Question: I have recently asked for a letter of recommendation from my adviser. She said that I had worked very hard and I had done lots of good work, but that she could not give me a letter. She said I was insecure and lacked confidence and that she had a deep dislike for such people. She said such people did not belong in academe, whatever their other accomplishments. I have worked so hard. I always thought that if you do hard work, people will appreciate you. What am I doing wrong? Is this going to be the end of my career?
Answer: As career counselors, we often see graduate students and postdocs who are despondent because, in their view, someone -- usually an adviser -- or something -- such as a lack of opportunities in their field, a decision to leave a Ph.D. program with only a master's degree, or a dissertation that is still unfinished -- will keep them from further success.
We have seen some extraordinarily challenging situations -- everything from unkind advisers to debilitating accidents and illnesses -- that can make career planning feel out of your control. But rather than sitting back and hoping that things will work out, there are steps you can and should take to jump-start your career.
Know thyself. One of the first steps in taking control of your job search is thinking about what you would like to do and where you would like to work, independent of pressure from your department or your adviser.
Sometimes the easiest approach is to think about what you would rather not do. If you want to keep your teaching duties to a minimum, perhaps working at a liberal-arts college is not the best choice for you. If you can't bear another minute at the bench, you might want to reconsider that career in industrial research.
If you can't narrow things down by yourself, start doing a little research. Talk to people at institutions like one at which you see yourself. If you're thinking about careers outside of academe, do the same. That's the best way to evaluate whether a nonacademic career is right for you.
Knowing yourself means knowing your limits. How far are you willing to move for a tenure-track job, how many visiting positions or postdocs are you willing to take in the interim, before you consider doing something else?
Step up to the plate. Recently, we attended a panel on careers for scientists in the pharmaceutical industry. One of the speakers, a high-level scientist, ended his presentation with this sentence: "You, and only you, are responsible for your job search." As career counselors, we couldn't agree more. Any job search will require a good deal of your time, and should be started well in advance of the date on which you hope to be employed. That is especially true if you're looking to transition out of academe.
Even those who are just starting a graduate program or a postdoc should ask themselves, "What can I do now to begin creating opportunities for myself?" Chances are, no one will take you by the hand and lead you to the perfect job, even if you have a wonderfully supportive adviser or mentor.
Be ready for opportunity. At the same panel, a postdoc stood up and asked, "Would you hire a chemistry Ph.D. who has done a postdoc in molecular biology?" All of the panelists responded, "We are always looking for people with this background. Do you have your CV on you?" Unfortunately, she didn't. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt, she was hardly dressed appropriately to meet with representatives from industry.
Always have an updated copy of your CV ready to go, just in case. And absolutely take it with you, and dress nicely, if, like that unfortunate postdoc, you are attending an event where you will meet professionals from an organization or an industry that interests you.
Make contact with people. The Internet has made it such that much of your job search can be carried out in isolation. However, you will significantly improve your chances of finding employment if you leave the library or your lab every once in a while.
Meet professors in other departments, and try to develop relationships with them. Take the time to attend professional meetings, and try to meet potential mentors from other institutions. Doing that can protect you in situations like our reader's, especially if your adviser is difficult or unsupportive. That is not always easy, but knowing that you will have others who can testify to your work ethic and skills can be very reassuring.
You never know how the contacts you make could pay off. We know of one Ph.D. in Jewish studies who had not found an academic position through traditional means, but who was offered an interview (and subsequently a tenure-track job) after a faculty member heard him speak at a synagogue.
Think realistically about your options and your needs. Are you making a run on the academic job market? Know that it might not happen the first time, the second time, or at all, so plan accordingly.
Be sure to think about your financial situation in advance. Even as you send out your job applications, start looking into other career options. If you don't land a tenure-track job, will you take a postdoc? Is it possible to stay in your current department and teach for another year? Ask peers who have been in similar situations what they did. You may find out about options you didn't know existed.
Make sure you have rehearsed all possible outcomes of your job search with your spouse or partner. Keep each other informed about the places where you have applied and received a response. Don't wait to think about what to do until you have only seven days to decide on a job offer that will take you across the country.
Think broadly about your options. Although graduate school trains you to be a specialist in a rather narrow subject area, it most likely provided you with other skills that have a broader application. Many graduate students leave their programs with the ability to teach, to write, to do research, and to present complex concepts to a wide variety of audiences. Consider these skills and how you might use them outside of academe.
Take advantage of the resources available to you. Does your university offer career services to Ph.D. students and postdocs? Attend some of the programs and workshops offered on the campus. Have someone in career services look over your CV or résumé, or do a mock interview with you.
Even if you have been out of graduate school for a few years, see what services are offered to graduate alumni. At our university, we both see people who received their Ph.D.'s several years ago.
And don't overlook your university's Web site. Any university career office or graduate school that offers career services to doctoral students will have lots of helpful information, advice, and resources online.
If your university does not offer such services to doctoral students, you might see if your undergraduate institution could be of help. Even if it can't, it might be able to suggest some contacts for various types of jobs or give you access to a network of alumni.
Take advantage of your current institution. If your mentor isn't helpful, cultivate other mentors in the department. Attend the job talks of candidates in similar departments to understand what happens. If you're interested in doing something nonacademic, take a look at the wide variety of people who come to campus to speak, and go listen to them.
Moreover, staff members at large universities have many different types of jobs. If you're thinking about a nonacademic career and are interested in public relations, for example, you might start exploring that field by doing an informational interview with someone who works in PR at your institution.
Protect yourself. The most common problem that we see among doctoral students from all fields is a difficult relationship with an adviser or with the faculty member who is the principal investigator on the research grant the students are working on.
Before choosing a mentor, find out all you can about that person. Ask former graduate students or postdocs what it was like working with him or her. Find out if a given professor actually reads dissertations, or how much time he or she actually spends in the lab. If your publication record will be dependent on someone else's project or take place in someone else's lab, ask how questions of intellectual property will be handled before you sign on to work there.
If you decide that a professor's scholarly reputation makes working with him or her worth it, in spite of potential problems, take steps to protect yourself just in case things go badly. Know by heart the requirements of your graduate program, or the department's guidelines on postdoctoral fellowships. Learn how to deal professionally and assertively with your mentor: Meet deadlines, talk about the research, and try to think of yourself as a colleague (as opposed to a lowly graduate student or postdoc). Have other mentors who will be willing to support you if the relationship goes awry.
Hold on to your e-mail communication. Confirm by e-mail decisions made in person or by phone. Having a written record may turn out to be helpful.
Deal with your "weaknesses." For the reader whose question inspired this column, one of her biggest weaknesses is the lack of a letter from her adviser. Her best plan of action would be to have other mentors speak about the situation in their letters of reference. That can also be an effective strategy for candidates dealing with other "weaknesses," such as a protracted illness or a personal situation that slows down dissertation research, for example.
Practice talking out loud about anything that might be considered a weakness before you go into an interview. Be able to speak persuasively about how you will overcome your lack of teaching experience, or to explain why you're interested in working outside of academe. No matter how many times you rehearse something in your mind, you have to practice saying it aloud in order to sound convincing.
Stay positive. Job hunting can be lonely. It will probably take longer for you to find a job than you expect. In many cases, you will hear "no" more often than you hear "yes," if you hear anything at all.
Have a group of supporters who understand what you are going through. Talk to people in the career office or to fellow graduate students and postdocs. Having someone with whom you can touch base frequently can mitigate some of the feelings of isolation and frustration that are often associated with a job search.
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Julie Miller Vick is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. Jennifer S. Furlong, who earned her Ph.D. in romance languages from Penn in 2003, is a graduate career counselor at the university. Vick is one of the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), along with Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.
You can order their book directly from the University of Pennsylvania Press or from either of the online booksellers below.