What to do in the Meantime

So, you’ve decided to keep an open mind about your post-PhD future (meaning, something other than the tenure track). Maybe you’ve got a supportive advisor, maybe not. Maybe your program hosts alternative career panels, maybe not. Regardless of the level of program support, however, there are some things you can do now, on your own, to explore options or gain the skills/experiences you might need in your academic afterlife. Here are some tips I’ve picked up along the way.

[I can’t recall all the sources, but I know that Versatile PhD has been a major resource; in addition to Escape the Ivory Tower, and Leaving Academia. And fantastic new-t0-me blogs Worst Professor Ever and On the Fence.]

  • Google. Probably obvious, but good to remember for basic Idea Gathering, finding communities, resources, tips, statistics, median salaries, etc. Good way to learn the “facts” of the academic market, in addition to various alternatives.
  • Career Center. Maybe obvious, maybe not. Not quite “student” nor faculty, grad students seem to sometimes slip through the cracks (at least at my University). Many services, such as the Career Center, don’t market themselves to grad students, but they’re there for us, too. Probably a good place to help translate the academic CV to a resume. (I say “probably” because my one experience at a career center was *terrible*, but I’ll probably go back at some point, with a different counselor.)
  • Informational Interviews. Once you have a few ideas about potential career alternatives, seek out people in those careers and talk to them. I’ve done one — an English PhD in academic advising — and it was extremely useful. Of course, there are lists of do’s and don’ts in relation to informational interviews (such as never solicit for a job), but maybe that’s for a different post.
  • Network. Once of the advantages of informational interviews is that you’re building a network of people working in careers and in places you think are interesting. Beyond that, though, the usual strategies for networking include LinkedIn, conferences, alumni networks, and staff listings/directories for the kinds of places you’re interested in. Keep in mind that networking is reciprocal; you can’t just collect contacts you think will be useful for your own aspirations, you have to reciprocate: how can you be useful for other people?
  • Volunteer/Intern. Of course grad students are busy teaching, taking classes, taking exams, and writing dissertations (among many other Life things, like having babies), but if you can find a few hours a week or month to volunteer, it’s a great way to gain skills and experience and explore potential careers. For writing/editing careers in particular, I’ve heard that volunteering, such as writing for non-profits, is a good way to build a portfolio, since you might not get hired right away without a body of work or experience. (And again, a good opportunity for networking.) I’ve been volunteering at a local museum; I’ve made some great friends, I’m learning new technical skills, and honestly, it’s great to be in an environment where my knowledge and training are actually valued.
  • Read job listings. If you’re not on the job market, this might not be obvious, but it’s a great way to see what kinds of skills, education, and experiences make up your Dream Job. Also keep in mind, though, that job ads often paint the picture of an ideal candidate; applicants strong in every qualification/preference are rare. The links I’ve posted in the sidebar under “Jobs and Fellowship Opportunities” reflect my particular interests in technology, history, and the humanities, but the same basic logic applies: find the key job listing sites in your fields of interest, professional organizations, non-profits, corporations, whatever, and stalk them. I will add that subscribing to RSS feeds with GoogleReader makes stalking job ads really easy and convenient; some job sites allow you to save searches and will email you new postings that meet your parameters.
  • Know thyself. This last one’s probably the most difficult, at least for me. I know there are good books out there to help you find your bliss, figure out your personality type, and land your dream job, but I haven’t delved too deeply into those just yet. My basic strategy (for now) is based on the fact that I really enjoy the odd jumble of jobs I do now: I work in a writing program (but don’t really teach writing classes), I tutor writing, and I work on a digital humanities project. I’ve tried to isolate what I really enjoy about each activity and figure out how it might translate into a real job (as in, I love tutoring, maybe academic advising would fit?). I’m trying to keep my options open, but I’m also trying not to be overzealous about every possibility merely because I’m uncertain about what I’d like to do and where I’ll fit.
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2 Responses to “What to do in the Meantime”


  1. 1 WorstProfEver November 20, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Good advice. The networking is some of the hardest work you’ll have to do, but it’s the the best way to expand your world outside the walls of the Ivory Tower — very necessary, regardless of what you plan to do in the end!

    • 2 alternativephd November 22, 2010 at 11:32 pm

      Yeah, the networking is still definitely a challenge! Whenever I think about networking, I feel like I should have business/contact cards, and then I get excited to pick out some cool ones, and then I have an identity crisis about what to put on them, and then I don’t get them. Clearly, I need some new networking strategies. =)


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