Things We Believe and Things That Are True | Interview with Paula Chambers

The academic cultural taboo around non-faculty careers persists despite decades of debate. One of the most powerful voices helping PhD students and postdocs see the many opportunities available to them is Dr. Paula Chambers, founder of The Versatile PhD. In this interview, Dr. Chambers offers three pieces of advice to help students embrace and prepare for careers beyond academia.

  1. Determine what is true
  2. Build your skills
  3. Count everything

If you have ever entertained the idea that your path might take you out of academia, keep reading.

Determine What Is True

Many people make decisions based on what they assume to be true, rather than relying on up-to-date information. It is crucial to “distinguish between the things we believe and the things that are true,” Chambers emphasizes.

Learn All About the Academic Job Market in Your Field

Paula Chambers encourages a student

Many students are deluded about the chances of landing an academic position, Chambers points out. You may, indeed, be successful in your quest to become a faculty member. But you should be realistic.

Get the data. Learn the employment statistics in your field.

  • How many tenure-track openings were there in your field this year, last year?
  • How many applicants applied for them?
  • How many job seekers are out there?
  • How many years do new faculty members spend in temporary or postdoctoral positions between PhD and the faculty job?

Two facts hold almost regardless of field. First, the number of tenure line positions has declined in the last few decades, and particularly during the recent recession. Second, the number of job seekers outnumber the positions. In business terms, it is a buyer’s market.

Your disciplinary society is a good place to inquire. Many fields now publish these data and analysis: e.g., the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, the American Mathematical Society, and the Federation of American  Societies for Experimental Biology.

Learn the data for your field. Make your choices based on facts rather than on fantasy.

Learn About Yourself: What Energizes You?

Black Mission Figs

It is equally important to be honest about your interests. She notes that sometimes we continue to believe things about ourselves that are no longer true. Chambers says, “When I watch my energy it has provided very valuable clues about myself and my interests as they are today. Interests can evolve in surprising ways.”

Pay close attention to your feelings and your energy. Which activities you have infinite energy for? Which do you force yourself to do? When does the time fly? When does it drag? Carefully tracking this information reveals the things that you love to do. These data contain clues to your ideal career, although it may not be literal. Chambers says: “‘I love to cook’ may not equate with ‘I should be a chef.’ But there is something valid and true about you in that activity. Only you know that reason. Only you can discern.”

“You must think and feel your way to figuring that out. You can’t simply think to solve this problem,” she emphasizes. “Feel and do. Deliberately seek out experiences that are similar to what you like to do. Don’t rely only on your brain. Experience cannot be created by the brain. You have to try and experience. That leads to insight.”

This mindful self-examination is an important part of building new career goals.

Remember that many students’ goals change during graduate school. You might be one of them. (Two studies that have shown shifting career plans during graduate school are Fuhrman’s 2011 CBE Lifesciences paper and my 2001 At Cross Purposes report.)

Build Your Skills

Council of Graduate Schools & ETS report, “Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers,” 2012

There are 13 skills that Chambers recommends that PhD students consider adding to their tool kit. Anyone who possesses these skills is more attractive on the job market. Don’t aim to add them all, but determine which you already have and which you can reasonably build.

Five of the skills come from the Pathways Report. These are skills that employers want, and want more of, from the PhDs that they hire.

  • Teamwork
  • Project management
  • Creating and delivering presentations
  • Delivering outcomes on time and on budget
  • Communicating with lay audiences

The second list of skills comes from a data-driven report about employment of liberal arts majors written by the job market analytics company Burning Glass. BG identified eight technical skill sets which can be acquired with through coursework or internships. They found that by developing one of these technical skill sets, liberal arts graduates can enhance their competitiveness and increase their salaries.

  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Business
  • Social Media
  • Graphic Design
  • Data Analysis
  • Computer Programming
  • IT Networking

Extrapolating to PhDs, these are 13 skills which you can develop during grad school. Which ones do you already have? Which can you improve? Which are you interested in adding?

Use Service Projects to Build Skills

Paula Chambers advises students about building their skills

How can you grow your skill set? “Use service projects to add to your non-academic skill set and rack up non-academic accomplishments,” suggests Chambers.

Academic life (even as a grad student) includes service opportunities. You can use those experiences to add to your skill set. Some of the things you notice you enjoy doing might be found in a service project. Conversely, a service project might show you something completely new that you had no idea you would enjoy.

Suppose that you love tinkering on your own website. Build a website for an organization or campus program. That is a specific accomplishment; you can list it on your resume.

You will learn whether that is something that you like to do. Or not. “It is interesting information either way. That is how experience can teach you about yourself,” Chambers concluded.

You will never have more free time, flexibility, and autonomy than right now. Don’t over-do it, of course. Heed Maureen Stabio’s warning in Bag of Apples: select your projects strategically.

Count Everything 

Use numbers to express your accomplishments. Set numerical targets for what you want to achieve. Count things that existed when you walked in. For example, if you build a group’s social media presence, you can document the data. Where did they start, and where are they now? Your claim: Increased social media presence from 1 to 4 accounts, followers from 17 to 1,700 in six months.

Numbers make any achievement sound better on a resume, Chambers points out. Specificity turns a vague claim into a fact. It moves you from telling to showing. It is evidence based. Numbers are currency on the job market.

* * * * *

Paula Chambers urges you to start today to think about your future. It might not be comfortable, but the time has come to distinguish what is actually true for you from that which you (or others) believe to be true for you. “Many people remain loyal to an original goal, far beyond its expiration date,” she wryly observed.


Paula Chambers is the founder and director of The Versatile PhD, the oldest (since 1999) and largest (76 institutional subscribers and nearly 75,000 individual members) online community dedicated to non-academic and non-faculty careers for PhDs in humanities, social science and STEM. She started the work of building a virtual community while working on her PhD in English at Ohio State University. Initially a listserv called Work For Us (actually WRK4US), it grew into a much more powerful resource, The Versatile PhD. It transformed from a volunteer effort to a business, from a listserv to a website, and from a hobby into her life’s work.

The evolution of Paula Chambers’ career exemplifies her advice. She started by realizing that she would be happier in a nonacademic career than as a faculty member. So she created a safe space where humanities PhD students could openly discuss non-academic careers–never imagining that managing that community would eventually become her career.

After graduating in 2000, Dr. Chambers returned home to Los Angeles and became a successful grant writer and fundraiser, raising millions of dollars for social justice, the arts, and the environment in a series of progressively responsible positions. All the while, she continued managing WRK4US in her spare time. Eventually, Paula finally realized that helping academics find non-academic careers was her true calling. She transformed WRK4US the listserv into Versatile PhD, a web-based socially positive business, in 2010. Paula runs The Versatile PhD from her home office in Los Angeles, with the help of one employee based in Washington, CD. She is also an in-demand speaker on the university circuit.


Published: March 14, 2017

4 comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *