• October 20, 2014

More Than One Possible Future

Stop forcing graduate students to segregate job searches 
between departments and career services

More Than One Possible Future 1

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Lots of graduate students enter Ph.D. programs in the arts and sciences hoping to become professors someday. I won’t unfurl a scroll of statistics here, because the numbers vary by field, but the bottom line is clear: Half of them won’t even finish the degree, and of those who do, some will become professors but plenty of others won’t.

So how should we help graduate students look for jobs? More broadly, how should we help them plan their futures?

To start, we can stop forcing them to segregate their job searches. As it stands, most graduate students look for teaching jobs through their professors and academic departments. But students have to go elsewhere—such as to the campus career-services office—to find nonacademic positions. Ne’er do the twain meet. If graduate students are to maximize their efforts, then academic departments and career services need to pool theirs and work together.

Michigan State University is modeling just such a joint effort. Matt Helm, director of graduate-student life and wellness, has designed an exemplary program that brings the campus career-services office into the lives of graduate students and academic departments early and often—and not just when students are about to receive their Ph.D.’s.

Helm has a joint appointment: He reports to both the graduate school (where he is an assistant dean) and the student-affairs office. He also has a Ph.D., and his experience allows him to understand both the gantlet that graduate students run and the motivations that their professors bring to graduate education. His credential also means that he has the badge to talk with faculty members as an equal. "There’s no discrediting me," he said.

In his nine years at Michigan State, he has created a program that expands graduate-
student expectations. Its overarching idea is to help shape their professional selves and lives before the tension rises and the panic strikes at job-search time.

Graduate school is professional school, although most Ph.D. programs don’t treat it that way—at least not most of the time. Simply put, we neglect graduate students’ long-term preparation for a profession, even for the professorships that glitter in the distant Emerald City. Instead we attend to their immediate intellectual needs. Only at the last moment, when students are about to hit the job market, do we coach their frenzy of preparation.

And we do that only when they’re looking for faculty jobs. The other possibilities we pretty much ignore, although more and more academics are starting to accept how irresponsible that is. Graduate students need to be taught right away that they have a range of possible careers. If you don’t reach them with that message early in their training, the chances are good that they’ll decide that they want to become professors at research universities, because that’s what they see around them. But those jobs are rare.

Left to their own devices, too many graduate students revert to a default setting: professor or bust. Friends and family may not be able to affect that setting, but graduate advisers can. And when faculty members don’t make the effort, they, in effect, teach their graduate students to want the kinds of jobs that many of them won’t ever get. Thus do we socialize them in a way that hurts both their prospects and their feelings.

The career-services office at Michigan State takes a more active approach. It aims to create an awareness not of "the job market" (meaning professor or bust) but of "the many job markets" that are out there, says Helm. He calls this "a more mature model." It’s also a different and necessary kind of graduate education, to "build their awareness of the world of work."

The program doesn’t wait for students to become angry and despairing nonprofessors who feel that they’ve somehow failed. Helm brings his office into graduate students’ lives from the beginning of their training, when they still have the time to be taught. "When they need you," he says, "you’re already there."

This early planning centers not just on careers but also on giving future Ph.D.’s "a sense of belonging and connection." Beginning graduate students, says Helm, "are a lot like freshmen. They need to adjust, adapt, find a sense of place."

Helm starts making that place immediately. He sends a welcome letter to each of the thousands of incoming graduate students each year, inviting them to a combined picnic and "resource fair," where he introduces them to all of the support programs that the institution offers: counseling, of course, but also technology, housing, and exercise. (Exercise is "the No. 1 thing they can do to manage stress," says Helm, who has arranged for 225 classes specifically for graduate students, in activities as varied as spinning and yoga).

PREP, an acronym that stands for planning, resilience, engagement, and professionalism, lies at the center of the university’s effort to instill that sense of place. All of those elements are important, but Helm particularly emphasizes resilience. One of PREP’s most important workshops, he says, is "Navigating Graduate School Effectively," a session designed to help students gain the ability to negotiate obstacles. Other workshops that attract midcareer graduate students are devoted to time management (a four-part series) and "successful productivity."

In keeping with his own split duties to the graduate school and the student-affairs office, Helm uses PREP as a bridge to work not only with students on career planning but also with faculty members on the role they should be playing. As a result of outreach by Helm’s office, many of the university’s graduate programs have customized the PREP program for their own students. For example, the chemistry department might hold a PREP-sponsored workshop on CV-writing with an expert who knows the specific needs of that young scientific cohort.

Helm is aiming at a peer-led approach in the future, based on what he calls "strong graduate-student organizations at the departmental level." His overarching goal, he says, is for PREP to "become an organic part of academic life," not just a support alongside it.

Research shows that many graduate students have an interest in nonfaculty careers in their first and second years but are often afraid to admit that, Helm says. Maren Wood, a consultant to the American Historical Association, reported at its annual meeting this year that some graduate students even harbor paranoid fantasies that they’re being "tracked" by career services, which will then report back to their departments about their supposed lack of seriousness about professorial careers.

PREP aims for a more coherent—and saner—approach. The program is structured around the early, middle, and later stages of a graduate student’s career, with resources designed for each level. For example, PREP offers a workshop for incoming students that’s focused on the question of what a new graduate student needs to plan to be successful in graduate school.

Such planning won’t be limited to preprofessorial training. PREP, says Helm, sees graduate-student career goals as works in progress. The program is "built on the notion that what they came here to achieve may change"—and that the sooner one meets the needs that attend those changes, the better the result is likely to be.

Accordingly, PREP focuses on giving graduate students "essential competencies" that are transferable outside of faculty settings. Helm’s office conducted a study of Ph.D.’s employed in various career tracks—not just in academe—to determine what those competencies are. (The results were published in The Journal of Faculty Development in 2012.) These skills include assessment, management and communications skills, business, and entrepreneurialism as well as teaching and proposal writing. Graduate students already have the basics of many of these skills, Helm points out, but they aren’t always aware of that and need to "develop consciousness" of what they can do.

PREP has a strong online component, which works well at a university with a large population. Its website (Grad.msu.edu/prep) is thick with information and video tutorials—what Helm calls "knowledge networks." We "try to hit graduate students in large numbers," he says. Indeed, the live workshops are popular: "We fill everything, all the time." That success comes partly from continuing assessment. "We need," says Helm, "to show what works."

Graduate programs need integrative approaches like this. Students want such programs, and they take advantage of them when they’re offered. Whether students become professors or not, says Helm, they have to learn "how to use their research skills to learn about the world of work."

At a time when graduate enrollment is declining, we should think more globally about the uses of graduate education and its broader social good. We can’t do that unless we help our students to use their education in broad and global ways. That’s not an add-on to a program of scholarship. It has to be a full part of what we do.

Leonard Cassuto, a professor 
of English at Fordham University, writes regularly about graduate education in this space. He welcomes comments, suggestions, and stories at lcassuto@erols.com.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.