Many students enter graduate school with no other goal in mind than to land a tenure-track position at an academic institution like their own. For a variety of reasons, students may decide along the way that they would like to pursue a different path. The good news is that a doctorate is a valuable asset for many careers. A challenge emerges, however, in that their research advisors are not always prepared to mentor students towards careers in other sectors.
The Graduate Career Services (GCS) office, working closely with the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA) and the Graduate School Alumni Association (GSAA), is launching a new initiative this spring to help students learn about and experience what it would be like to have a career outside the professoriate. Two ways to have a taste of another profession without derailing one’s present course are "shadowing" someone in that line of work for a day and taking a short-term internship, paid or unpaid. The GCS, encouraged by Dean Pollard, is actively expanding both kinds of opportunities.
“We are asking alumni to more fully engage with currently enrolled graduate students and offer opportunities that weren’t available in past years,” says Victoria Blodgett, director of the GCS. “Many alumni have already registered with the online Yale Career Network. Those who haven’t are urged to do so – and to consider offering internships and shadowing opportunities in their workplace.”
Rahul Prasad (PhD 1987, E&AS), chair of the GSAA and project manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California, points out, “When you’re a student, particularly if you’ve gone straight from earning an undergraduate degree to graduate school, you haven’t had a chance to explore all the career alternatives out there. While you’re in graduate school, the academic career path is really the only one that you experience. There are a lot of other opportunities that you don’t even know about that might be a good fit for you. The best way to test the waters isn’t to jump into the deep end. What better way to explore the day-to-day aspects of a career than to intern for or shadow someone? You may be pleasantly surprised by what you find.”
And to alumni, he says, “What better way to find an outstanding future employee than to have them working for you, so you can see their potential?”
One place where the GCS will look for shadowing and internship possibilities is right here on campus. Venues at Yale that employ Yale PhDs include museums, libraries, and the University Press. Other Yale units that are interested in offering internships include the Office of International Students and Scholars, the Office of International Affairs, the Asian American and Afro-American cultural centers, the Office of New Haven and State Affairs, and quite a few more.
Beyond Yale, there are hundreds of similar institutions where alumni work, as well as in local and federal government, non-profits, for-profits, and international organizations like the UN, the World Bank and NGOs.
“Graduate education in the humanities is a great preparation for work in business,” says Joshua Kolling-Perin (PhD 2003, English), and he speaks from experience. “Nearly every day, I call on the skills I learned at Yale: critical thinking, planning, research, and oral and written persuasion.” Kolling-Perin is vice president of Project Services at Campbell Alliance, a management consulting firm that focuses on the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. He leads a team that supports the firm’s consulting project teams with document editing, secondary research, and information management.
“I don’t miss academic research or teaching, largely because now I get a more expansive version of them from my work. Researching solutions to industry or operational and organizational challenges satisfies the researcher in me, and the mentoring and staff development needed to successfully lead a team satisfy the teacher in me.” He finds the work environment reminiscent of his graduate school days: “I’m surrounded by smart and funny colleagues in a fast-paced, results- and success-oriented culture.”
When he’s recruiting for his company, he pays special attention to applicants with PhDs, seeing the degree “as a signifier of certain specific talents that are valuable in business, even absent more relevant direct experience,” namely, “the ability to take in and synthesize a large amount of information quickly, to conduct research effectively, to communicate clearly and persuasively.”
As a graduate student, Kolling-Perin admits that he avoided thinking about his career, “partly because I kept hoping I’d magically find that the academic track was right for me.” When he was at Yale, the Graduate School didn’t offer much encouragement for humanities students to find work outside academia, he recalls. “This just wasn’t something people were talking about or aware of in the ’90 s,” but “if I had had ways of exploring career options, if I had seen that there were models for people trying to do what I was trying to do, I would have been more involved in networking, talking to others who had done the academic-to-business transition.” He has already stepped up to the plate to advise (and even hire) Yale GSAS graduates, and now, he says, he’d “be overjoyed to do more informational interviews and more indirect mentoring.”
Alice Ly (PhD 2010, MCDB), associate director of postdoctoral affairs at Yale, had many more opportunities to involve herself in campus life than Joshua, because the resources available to graduate students have expanded dramatically over the past decade. While conducting research on axon guidance and dendrite arborization, she was a McDougal Career Fellow, a GPSS Senator, graduate coordinator for the STARS Program (which mentors Yale undergraduate science students), a Graduate Affiliate in Berkeley and Trumbull colleges, and a graduate delegate on the “Yale 100” trip to China in 2007, led by President Levin and Provost Peter Salovey (then Dean of Yale College).
“I began to entertain the idea of a career in higher education administration shortly after the Yale-China trip, where I met many of Yale’s administrators and discovered a career path that I was completely unaware of before. Working as a McDougal Fellow allowed me to discover that the skills I naturally exhibited were assets I could build into a career and also gave me the opportunity to hone my abilities in a focused manner. As a GCS Fellow, I was afforded the opportunity to not only help myself, but also help my fellow graduate students gain some insights into careers in science policy, consulting, science writing, industry, and academic administration by organizing career panels and the like. When I decided I wanted a deeper understanding of what a career in academic administration entailed, I began conducting informational interviews with administrators at Yale and other universities. Each conversation helped strengthen my resolve to pursue this career path.”
After considerable introspection, she was drawn to her current position “because it touches upon so many facets of academic and student services: human resources, policy development, career and professional development, and postdoc life. I find it most satisfying when my efforts are able to help a student or postdoc in one way or another, whether it be landing a new job, planning a course of action to achieve a goal, connecting with a new friend or a professional contact or mentor, or addressing a problem they are unsure of how to tackle.”
Patricia Armstrong (PhD 2000, French) also works in academic administration, serving as director of pre-major academic advising at Vanderbilt University. As a senior lecturer in the Department of French and Italian, she teaches one course a semester, but her primary appointment is administrative. She has a staff of eleven assistants who serve as advisers and mentors to the 1,700 undergraduate students in the College of Arts and Sciences during their freshman and sophomore years.
“We help students to identify and interpret the rules and regulations regarding academic progress and select courses that meet their intellectual needs and advance their goals, which typically revolve around career choices,” she says. “More generally, we serve as mentors who help undergraduate students think broadly and deeply about their course of study at Vanderbilt and, in so doing, contribute to their liberal arts education in the college. I and my staff work to help them develop habits of mind as well as analytical and problem-solving skills that will help them do their best in whatever they choose to pursue after college.”
Her advice to current Yale graduate students: “If you are somewhat tepid about research and writing, which describes me to a tee as I was leaving graduate school, I would recommend that you consider academic administration as a career. You certainly have a leg up in terms of the institution from which you will have earned your PhD, and academic administration can provide a means to work at a similar type of institution with all of the intellectual rewards that follow. Academic administrators at research universities frequently have the opportunity to teach, so if you are interested in continuing to teach bright, motivated students, an administrative position might be a great fit for you. I can also say that as I peruse the Chronicle of Higher Education every week, I almost always see at least one position at another institution that piques my interest, which certainly wouldn’t be the case were I looking in my field of expertise, seventeenth-century French literature.”
Academic settings tend to be family-friendly and informal, says Armstrong – another strong recommendation, if you plan to have children.
“I am a single mom, having adopted a son from Ethiopia almost four years ago now. A positive aspect of my job, which is not unusual in academic administration, is that I have an extraordinary amount of autonomy and can structure my time as I see fit in a way not dissimilar from that of ladder faculty – but without the pressure of ’publish or perish.’ I also love the fact that my son interacts with my students and advisees and gets to participate in activities associated with the university. I can (and do) bring him to the office on some school holidays and on the rare occasion he’s been sick and had to stay home. Heck, I even bring my dog from time to time.”
How do you train to be an academic administrator? Armstrong says, “The best preparation I had in graduate school for being an academic administrator and teacher is the intellectual work I did in and outside of the classroom. It certainly helped me in securing my first administrative position at Princeton that I had experience with Working at Teaching (as the Graduate Teaching Center was then called), and that it was at Yale, to be frank.” She specifically credits Bill Rando, director of the GTC, for his guidance and friendship: “What a valuable role model and mentor he was!” Rando has a PhD and thrives in academic administration. The same can be said for McDougal office directors Lisa Brandes, Michelle Nearon, Jennifer Frederick, and Elena Kallestinova; the assistant and associate deans of the Graduate School; and the writer of this article, Gila Reinstein, who produces GSAS News.
“We want graduate students to l earn about all the career options that match their intellectual and personal interests, and we especially want them to be familiar with fulfilling alternatives to the traditional academic career track,” Blodgett says. “The job market continues to experience global shift and change, and we need to respond to it and make sure our students are flexible, knowledgeable, and competitive job applicants.”
A critical partner for this initiative are the alumni of the Graduate School. If you are an alumnus/a and are interested in sponsoring a shadowing or internship opportunity, please contact Victoria Blodgett in Graduate Career Services.