foundational work. I have six specific, concrete suggestions for how graduate programs can encourage students who are looking for non-academic jobs as well as how to create an environment that supports their efforts.

1) Destigmatize Alumni Who are Post-Acs

The number one thing you can do for your students who are thinking of leaving academia is to destigmatize the idea that they might not be professors when they leave. By assuring your students that not being a professor is ok, and it is not a moral or personal failing on their part or on the part of your organization, you will go a long way towards normalizing work outside of the academy.

You might even give your student a larger context for understanding why the academic world might not be looking out for their best interests. Consider encouraging them to look at data on shifting trends in higher education, research on contingent labor in higher education, shifting funding streams over time in higher education and industry periodicals to better understand how higher education is changing.

There are many good reasons to consider a non-academic job. Some students may know they’d prefer work that’s in the private sector, or they’re interested in the field they did research in, or they may know they want to live in a certain geographic area. Some simply must have a job at the end of their search for economic or family considerations. You can reassure them that these are all valid reasons to seek a non-academic job.

Specific ways to do this:

  • Speak proudly about alumni who are non-academics and their work. Keep in touch with colleagues who are not in academia any longer. Find out what your former students who are not in academia do. Consider keeping a record of those students as potential mentors for future students. You might ask them what they learned in your program that helps them in their career and invite them to talk to your students and help mentor them.
  • Look to your professional society to get resources on what potential jobs there might be for people in your profession, but don’t stop with those resources. The private sector moves quickly and there are many more opportunities than are listed in those places. The key is networking (no it does not have to be painful).
  • Consider suggesting students who are interested in policy look for fellowships such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science Policy and Technology Fellowships, or other similar programs (there are some in California State Government, for instance). These fellowships do a lot of work helping PhDs translate their skills into the workplace and look attractive to employers.
  • What not to do (taken from stories I’ve heard): ignore the graduate student who wants to work outside of academia, think of their research/writing/dissertation as sub-par, avoid their emails, shut them out of the department, sabotage their dissertation or tell them they “wouldn’t have made it anyway”. It goes a very long way to simply keep the door open and to support them as they pursue other options.

2) You Might Not be the Best Advisor for Your Student’s Job Search

As a successful academic, you likely have spent more time in academia than outside of it. You’re very well versed in supporting students who are interested in becoming academics, but you likely have less of a sense of what the non-academic world wants out of graduates. This in itself is not a bad thing, but you can inadvertently give advice that will not support your students.

For instance, time spent in graduate school learning how to teach well, learning research methods and taking classes outside of the department will likely pay off in post-ac positions. In many graduate programs, taking classes on teaching is considered a time sink, methods are really only needed for the research you’re working on, and classes outside the department are frowned upon as a waste of time. But for non-academic jobs, all of these activities create valuable skills.

In the business world, people often explain concepts/trends/ideas to one another, and teaching experience is an excellent way of learning how to communicate ideas, create presentations, and convey information effectively. To do this well with complex information, while maintaining an audience’s attention is a very marketable set of skills.

The basics of what I know as a social scientist, including methods, are some of the most marketable skills I offer. I regularly talk to people about what I taught as a professor teaching methods courses, but I tailor it to make it meaningful and useful for the people I’m working with. Being able to talk about how research is conducted and how to read the insights from research conducted by others is valuable.

Finally, the world is cross-disciplinary and anyone with a PhD in a business context is considered an expert in their field. That said, most projects will involve working with people who have very different backgrounds. Having advanced coursework outside of your department will give experience and connections that are otherwise difficult to attain.

3) Teach Useful Skills

Any PhD has marketable skills in the non-academic world but it can often be challenging for professors who are much more well versed in intellectual debates in their field to see where those skills can apply in non-academic settings. I encourage professors who teach PhD students looking for non-academic jobs to consider how to talk about the skills they teach with an eye to their utility to the wider world.

Let me be clear. You do not need to retool what you teach — the content of your courses is valuable. What would help is an ongoing connection between the work in your field and how that work can play a role outside the university. A few thoughts primarily drawn from my field of sociology:

  • When going over a well-received piece of research, talk about how it might impact policy and note where research offers useful policy insights. Consider teaching how to write policy briefs or one-page assignments that boil down complex information into shorter (but no less informative) writing. Ask students to do very short (think no more than five minute) presentations on complex content.
  • Some course content maps well onto public conversations and can be used to illuminate what is happening in the world. Consider encouraging students to write op-ed pieces and to engage in discussions with experts in magazine articles or on social media. After all, you are encouraging them to become experts both if they become professors or if they work in industry. Discuss how they might engage with the media to offer their insights on topics that are in the news.
  • When discussions of research design come up, consider what it would look like to have the same research question with a smaller budget and on a much shorter schedule. Press students to think about how to do small studies that will gain information that is actionable and useful even if it is not publishable in top academic journals. For nonprofit and government work in particular, this is a key skill.
  • When you talk to students or former colleagues who have non-academic jobs, ask them what kind of research they do and consider using the best of those projects as case studies in your classes. Consider asking students to critique reputable white papers in addition to peer reviewed research for their coursework.
  • Teach, talk about, and point students towards resources on data visualization, descriptive statistics, and communication skills. These skills will be helpful no matter what they end up doing and are incredibly marketable.

4) Teach Networking Skills

Teach students how to do informational interviews and get them to do those as soon as possible. If students are interested in non-academic jobs, they should do at least five informational interviews per semester. Informational interviews are 20–30 minute conversations over a beverage (or online if that’s easier) where the student asks the person they are interviewing questions like:

  • How did you get your job?
  • What do you do on a typical day?
  • What path would you recommend for someone who is interested in doing a job like yours?
  • What do you wish you had known before you pursued this career path?

At some point the student will likely give a brief rundown of their skills/research background — it’s important that this be succinct.

The student needs to know that they are not asking for a job or even expecting a job out of the conversation. Their work is to LISTEN, ask follow-up questions and then connect with the interviewee later on LinkedIn (see the social media section). The other key is to ask at the end of the conversation: Who else should I talk to? Then to go talk to that person.

Introverts can do this. Shyness or awkwardness is not an excuse. If you are geographically remote, have these conversations online. The worst case scenario is a boring 20–30 minute chat with someone who the student can practice explaining their skills/research to. That’s actually a win. It means, the student has explained their ideas to someone new.

This will lead to better information for when the student applies for jobs, connections to people who can advise and advocate for your student, and a growing network that will lead to jobs, workshops, conferences and other experiences.

5) Know What Employers Want to See

Accomplishments that students have spent years working on in their graduate program, such as academic papers and conference presentations may not matter much on a job application or resume outside of the academy. Other activities that may not seem important for graduate advisors, such as committee work, volunteer work or short-term projects, can lead to jobs.

Consider encouraging students who are thinking of going non-academic to create a portfolio of their projects. Ideally online. If they’ve done work for a nonprofit, could they put information and testimonials regarding their work online? If they’ve given a talk, can the slides or a video go online? Can they do a cool trick with a stats program, or teach something in a clever way? If so, create a five minute video and put that up and talk about it on social media. If they’ve made charts, a poster or a network diagram, can they post those on their website? If they’ve written some code, can they present it on Github?

When a student does do their own research say for a dissertation or a paper, help them figure out how to make it useful to non-academics. Get them to give talks to people who are interested in that topic but perhaps not in the academy. Look for places where they have to explain the basics of what they do and be engaging (talks for senior citizens, tech events, TEDx talks, non-academic conferences). Those talks can make excellent portfolio/resume lines.

People outside of academia who are hiring are concerned that PhDs aren’t going to get work done and will run around thinking deep thoughts and reading books all day. A portfolio helps to convince future employers that post-acs can do useful work.

The move from a CV to a resume is a particular challenge. But it is doable and there are resources*.

6) Social Media Can Be Useful

Tell post-ac students to get on LinkedIn yesterday. There are recruiters and hiring managers there who are interested in finding skilled people. Simply being on the platform will enable students to see what others are skilled in and what jobs look like. Consider running seminars or finding resources and online workshops to help students use the platform more effectively. LinkedIn is also an effective follow up tool for informational interviews.

Encourage students to get on Twitter, Slack, or other social media and connect with people in fields and areas that they are interested in. I’ve been surprised at how many amazing jobs I’ve heard about primarily via social media. 
Encourage students to join groups of people online who do things they like. They can look for experts in their research topic or chosen potential area of work. They can also just pick stuff they like doing (badminton, chess, hiking, singing, LARPing, whatever) and chat with people. The point is to find interesting and connected folks to talk to.

Ways to find people can include: emailing authors who write interesting articles and asking them for an informational interview. Responding when someone poses an online question and adding to it. Putting portfolio items out that others find useful. Sending a note asking to hang with new people when visiting a town.

These online relationships can lead to jobs. Really. Examples of subgroups I’m a part of where they’ve talked about jobs: people who do R statistics, green building professionals, post-ac communities, energy policy wonks, construction communities, LGBTIQ communities, local art groups, comic book enthusiasts, feminist groups, and more.

Finally

This is a lot. Even asking the question is a huge first step. Being willing to openly talk about PhD students going into the non-academic world without stigma is really the most important thing you can do. And honestly, the post-ac world can be pretty great.

Also, I am one person and I come from the field of sociology. I am certain others who have fantastic suggestions and I’d love to hear those. Would you comment below if you have other suggestions or send me a note (email is my first name at my last name dot com)? I’m particularly interested in responses from post acs in other fields like humanities and science. What helped you?

*As a general catch all post-ac book, “So What Are You Going to Do With That” by Basalla and Debeleus is a fantastic starting place. It also has a very helpful chapter on how to change your CV into a resume.