• September 2, 2014

What to Expect From Your Career-Services Advisers

We don’t have a stake in your earning a Ph.D., but we can help you figure out what to do with it

Advice Love your PhD

Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

Julie: In the recent conversation about career outcomes for Ph.D.’s, much has been said—both positive and negative—about the role of the campus career-services office. To help graduate students understand what to expect, and what not to expect, we talked with some of our peers in career services across academe.

Jenny: Most of the graduate career advisers we know work with Ph.D.’s in an extremely wide range of fields, from anthropology to zoology, you might say—in other words, with people who have a wide range of career goals. Even those of us at more specialized institutions, such as medical schools that grant doctoral degrees in the life sciences, see students pursue a wide range of careers, including venture capital, high-school teaching, and government work.

Although many career counselors have strong knowledge about each of those career paths, we do not have the same depth of insight as those actually working in the profession. That’s why a good career adviser will help you to connect with people working in your areas of interest. And that’s why career offices work so hard to bring guest speakers and employers to campus (and are sometimes disappointed by low turnout at those events). We like to give you the opportunity to learn and ask questions about a variety of careers.

Julie: Most career offices don’t require graduate students or alumni to have prepared application materials (like a CV or a cover letter) before making an appointment. "In fact, we have found that advance preparation can serve as a barrier to using our services for some students," said Kamilah McCoy of Northwestern University’s career services. "The student then becomes too focused on having everything ‘in order’ prior to scheduling an appointment with career services and can miss important information and deadlines. We take more of a ‘come as you are’ approach. Each student has a different starting point, and we can begin at that place."

Jenny: In using career services, doctoral students and alumni are often concerned about confidentiality. They fear that our offices report the names of students who come to us back to their academic departments. Let me assure you: That is not the case.

We do keep track of how people are using our programs. Like all campus offices, it’s important to know who uses which services, and when, in order to allocate resources effectively. But we don’t do that in order to report on individual students or alumni. Most career offices report statistics in a general way (i.e., humanities students make up 38 percent of our one-on-one counseling usage) or in the aggregate (i.e., during 2012-13, 57 social-sciences doctoral students attended panels and workshops).

Cynthia Fuhrmann, assistant dean of career and professional development in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, stressed how important confidentiality is to her when working with students. "I will keep our conversations confidential," she said, adding that students "don’t have to worry about me making any judgments. And I am happy to discuss a wider range of issues they are facing, from deciding between two job offers to considering whether their current lab is a good fit."

Julie: That nonjudgmental approach is one of the things that students and alumni find most helpful about campus career offices. As career counselors, we don’t have a stake in whether you complete your Ph.D. program (or not), or whether you pursue a tenure-track position (or not). We know how harmful the rhetoric of failure can be to students or alumni who have chosen a nonacademic or nonfaculty path. We want to help you make a choice that is in line with your own definition of success—whatever that may be.

Jenny: Career advising is a conversation, and conversation involves two people. One of the most challenging expectations that students often bring to career advisers is the belief that there is a predefined list of nonacademic or alternative-academic (commonly called alt-ac) jobs for their field. As Amy Homkes-Hayes of the University of Michigan’s career center noted: "Many times, a student will sit down in my office with the expectation that I will read to him or her from this list and he or she will then chose and move on."

Career advisers find that it’s most important to let the students and alumni do the talking. We want to know things like why they came to graduate school, why they chose their current field, what they plan (or once planned) to do when they finish, what they’ve liked about graduate school (and hated), and what they’ve done for their job search so far. This helps us to get a sense of where they are in their career decision-making process and helps us to assist them in moving forward in a positive direction.

Julie: I also like to ask people interested in nonacademic or alt-ac fields to tell me what their career goal was when they started their doctoral program and what has shaped their current goals. As we talk I can often get a sense of skills that have been developed and interests that have been piqued which can be helpful as we work together to develop their next step.

Jenny: Working together is a big part of what we do with students when they come to us for help. The first visit to the careers office, said Amy Pszczolkowski, assistant director of graduate-student career counseling at Princeton University, "is the start of many future conversations we may have. For future appointments I may ask them to prepare a résumé, cover letter, or other job-application documents (an essay for a consulting position, for example). Often they leave with assignments or expectations of what they will do before we meet again."

When I meet with students, I also like to point them toward other sources of information, including websites such as Versatile Ph.D., Ph.D.’s at Work, or My IDP that can help students to get ideas for moving forward. It’s also important for students to seek advice from fellow Ph.D.’s who have been through this process.

Julie: Having assignments can help students feel that they are making some progress. However, it can also convey the mistaken idea that a job search is linear—that is, "if I just follow the steps I’ll get a new career and job." Nothing could be further from the truth.

If anything, figuring out which career path you want to follow and applying for positions requires frequent interaction, revision. and reconsideration. Nonacademic job searches are almost never straightforward. Every Ph.D. has to find his or her own path.

So what can Ph.D.’s realistically expect from a career-services office?

Jenny: You can realistically expect to:

  • Have continuing discussions about your career decisions and job search with a career adviser.
  • Be strongly encouraged to attend panels, job-hunting workshops, career fairs, and employer presentations.
  • Learn about your professional options and determine which ones resonate with you.
  • Interact with people in a variety of fields.
  • Develop a network of contacts.
  • Identify people to connect with via informational interviews and networking.
  • Receive a constructive evaluation of your job-application materials.
  • Gain advice on finding job announcements and potential employers.
  • Practice for interviews of all kinds including via Skype.
  • Get assistance with developing your "elevator speech"—a quick statement of your career goal.
  • Find help with negotiating offers or planning the your next job search.

Here’s what you should not realistically expect:

  • A list of predefined career paths for your field.
  • A quick answer to the question of, as Homkes-Hayes put it, "what should I do with my life now that I don’t want to be an academic?"
  • A list of Ph.D. alumni in every career field that can be instantly supplied.
  • A placement service with a list of job openings that match your Ph.D.

Julie: While we don’t divulge the personal information we hear from students, they should understand that we do try to work with their academic departments and schools. We reach out to graduate chairs and deans to inform/remind them of our services, and to offer to speak to their faculties and present to their students.

Jenny: Leonard Cassuto’s recent article "More Than One Possible Future" argues for greater cooperation between campus career services and academic departments (and highlights the terrific work of a colleague at Michigan State University, Matt Helm). We couldn’t agree more and regularly work to create relationships with faculty members at our own institutions.

Julie: Departments can work with the campus career office to keep track of Ph.D.’s who are in various career paths, and to jointly sponsor events bringing in Ph.D. alums in nonfaculty careers as guest speakers. We encourage faculty members to reach out to the career office at their institution. Help us to help your doctoral students.

Julie Miller Vick recently retired as senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press).

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