Maggie Gover, Director of Graduate Student Professional Development at UC Riverside, has worked with hundreds of Ph.D.s in their transition to non-academic, alt-academic, and post-academic work. She will be sharing the knowledge she’s gained in this work. This is her first post. In it, she urges Ph.D.s to think of themselves as “diamonds in the rough” for the postac workplace–with manifold skills in complex project management, multitasking, working to deadline, managing and delegating, and a host of other tasks.
By Maggie Gover
There are so many narratives about the woes of the academic job market, the exploitation of adjunct faculty positions, and the hopelessness of attempting to market your Ph.D. elsewhere. These stories increased when I was completing my Ph.D. They are proliferating still. Amidst these stories I thought, is this really what I want for my life? I had all the anxieties of those finishing a degree and looking around for work. It was my second year on the academic job market. Despite getting a couple of interviews, I hadn’t been offered the coveted campus visit. After winter break, I began seriously searching for a non-academic position.
While beginning this search, I considered what I found most satisfying about my academic career. I discovered that I didn’t have to go far to find all of these characteristics in a non-faculty position. For five years during my Ph.D., I had worked in an administrative office on campus that focused on the recruitment, support, and retention of graduate students from diverse backgrounds. I loved my research, but I also loved meeting with students from all over campus to talk about their own research. Being able to advise students on how to proceed with their graduate careers was satisfying, and—here is the big confession from an English PhD—I truly adore auto-calculating spreadsheets! I had experience working administratively at two other universities and volunteered as an advisor for a student organization at a third (I still do, in fact). So, it turns out, I was very well suited for an “alt-ac” career. I modified my job search materials and went on the market. I was one of the few lucky people I know who had a full-time job that was scheduled to begin two weeks after graduation.
Currently, I serve as the Director of Graduate Student Professional Development at the University of California, Riverside. My job is extremely satisfying to me because it is completely dedicated to supporting graduate students. I coordinate support to help them successfully complete their degrees with the best mental, physical, and emotional health possible. I also help them tackle the academic and non-academic job markets. While my story may seem exceptional, I am here to tell you that it is more common than you think. The longer I work in this capacity, the more past graduate students contact me to tell me about the amazing and wonderful non-academic jobs they have. With each personal story, I learn more about how these people got where they are.
As the academic job market continues to flag in nearly all fields, I have pondered the ethical dilemma of graduate education as a whole. I often come back to the following questions:
Is graduate education still useful? In a word: yes. It is valuable for the individual as well as the larger community. Spending 4-7 years researching a topic that is particularly interesting to you should be seen as a privilege and a joy. Although there may be moments of frustration, for the most part, you should enjoy what you are doing. I do not subscribe to the notion that one must suffer in order to be a good academic. Besides enjoying your research, you are also building skills that, although many still don’t believe it, are valuable in many industries. Ph.D. programs produce analytical thinkers who are trained to look for the far-reaching implications of proposed solutions to problems. They can communicate abstract and complex ideas to audiences with varying degrees of expertise. Ph.D.s are multi-taskers who can sustain one project for a long period of time while simultaneously beginning and completing many smaller projects. They prioritize tasks on daily, weekly, yearly, and even multi-yearly scales. They create timelines and budgets to navigate the esoteric and mundane aspects of their work. They are detail-oriented and can complete complicated tasks. Most have teaching, mentoring, and supervising experience, which means they can train others to do these tasks and delegate work accordingly. In short, society needs more Ph.D.s who are working outside of academia!
Are employers biased against job seekers with Ph.D.s? The rhetoric surrounding the non-academic job market might lead you to believe so. You may feel like Ph.D.s are a dime a dozen. After all, as a graduate student, you are often surrounded by people who are close to completing their Ph.D.s, have recently finished, or who are professors. The articles that rethink the Ph.D., or even attack it, and those narratives about failed job searches in which hundreds of people are vying for the same TT job, might also lead you to believe that the entire world is flooded with Ph.D.s. In actuality, according to statistics from 2013, only around 1.7% of adults in the USA have a Ph.D. (see here for more information). So, you are, in actuality, a diamond in the rough. This rarity means that many employers have never worked with or supervised a PhD. They may not even know one. They don’t know what the degree means, what specialized skills you might have, or why you might want the job they are offering. So, are they biased against Ph.D.s? Probably not. They simply do not understand what holding a Ph.D. means. This is why it is so important to communicate your skills clearly to employers and non-academic audiences.
How can we make Ph.D.s more relevant in the job market? There was a time in the not too distant past where a bachelor’s degree was not required for most jobs. Now, bachelor’s degrees are required for many middle class positions where content knowledge background is not important. You simply need a bachelor’s degree to be considered. For example, at many police departments in the US, you will not be considered for employment without a bachelor’s degree. The degree can be in English literature, history, engineering, or any other seemingly unrelated field. Applicants’ majors don’t matter because the skills learned during their college experience are valued. In many industries, master’s degrees are looked upon in much the same way. As more college graduates entered the job market after WWII, the degree became the norm in many industries. The key now is to get more Ph.D.s working outside of academia where they can show others that Ph.D.s are valuable additions to the workforce.
My plan is to give you specific steps to take so that you can be the next non-academic search success story. My posts will sometimes be motivational and sometimes be woeful. The goal of all my posts is to be specific and useful. Stay tuned for my next blog post which discusses how to effectively convert your CV into a resume. This post will be followed by a webinar with specific examples of such conversions. I invite you to submit your own experiences and documents to serve as our examples. I will remove any identifying markers from the presentation.
In the future, I hope to address networking, cover letters, and identifying your marketable skills. If you have specific questions or topics you would like for me to discuss, please let me know! I am on twitter @MaggieGPhD or facebook.com/MaggieGPhD
I like what you say about PhD’s being a “diamond in the rough.”There is a lot hidden in that statement. Often, acadmics need a bit of corporate “polishing” to fit in and understand the culture they are entering. It also reflects the fact that, to many employers, your PhD can be viewed the same as a BA. Even though you have years of experience in academia, in a business setting, you may be perceived the same as a recent grad looking for work.
Margy Thomas Horton says
As a fellow English person, I love your confession about spreadsheets! As for me, I’ve discovered that I *really* enjoy reading scientific research! And dabbling in graphic design! (Both of which fit into my current post-ac work.) I’m convinced that we all amount to more than the stereotypes of our respective disciplines, and that we have hidden skills that grad school may have obscured! Thanks for this post.