Developing Graduate Career Options

On August 4, 2014 by Grad Forum

grad_studies_sign_thumbnailAs I stand at the front of 101 Cummings Hall, I look out to a hundred sets of eyes staring at me. In the audience are first-year graduate students attending graduate orientation. I start my career services talk by asking them the difference between a resume and a CV. A few brave souls raise their hands. Next, I ask how many think they will pursue an academic career. Almost all hands shoot up, with the exception of the master’s students. “That’s great,” I tell them. Graduate school at Dartmouth will prepare them well for an academic job. They will learn how to conduct cutting edge research, they will be mentored by faculty members, and attend and present at conferences – all requirements to getting an academic job.

However, I suggest they might want to have a Plan B. I was quoted for this simple statement in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, in a piece on advice for PhDs in the job market. Getting a faculty position is defeating the odds. Only 30 percent of all faculty jobs are tenured track positions. Additionally, plans may change; maybe your spouse only wants to live in New York or San Francisco, and the only academic jobs are in the Midwest. Or, perhaps you realize you do not like writing grants.

As you begin your academic career why not allow yourself to have some career options and flexibility? It is difficult to discuss possible career options when I meet with a graduate student, who, in her fifth year, decides she does not want to pursue an academic career, but has done nothing outside the lab to demonstrate other skills and interests. By deciding to keep your options open early on, you can prevent this type of roadblock.

What can first year graduate students do to make sure they have career choices? Work hard in the lab – conduct research, analyze results, and help review grants – but also make an effort to participate in activities outside of the lab.

Years ago I was counseling a graduate student who wanted to take more exams so he could prove to future employers that he was exceptionally smart. I explained that most employers would assume he was smart by virtue of his earning a PhD, but perhaps question his ability to transition to working with others in an industry setting since the only thing he had on his resume was his research.

Employers want to hire smart people with soft skills. This means knowing how to work on teams, lead people, and communicate your science to non-experts. Developing these skills will help you with both non-academic and academic positions. After all, faculty positions involve much more than just research; new faculty must learn to oversee labs, manage people, participate on academic committees, and teach students.

Dartmouth graduate students have an abundance of opportunities to develop their soft skills. They can improve their teaching by attending workshops at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) or talk about their research with middle school kids by taking part in Science Cafés. Students can learn how to make their science ideas profitable by enrolling in the Tuck Business entrepreneur course. They can develop their leadership skills by joining the Graduate Student Council or starting a new club. By writing articles for the Graduate Forum, students have the opportunity to communicate their research and interesting departmental news to a larger audience.

There are countless groups and teams at Dartmouth, and becoming a team member is a beneficial experience whether you are playing intramural sports or engaging in cultural discussions. There are many opportunities, at Dartmouth, for graduate students to gain experience and develop skills that make valuable additions to resumes and CVs. The key is to take advantage of these opportunities.

By working hard in the lab and participating in activities outside the lab, graduate students can open up their career options and make their time in graduate school more enjoyable.

by Kerry Landers

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