This month's column is a little different from our usual fare. Instead of giving advice to job seekers, we would like to offer some to universities and departments that are in the early stages of providing career services to graduate students.
We speak from a lot of experience. One of us (Julie) has spent years in the career-services field and gets many requests for assistance from universities looking to establish new or better programs for doctoral students. The other (Jennifer) is a newcomer to the field, but has the experience of someone who earned her Ph.D., used the services of a career office, and is now providing such services to Ph.D.'s. We think we have some useful suggestions.
Jenny: Any institution hoping to establish career services for graduate students might begin by thinking about the following questions:
Who on the campus is already helping graduate students with career and professional issues, and what types of services does that person or office provide?
What is the range of doctoral programs offered at the institution? How might the needs of students in different disciplines vary and how might they be similar?
Who are the most appropriate people to provide career services to doctoral students?
The first place to look is the faculty. Most professors will be most comfortable giving advice about an academic job search. In the sciences and engineering, some might also be able to counsel students on finding positions in industry research.
Such assistance might occur on a one-to-one basis, between a dissertation adviser and an advisee. Individual departments might also organize activities, such as a mock interview day, to prepare their graduate students for academic job interviews.
Find out who is doing those things, and consider what a potential career-services provider might do to supplement them.
Julie: Next, find out to whom doctoral students turn when they are unable to find the help they need within their departments. Where do they go, for example, if they want help with a nonacademic job search?
They may already be using the campus career office, even if it doesn't officially provide services to graduate students. Or they may be talking with graduate deans. And students planning to leave their programs short of completion may be distressed and turning to the campus counseling office for help.
All of those various sources of advice will be able to provide you with useful information about the needs they see, and might be willing to work with you in the future on joint programming.
Jenny: Will counselors be assigned to work with students in specific fields, or will the counselors be generalists who advise students across a wide range of disciplines?
We see advantages and disadvantages to both models. A counselor working only with students in the life sciences, for example, might be able to develop targeted programming for those students. However, a counselor working with students in a variety of disciplines might better serve those hoping to change fields -- a scientist looking to become a writer, for example.
Bear in mind that although the hiring process in academe is somewhat similar across fields, each discipline has its own quirks and processes. Each also has its own vocabulary. Ph.D.'s in English often use the term "campus visits" to describe what an economics Ph.D. would call a "fly-out." Both terms refer to an on-campus interview.
Julie: The best way to find out that sort of information is to listen to doctoral students, and to do so with a certain dose of humility. Although career counselors are a valuable source of advice and information, we cannot be intimately familiar with the ins and outs of every field.
Jenny: What should you look for in a career counselor for Ph.D. students? Julie and I, and our peers at other institutions, came to this profession from many different routes. However, there are a few important characteristics to watch for in a potential counselor.
As a former Ph.D. student, I can say that one of the most important qualifications is an understanding of academic culture. Even students who don't become professors will appreciate your understanding of the pressures they face from their advisers and peers. A second characteristic is a willingness to ask questions and listen. One of the things that make Julie a great counselor is that in spite of her years of experience she is always willing to learn from students, rather than assuming that she has all of the information. A counselor should be able to appreciate a student's passion for his or her area of study, and how working in a field that you love can be both invigorating and infuriating.
Finally, a good counselor must also be sensitive to the fact that, compared with undergraduates, doctoral students are more likely to have partners, children, and other adult concerns. Or they might be frustrated that they do not yet have those things. A good counselor is aware of those anxieties, and how they can affect a graduate student's career.
Julie: It is now possible, through graduate schools of education or psychology programs, to earn a degree that focuses on career counseling. Those are laudable programs in many ways, but I'm not sure that they can prepare anyone to work as a career adviser to doctoral students.
Many of those programs seem to try to make a science out of career counseling when, in my view, it is an art -- particularly when it comes to counseling graduate students.
Those of us who have gone through some level of graduate study in the arts and sciences learn many things, including how to be comfortable with ambiguity -- a necessary skill when working with doctoral students. We will never have all the answers but we need to be able to provide resources, help devise job-search strategies, and ask the questions that help these students find the answers.
Jenny: A new career-counseling service for graduate students should start off, not by trying to do everything, but by selecting a few things to do very well. Here are some options:
Put together a Web site of helpful resources. You can get plenty of ideas by looking at Web sites of institutions that already offer career services to Ph.D. students.
Develop a series of workshops. You might offer a series on topics like understanding the academic job search, writing a CV, and interviewing for academic jobs. Or, you could do one on identifying skills, interviewing for business and professional jobs, and negotiating job offers.
Bring in speakers. Identify alumni who work in academe and elsewhere who could come to your campus and talk about their careers.
Julie: Let people know what you are doing and ask for their support in publicizing your work. Ask your colleagues in other established offices to co-sponsor programs. You might work with the campus writing center to offer a workshop on writing careers, or do one on job hunting with the campus Office of International Students. Joint sponsorship works wonders in helping a new office gain the respect of students.
Sometimes academic departments are willing to help sponsor career programs or to have a graduate-career counselor come in as a speaker. It is very important to have the support of faculty members who see your office as complementary to what they do.
If you're just starting to plan a new career service for Ph.D. students, you might start out with a small advisory board that includes faculty members, student-services administrators and, if possible, a member of the administration whose oversight includes graduate study.
Jenny: From this career counselor's point of view, Ph.D. students are some of the most challenging and engaging students to work with. No two of them will have the same career path; every student who walks into your office will have a distinct field of study, different goals, and different results.
You will not be able to give students a road map to a guaranteed outcome, and some will be frustrated by that. However, the rewards of helping them get started greatly outweigh the frustrations.
You can order Heiberger and Vick's book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the on-line booksellers below.