Katharine Brooks Ed.D.

Career Transitions

10 Tips for Developing an Alternate Career While in Graduate School

When Plan B becomes Plan A.

Posted Oct 25, 2011

There's a lot of talk in academic circles about "alternate" careers for graduate students. Tenure-track professor positions have always been in short supply relative to the number of candidates, but in recent years the ratio of candidates to position openings is increasing as colleges and universities downsize or even eliminate departments and majors.  Noting that in 2009-10, 989 PhDs in History were conferred while only 569 jobs were available in academia, the American Historical Association recently came out with a statement titled "No More Plan B" encouraging faculty and departments to take a broader perspective on career opportunities for their graduate students.  

You might hit the jackpot and land that desirable academic job. But you might not. Smart career planning is all about keeping your eye on a target while keeping your options open. Planning a career outside traditional academic roles requires creativity, strategy, and an openness to what appears. No matter what your status is, you need a back-up plan. 

So how do you begin?  Start by making a list-- even if you don't know where you might go, where could your skills and talents be applied?  John Maxwell says that "creativity is connecting the unconnected." If you think about it, you can usually find the connection between your courses, experiences, and the careers you're considering.  If not, then it's a sign that you need to line up some experiences which will bring you closer to your newly chosen field. 

Begin developing Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and so on.  And then be prepared to do something completely different. You start with a plan, but always remain open. 

When I was completing my doctorate in educational psychology, I identified several likely employment sites for my background: school districts; medical centers; state vocational rehabilitation agencies; private insurance companies; or human resources offices. I investigated potential employers, developed contacts, and created experiences related to each area, ultimately developing several differently-targeted resumes. I applied to jobs in all these areas.

So where did I land?  In a 1-year temporary position as a counselor in a liberal arts college. If nothing else, I figured it would provide structure and income while I continued my job search and finished my dissertation.  But I was promoted-- and had a wonderful 19-year career there.  And my various roles (including managing career services, disability services, tutoring programs, teaching freshman seminars and other courses, supervising resident advisors, and taking student interns to Dublin) drew constantly on my education and experiences.

My point is this: if you had asked me while I was taking my doctoral classes if I was preparing to work for a small liberal arts college, I would have said no. Be prepared for the unexpected.

Here are 10 tips to broaden your career opportunities while you're still in school:

1. Employers are interested in executive functioning skills-- that is, your ability to organize tasks, stick to deadlines, follow through on initiatives, etc.  How can you demonstrate your mastery of these skills?

2. Use your research skills to research career fields and potential employers. Your research can begin in your department: ask for a listing of recent graduates' employment. If your department doesn't have that info, can you at least get their names?  See if they have a LinkedIn account to find out what they're doing. And if what they're doing interests you, consider contacting them for an information interview.

Research organizations and career opportunities.  Read job listings online to get an idea of "what's out there."  Read job descriptions to learn more about the requirements of different fields.

3. Find the connections.  As you go through your program, ask yourself: How can I use this information? Where would this experience be valued? How will this translate to a variety of careers? How can I acquire more knowledge and skills? For instance, how could the skills that you developed teaching that difficult first-year class that students didn't want to take be used in other settings?  What did you learn from teaching that class?

4. Develop strong and varied references. You may or may not be able to get strong references from your department depending on your relationships with your professors, as well as their ability to connect what you have done with the non-academic world.  You don't need a reference letter that speaks eloquently of your deep knowledge of object relational analysis and the characters in Tennessee Williams' plays if your employer is likely to be a marketing firm.  Your job, of course, is to make that connection in the interview (which you can...) but it is unlikely that your advisor will do so in a reference letter, unless you prep him/her. 

5. Seek out additional courses to augment your degree, based on your other interests.  (Stopping out of my doctoral program to obtain a school psychology certificate allowed me to move up in my job and perform more interesting assessments.) Can you enroll in other classes while remaining in your program? Can you audit classes? Can you find an online version elsewhere?

6. Seek out experiences, including internships that will highlight your skills and strengthen your resume-- whether or not they "fit" your degree.  You may be pursuing a degree in sociology but if you've always had an interest in advertising and communication, why not do an internship with an advertising firm?  Internships will give you connections, references, and may help you find a job.  

Note: At this point, I usually get comments from graduate students that they don't have time to do this.  You're wrong.  You're putting a false limitation on the situation: not every valuable experience has to take lots of time.  You can volunteer one afternoon a week and acquire the skills/experience you need.

I built my resume in grad school by offering guest lectures and workshops in areas related to possible careers.  For instance, when I thought I might return to human resources, I contacted the business school at the university where I was getting my degree.  I found a professor who encouraged outside speakers and asked if I could deliver a program on hiring/interviewing individuals with disabilities.  After doing one lecture, the professor asked me to return for more and soon I had a series of presentations I could put on my resume to demonstrate not only my training skills, but also my knowledge of employment-related disability issues. Doing these lectures, of course, required me to research the current practices and latest legal aspects of hiring-- all good information for future interviews.  These efforts didn't take much time from my regular schedule and greatly added to my resume (not to mention also providing me with another reference).

7. Develop your computer skills, specifically word processing, Excel, and PowerPoint.  Invest time in social media and creating a brand (more on that in a future post).

8. Consider joining one or more professional organizations related to possible employment fields. Take advantage of much lower student rates and the potential for networking and job listings.

9. Develop a career network with your colleagues in the program.  Form a "study group" with a career focus.  You're now going to support each other by sharing job leads, networking ideas, information about other employers and careers, etc. Try the law school study group model: each person researches a career area (think tanks, consulting firms, education administration, etc.) and creates a resource guide for sharing. See if your university's career center can assist.

10.  Finally, remember that It's not what you can do with your degrees, it's what you can do with all your skills, experiences, knowledge and education. Start investing in your future-- you are in charge. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Want to learn more? Here are the links to my series of posts related to helping graduate students find jobs outside academia:

The Graduate Student Job Search: Welcome to the Chaos

Leaving Academia: The Transition Begins

Career Transitions for Graduate Students and Others

Writing Effective CV's and Resumes

10 Tips for Developing an Alternate Career While in Graduate School

Social Media and the Grad Student Job Search

©2011 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.

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