Room 119 fell silent as 25 students tried to list every skill they have mastered, every hobby they have pursued, every subject they have studied, and every activity they truly enjoy. A few minutes later, the room buzzed with lively conversations as groups of two and three students brainstormed ways to combine activities as diverse as swimming and taxidermy with interests like American history and graphic design to create their dream jobs.
Silly ideas and sensible ones were shared, and although it became clear that some hobbies do not realistically translate into careers, an expanding sense of what might be possible encouraged participants to be more flexible and creative about their future paths.
Thus began session two of a six-part series called “Turn that PhD into a J-O-B” that was offered this fall by Graduate Career Services (GCS). The series aims to help students expand their professional options and begin to take practical steps toward finding their first jobs. Some of those who signed up were about to go on the job market; others were planning ahead.
“In this competitive market, it’s critical to develop multiple directions of interest to pursue,” says Victoria Blodgett, director of GCS. “In order to do a multi-pronged job search, successful job seekers have to understand the breadth of skills, traits and experiences that they are marketing to prospective employers, and why those skills, traits and experiences are valuable to that prospective employer. There is nothing worse than being asked at an interview, ‘Why are you interested in this position, and what skills do you bring to help our organization move forward?’ and answering with a blank stare.”
Using readings and exercises from What Color is Your Parachute, by Richard Bolles, and So What Are You Going To Do With That? A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy, by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius, the peer-led workshops combined introspection, discussion, brainstorming, and pragmatic activities to help students identify and pursue their own Plan A, but also devise Plans B and C just in case Plan A does not work out.
Session leaders Mary Anne Lewis (French) and Kim Tsao (Public Health) volunteered to run the workshop, in part, to force themselves to face this issue in their own professional development. “I knew I had to better characterize my skills and goals before going on the job market, but I needed a peer group to motivate me to actually get this done,” Kim says.
Mary Anne hopes for a career in academia, but knows that finding a faculty position that matches her interests may be a challenge. Her dissertation, advised by Chris Miller and Edwige Tamalet, involves post-colonial North African literature from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria in the second half of the 20th century.
Kim’s research investigates the ecology of the bacterium that causes Lyme disease and how it is maintained in nature by ticks and mice. Her fieldwork takes her to the tick-infested forests of western Connecticut. Durland Fish advises her work. Kim wants to work with databases in a research museum once she completes her doctorate.
Mary Anne related an experience that is familiar to many graduate students when they tell people that they are studying for a PhD, namely, being greeted with looks of surprise followed by the question, “And what do you expect to do with that?” Feeling disappointed at first by such reactions, Mary Anne says, “I am proud of the skills I have been developing in my program. Yes, I work on very specific issues regarding literature and culture in North Africa and in France. But, more generally, I am a researcher, a scholar, a teacher, a presenter, a communicator, a speaker of several languages, and the list goes on.” Mary Anne explains that she designed this workshop series with Kim to help other students recognize the skills they have developed in graduate school and to articulate their value. “I hope that, above all, students leave the workshop series with the tools and the confidence so seminal to a successful job search — both in the near future, and likely several times again throughout their lives.”
The series was divided into three segments: “Reflections,” “Casting Your Network,” and “Application.” Each week, the leaders suggested informal take-home assignments, and the next week's session began with a review of how the assignments were handled and whether people met the goals they had set for themselves. During the first two meetings, participants reflected on their strengths and interests, conducted self-assessments, developed a memorable and effective way to share their personal story with prospective employers, and discussed the kinds of careers that would make good use of their abilities.
In the remaining sessions, participants prepared for informational interviews. They polished their curriculum vitae and résumés, mined creative ideas for networking possibilities, and practiced the art of the interview. These last two weeks were designed to function as a boot camp, providing participants with quiet space and uninterrupted time to draft job applications.
“Turn that PhD into a J-O-B” is one of many programs offered by Graduate Career Services. Others include the “Academic Job Search Series,” tips on navigating career fairs, on-campus interviews, and individual conferences with the director of the GCS. Upcoming in November, GCS will host “Dress for Success” with consultants from Ann Taylor and several programs for international students: “Visas after Graduation” on November 8 with immigration lawyer Ron Klasko and a cross-cultural training seminar on November 18.
Another version of “Turn that PhD into a J-O-B” will be held next spring especially for students in the humanities and social sciences. Information on all of these activities is available from Graduate Career Services.