Things I Wish Someone had Told Me During My PhD

I gave a talk at Queen's University to a mixed group of grad students, adjuncts, faculty and staff on hacking your graduate degree for maximum post-PhD flexibility. I also hosted a similar session for some students at my university. The point of the talk is that graduate students can make strategic choices about the opportunities they pursue during their degrees,and that these opportunities can help them develop a variety of skills, a strong professional network, and a compelling body of work which can make it easier for them to pursue a variety of career paths inside and outside of the academy. What I wanted to do was have an honest conversation about the things I wish I had known during grad school, things that would have made my time there even more enjoyable and productive, and that would have made my eventual transition onto the #alt-ac track (both mentally, and literally) more seamless and painless. 

And how does one hack one's graduate degree, you might ask? Here's my advice. 

1. Be Realistic, and Open, About What Comes After Grad School

In the recent America-wide survey by Duke University graduate student Gregory Brennen, the data showed that 83% of graduate students started their PhD expecting to become a tenure-track professor. This is in stark contrast with the current data on how many PhDs actually end up in tenure track jobs—most estimates suggest that fewer than 50% of PhDs end up in any kind of academic job (that includes contract teaching) and that only between 15% and 25% ever secure tenure track jobs. Given this reality, graduate students need to prepare for, and embrace, the multitude of possibilities open to them after they complete their degrees. And they need to remember that being an academic is just a job, and that the are tons of interesting, fulfilling jobs doing other things. Mine is a good example.

2. Make Strategic Decisions About What You Do During Your Degree

As a friend kindly reminded me after I kept claiming that I got lucky in ending up in my job, we make our own luck. What seems random is actually, when you look back, a series of strategic decisions that lead to a whole host of post-degree opportunities. In my case, that strategic decision was to take a research assistantship in lieu of teaching during the fourth year of my PhD. While many PhD students fund their studies by teaching, and that's a wonderful opportunity for people who are looking for careers in education, that may not be the best choice for people who are looking to do other things and need a different set of skills. These other opportunities are also extremely useful academically. Research or graduate assistantships are a big one to consider, as is doing an industry-partnered internship with Mitacs. So might be going on an international exchange, or selecting a graduate co-op program (which UBC now has in English, and Aimee tells me Waterloo is going to develop.) In my case, the research assistantship, researching graduate student professional development programs, let me develop the skills, knowledge, and experience that got me my job as a Research Officer.

3. Take Advantage of the Resources Available on Campus

As grad students, it’s easy to believe that most of the student support services available on campus are there for undergraduates, but that is emphatically not the case. There are a myriad of resources available on most campuses to help graduate students make the most of their degrees, to help them navigate the academic job market, or to help them transition out of academia or into an #alt-ac or #post-ac career. The Career Centre is a great place to start, and they can provide assistance with academic and non-academic job searches; Advancement can often connect grads with alumni in the fields they're interested in; most Canadian universities now have graduate student professional development programs that offer a whole host of workshops and seminars; Mitacs offers a full suite of free transferable skills workshops; and many faculty members can, sometimes surprisingly, provide guidance and support in the search for jobs in and outside of the academy. It can be scary talking to faculty about plans to abandon the tenure track--believe me, I know--but the culture of silence around #alt-ac and #post-ac transition isn't going to disappear until we all start talking about it. 

4. Consider Creating A Shadow C.V.

One of the most important things graduate students can do to demonstrate to people outside of the academy that they have the needed skills is to have evidence that you're capable of working outside of the academy. Especially for PhDs, the assumption that we're overeducated and lacking in practical skills can be hard to overcome without demonstrated outside experience, and having at least one example of non-academic work experience to put in a resume can go a long way toward helping graduate students mentally connect the skills they've honed as a graduate students with those that crop up on job postings, and to help overcome the feeling that there's nothing they're qualified to do but be a professor. People have started calling experience developed alongside academic work, but not included in academic documents, a “shadow C.V.” In my case, I took a year off between my Master’s and my PhD to work in publishing and continued tutoring and editing throughout my degree. Other people I know have done summer placements, taken part-time jobs, done industry-partnered internships, or created web-based consulting and writing firms that allow them to work on their own time. 

6. Learn How to Talk About Your Skills and Research to People Outside of Academia

Academese and English can sometimes seem like two different languages, and this is a major barrier to people with graduate degrees trying to make their qualifications and research make sense in contexts outside of the academy. It’s only natural. Communicating highly specialized research to non-academics isn’t a skill that most academics at any level practice all that much, other than the inevitable attempts to explain your work to your mother, or to someone you meet at a party. This is certainly changing, though. But opportunities to practice do exist, and graduate students should take advantage of them: compete in the Three Minute Thesis; take workshops on clear language writing; practice translating research into non-specialist language. Doing this can seem very non-intuitive for grad students, especially for those who have been academe for a long time, but once they learn how to do it, the relationship between what they do as academics and what shows up in job postings often becomes painfully obvious, as does the potential impact of their work outside the academy. This is, as a side benefit, and increasingly strong focus for many granting agencies, a number of which also now require clear-language or lay research summaries.

7. Think About What You Really Want to Do

Many PhD students are committed to being professors without actually knowing what the life, and the job, of a professor is really like. Our archives here at Hook & Eye can be pretty illuminating. Parts of it match up closely with the starry-eyed dream, but others definitely don't. Meetings are endless and often frustrating. Grading is a slog. The pressure to publish and get stellar teaching evaluations can be debilitating. Students are disengaged. Service takes up far more time that people realize, and there's never enough time for research and reflection. Graduate students should be figuring out what it is they really love about academia, and thinking about other jobs that might let them do those things more. The book So What Are You Going to Do with That? includes some fantastic exercises, ones that helped me realize that the things I love to do and am good at doing--coordinating, facilitating other people's work and success, communications, writing, mentorship--are key components of all sorts of #alt-ac and #post-ac jobs, including my current one.

8. Think About What You Really Don’t Want to Do

As PhDs, we're indoctrinated to believe that we should be willing to give up everything for a tenure track job. At some point, I shrugged that indoctrination off and made a list of the things that were more important to me than tenure: I didn’t want to move, wait until I was 40 to have kids, spend most of my life grading papers, spend multiple years as a contract professor, or write things that no one would ever read. For me, those were pretty convincing reasons to give up on the idea of becoming a professor, which requires total mobility, limits reproductive choices, requires far more teaching than research for most people, and mostly values journal and book publications that most people won’t read. The most important thing I had to convince myself of--and that we must tell graduate students, over and over--is that choosing where to live, desiring to have a child without worrying about compromising doctoral work or chances at tenure, refusing precarious employment, are totally legitimate life choices that are okay to voice aloud, despite the tendency of academia to suggest that if you aren’t willing to sacrifice your whole life, even your whole identity, to being an academic, you’re a second-class citizen. It broke my heart, in a good way, to have a whole gaggle of female Queen's students come up to me after my talk and thank me for saying out loud that my desire to have kids before I was 35 was a factor in my decision making. It is for many people, and that's something that should be discussed openly.The other important part of this equation is to get graduate students talking to people they know in academia and outside, and find out from them what their jobs are really like. So long as we perpetuate the belief that academia is the only worthy place of employment, and that a professorship is the only truly fulfulling and engaging job, graduate students will ignore a whole host of career possibilities that might be a much better personal and professional fit.

9. Don’t Conflate Who You Are With What You Do

This is an obvious one, and a hard one to avoid--but if graduate students can avoid the trap of believing that they are academics, and that if they don't get to continue to be academics they'll be nothing, they'll save themselves a horrible and painful identity crisis if the time comes that the professoriate becomes an unobtainable dream. A professorship is just a job. It is not a vocation, or an identity, and graduate students are so much more than the single career option the academy tells them is worthy. 

10. Enjoy the Ride

Getting paid to read for comps. Taking classes totally outside of your area because you can. Auditing things purely for interest. Debating theory over far too much wine. Style-stalking your favourite professor. Choosing conferences based purely on location. These are some of the best parts of grad school, and they should be relished, and they often aren't because PhDs are too busy conferencing and publishing and professionalizing and shadow-CVing and comparing themselves to all of the other PhDs they know. Yes, those things need to get done (minus the last one) but statistically speaking, the chances of getting to stay in academia on a permanent basis are slim. Enjoy the ride while it lasts.