PHD PATHWAYS | FIVE CONFERENCE TAKE-AWAYS

The PhD Pathways career conference at Stanford University, held on Friday, January 29, 2016, offered a wealth of information, advice and inspiration.

Nearly 300 PhDs and postdocs attended a day-long conference. It included a dozen panels of PhDs working in non-faculty careers, workshops on career skills, and a keynote address by Peter Fiske, author of Put Your Science to Work.

Here are my five top take-aways from the conference.

You Are Not Alone!

Participants were thrilled and relieved to discover that they were not the only ones who were interested in non-faculty careers. There are many interesting, impactful, and viable career paths for those with PhDs. Lots of PhDs and postdocs desire to work outside of academia. These are great options.

Regardless of where you are now, you can find a community of others who are also exploring their career options. Many universities host career panels and events, such as UC Berkeley’s Beyond Academia conference, which will be held for the fourth time March, 2016. Many disciplinary societies offer workshops at their annual conferences and provide resources on line.

Discern Your Values and Preferences

An important step in career exploration is to articulate your values and preferences.

Try this exercise. As you think about your current work setting, what are the aspects about it that you like? What are the aspects you dislike? The lists are often similar and familiar. But now prioritize them: what are your top likes and top dislikes? These lists vary from one person to the next.

Try other inventories to identify what you like, dislike and are good at. The Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, StrengthsQuest, and the Strong Interest Inventory are three popular tools.

Pathways programInformational Interviews are the Best Tool

Talk to people and learn what they do. What is a typical day, a typical week? What are sources of satisfaction? What are the hardest parts? Learn their paths. How did they transition from a PhD/postdoc to working in the arts, a non-profit, a startup, or consulting? What parts of their training do they use? What did they need to learn? People are very willing to talk about themselves and to offer their perspective to others. These are not job interviews. This is a research project, and you are learning. Informational interviews are a great way to explore your options. ScienceCareers published a great introduction to informational interviews for PhDs and Postdocs.

You Only Need One Job

Landing a job off the beaten track can be challenging. Getting your first job may take time. One panelist described herself as “an expert in rejection.” She reminded us that you only need one job. If this is where your heart leads, then keep trying.

Experience helps. Volunteering or developing an unpaid internship is one way to gain experience. During your PhD or postdoc, you can create opportunities for yourself alongside your formal training.

Invest in Yourself

Keynote speaker Peter Fiske shared the “80:10:10 rule.” On any job, including being a grad student, spend 80% of your time on the job.

Reserve 10% of your time for your professional development. That is about two days a month. (Will your advisor notice?) Take a class, learn a new skill, attend a workshop. You are worth investing in. Be a life-long learner. Keep growing.

Spend the remaining 10% talking to people and sharing your skills and connecting with others. Networking and informational interviews should be professional habits.


Published February 1, 2016.

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