I decided early in the dissertation-writing stage that I wasn’t interested in pursuing a tenure-track career. But it wasn’t until I actually accepted a full-time job offer — which I did while I was still writing — that my supervisor had any idea of my career plans. He just got an email from me one day that essentially said, “Oh hey! So yeah, I have a job in research administration at our university now, and I’m going to finish writing my dissertation, but I’m going part-time and … cool?”
It was awkward.
And out of the blue.
And it didn’t have to be.
Like many graduate students, I never had an explicit conversation with my supervisor about my career plans. He just assumed that I’d be aiming to become a faculty member. And I assumed that he, as someone who had only ever been an academic, had nothing to offer me in the work I was doing to explore nonfaculty career options prior to getting my first job.
The situation my supervisor and I were in is incredibly common, but it doesn’t need to be. A significant part of my job now is changing that by giving both supervisors and the people they supervise the tools they both need to have productive conversations about what comes after grad school or a postdoc. I also work to get into the right hands the knowledge of where to send people for help in figuring out what comes next for the times when supervisors come up against the limits of their usefulness.
It’s only natural for this to happen. Faculty members can’t possibly be everything — supervisor, teacher, mentor, researcher and career counselor — to all people. Supervisors can’t be, and shouldn’t aim to be, career development professionals in addition to being researchers and teachers. It’s unrealistic for faculty members to know the ins and outs of every career in which their students and postdocs might be interested.
That’s what people like all the writers of “Carpe Careers” are here for.
But even if we want faculty members to send their students our way when it comes time for professional support and advice, they do have some significant career-related responsibility before that point. It is realistic, and necessary, for faculty members to:
- Know and talk about the realities of the academic job market in their fields.
- Have open conversations about the diversity of career plans and interests their supervisees have.
- Do what they can to ensure that all of their students and postdocs — not just the very few who also aim to become faculty members — are set up for career success.
- Have a strong referral network to career and support services on the campus and off it.
Whether you’re a graduate supervisor, a graduate student or a career development professional, you’ve likely seen more than one grad student or postdoc get to the end of their degree, realize that a tenure-track career is either not possible or not what they want, and then end up in crisis because they’ve absorbed the culture of academe and closed off their thinking about other possibilities for their future career.
Faculty members have a major role to play in keeping that from happening. Career exploration and change are always going to be hard work and emotionally taxing. But here’s what supervisors can do to help ensure that their students and fellows are ready, and well supported, to do the work.
Talk about all kinds of career paths and valorize none. Ask your students and fellows where they want to end up, and make sure you’re equally supportive of all those places. Ensure that your supervisees (and new students and fellows joining your program) know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements — and in all kinds of other jobs. (If your program isn’t doing this tracking work yet, that’s a great place to start.)
Encourage your supervisees to think about a variety of postdegree career paths — in fact, refuse to have a career conversation that only focuses on professorial careers. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate nonprofessorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid — and equally valorous.
Keep track of your graduates, not just the ones that become professors. Know what your supervisees are doing with their Ph.D.s. (And know what the students who started but didn’t finish their degree — which, if you’re tracking to average, is probably about half of them — are doing, too.) Be able to point to specific careers your alumni work in when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a Ph.D. in their field can do. Know at least a little about your former students’ transition stories — how they got where they are and what they did to get there — so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-Ph.D. lives. Reach out to your former students and fellows when you have a new supervisee interested in the same career and help them build their professional network.
Know where to refer your students when you’re out of your depth. Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program, or at least a workshop or seminar series, focused on professional and career skills. It also certainly has a career center, one that has at least some capacity to support Ph.D.s in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty members and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after.
There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include:
- myGradSkills.ca: online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching and learning;
- Mitacs STEP: one- and two-day intensive workshops in leadership and management, communication and relationship building, personal and professional management, entrepreneurialism; and
- Lynda.com: more than 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in many major cities.
Give your students and postdocs resources to read. The number of resources out there for Ph.D.-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped in to the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places Ph.D. holders happily end up. Some good resources include:
Acknowledge that your students and postdocs are working with you for lots of reasons. Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their Ph.D. as a six-year contract job that can pay reasonably well and will let them do work they love. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don’t know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid reasons for pursuing a Ph.D. or a postdoc, and your students and fellows should feel comfortable being honest about their reasons for working with you and what that means for what comes next.
Faculty members should also remember that the culture of academe is such that many people who start out not wanting to become a professor or being open to other things will end up internalizing the message that the only worthy career is a faculty one. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100 percent of people desperate for the thing that less than 20 percent will find is a recipe for misery.
Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about. Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. But they rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing alone with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on and on.
Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad. You owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality — not the fantasy — of doing what you do. The fact is that Ph.D.s often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like. I’ve seen the reality of a professorial career become an unpleasant surprise to new faculty members more than a few times. (Indeed, some of my most regular clients looking for career transition services are assistant professors.)
The onus is truly on graduate students and postdocs to figure out what they want to do with their training and to find their way onto a career path that makes them excited. But faculty members have a significant role to play in making that process feel normal, supported and possible — regardless of what job they’re aiming for.