As this article makes its appearance on The Chronicle's Web site, nearly 1,000 graduate students and recent alumni are participating in the first-ever virtual job fair for Ph.D.'s.
That this event is happening online is part of what makes it groundbreaking. But the true departure is the fact that 22 major research universities have sanctioned this effort to assist their graduate students in identifying nonacademic job opportunities. (The job fair, which runs through February 28, is open only to students from the 22 sponsoring institutions listed on the Web page.)
It has always been the case that some Ph.D.'s and numerous A.B.D.'s have left academe for professional opportunities in the outside world. Yet the research universities that train graduate students have not always acknowledged this reality. Campus career-counseling services devoted to the specific needs of graduate students in the arts and sciences -- while more common in recent years -- are still rare. And many graduate students describe the subject of nonacademic careers as taboo in their departments.
A recent survey of 4,000 doctoral students confirmed that perception. Students in the survey reported that they had little access to information about nonacademic careers and were often not encouraged to explore such options.
So, if you identify with the graduate students in the survey who felt ill-advised about career options, what can you do to help yourself? And what can you do to move your own university toward a fuller set of career-counseling services for graduate students?
Paula Foster Chambers, a recent Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition from Ohio State University in Columbus, found herself in the same position a few years ago as graduate students in the survey. She didn't have the information she needed about nonacademic careers and she wasn't sure how to go about getting it. Like many doctoral students, she found that the career-services center on her campus was focused on helping graduates with bachelor's degrees find their first jobs.
"There's a huge fog of ignorance" among graduate students in the humanities regarding nonacademic careers, says Ms. Foster Chambers. In June 1999, she tried to fill the void by creating a discussion list called "Wrk4us." Originally an offshoot of a discussion group begun by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's Humanities at Work project, her list has grown from 40 subscribers to more than 570 representing roughly 33 academic disciplines. About 60 percent of the participants come from the fields of English, foreign languages, and history.
The Wrk4us list serves its subscribers in several ways, Ms. Foster Chambers says. "First of all, it offers a forum for meeting other graduate students and Ph.D.'s interested in nonacademic careers," she says. When the list first started, however, "it was kinda dead," she recalls. "I suspected that people didn't know enough to post to the list. They wanted information, but had none to give."
On that hunch she initiated a guest-speaker program that immediately ignited postings and increased list subscriptions. Here's how it works: She arranges for Ph.D.'s who work in a variety of careers to post an explanation of their work to the list. Then subscribers submit questions via e-mail. So far, these guest-led discussions have covered careers in technical writing, consulting, dot-coms, nonprofits, and publishing, and more are planned for this year.
Setting up a discussion list isn't the only way to learn more about career options for graduate students. A number of books have been published on the topic, but two of the best are Maggie Debelius and Susan Basalla's new guide, So What Are You Going to Do with That? and Margaret Newhouse's 1993 handbook, Outside the Ivory Tower. Both explain the career-exploration and job-search process, along with case studies of former academics enjoying meaningful postacademic careers.
And of course, numerous Web sites, including this one, offer first-person accounts and job-search tips to graduate students. Links to many of these sites can be found on the Wilson foundation's Humanities at Work Web site.
Helping your university improve graduate career services
First of all, it is important to familiarize yourself with the career services that do exist for graduate students on your campus. While many career offices are primarily designed with the interests of undergraduates and professional-school students in mind, that doesn't mean those services are closed to other students.
Most campus career offices will provide full-time students with the following services:
access to a career reference library and resource center;
career counseling, either in group sessions or one on one;
workshops on job-search skills like résumé writing and interviewing;
assessment instruments that might help identify your career interests; and
access to public presentations by companies recruiting on the campus.
While the career center itself may not have a graduate student's needs front and center, all of the services just listed would meet at least some of the needs of a doctoral student starting a career-changing process.
Once you have assessed the types of services available on your campus, it is time to evaluate how well they serve the needs of graduate students. For instance, does the career library have copies of books like Outside the Ivory Tower and So What Are You Going to Do with That? If not, you can strongly suggest that those titles be added to the collection.
Career counseling is an area where significant patience on the part of the graduate students as well as additional training for the career counselors may be necessary. It is true that if a career center is primarily focused on undergraduates and professional-school students, the counselors will not be as familiar as you would want them to be with the issues facing graduate students. But even if that's the case, professional career counselors can help you through the process of identifying your skills and interests. They are adept at creating professional résumés and searching for appropriate jobs. If you can be forgiving -- and informative, pointing them to the books mentioned above, for instance -- you may benefit greatly from their guidance.
On a more activist note, you could also approach the director of the career center or the dean of students for your graduate program with specific suggestions regarding the expansion of campus career offerings. These suggestions might include:
Creating workshops or career presentations specifically for graduate students, either by inviting outside experts to visit the campus or inviting graduate alumni to talk about their careers. Even if the university does not have the money to hire a graduate career counselor, it may be able to afford a few special events.
Lobbying for the addition of a career staff member dedicated to graduate-student career services. Effective allies for such an effort would be the graduate student council, the student ombudsperson, and any faculty members and administrators who are sympathetic to the career challenges facing Ph.D.'s.
Encouraging your career-center director to attend this year's conference of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, to be held in late May in Las Vegas. The meeting will feature a presentation, "Hiring Talent for the 21st Century: The Value Of Ph.D.'s," that will be an excellent chance to learn more about the career-counseling needs of graduate students.
Urging your career-center professionals to network with their colleagues at institutions where graduate career services are already well developed. A starting point for such a list would be the institutions and their career-center links found on the Ph.D. Virtual Career Fair page.
The virtual career fair is the product of several years of discussion and collaboration among more than 20 career counselors. On their own campuses, these counselors have developed new resources and programs for graduate students, but they wanted to do something more to help potential employers appreciate the candidate pool of Ph.D. students. Hence the career fair.
Judging from the initial interest and activity on the site, the future looks increasingly bright for Ph.D. students desiring opportunities outside of the academy. Universities are more aware of the need to provide appropriate career services for their graduate students, and employers are realizing the considerable talent to be found in the Ph.D. candidate pool.