Timing career exploration during your PhD

posted Mar 20, 2014, 8:08 PM by Tomasz Bakowski   [ updated Jul 3, 2014, 12:25 PM by Nadia Jaber ]

by Nadia Jaber

On average, most PhDs will complete their degree in about 6-9 years. Fabulous. The good news is that this [jail sentence] provides you plenty of time for thorough career exploration. Although I am not an expert by any means, my general inclination for career development is, the earlier the better. Since we have so much time, why not use it all to our advantage?

You may be thinking that although we have years to spare, in reality there’s hardly any time in the day to add another task. Everyone is swamped with research, teaching, paperwork, staying connected to the real world and probably maintaining a family life at the same time. When could you possibly find time for career development? The key is to do a little at a time, and by the end of your 6-9 years you will not only have a PhD but also a clear vision of your future, and hopefully a number of job prospects. The other option is to leave all the preparation to the weeks following your thesis defense, while wondering where your next paycheck will come from.

Based on my experience I have crafted a loose guide for how to time your career exploration while you plug away at that doctoral degree. This is what is working for me, but if you have other experiences feel free to share!

Year 1 & 2: In these inaugural years you will be getting accustomed to the graduate student lifestyle. During this time you will need to figure out where your research interests lie and build the skills needed for a successful PhD. Focus on these tasks, as they will contribute to the foundation for your career interests. It is likely that you will ask yourself, “why am I doing this?!” over and over. This is good! Considering your answer will help you identify what you do and don’t like about the academic lifestyle. If you realize you hate it, don’t worry - there are so many career options for you. Keep all of these things in mind. While you are getting settled into your degree, ask your mentors about their career choices. Talk to senior students in your program and discover what they have done and where they are headed. Start to consider these career options and think about where you might fit in. Attend career-oriented events on and around campus, even if you have no idea what career you want yet. You never know when something might spark your interest.

Year 3: At this time you will be familiar with the academic lifestyle: research, teaching, management, grant writing, mentoring etc. You can now complete a self-assessment exercise, which will help you identify your specific interests, skills and values. These aspects will dictate which careers will be a good fit for you. Science careers has a great self-assessment tool, and although it is geared towards the life sciences, I think it could still be useful for students in other areas. At the end of the exercise, you will have a much better idea of what you like and what you are good at (my example is shown below - I discovered that I prefer talking about science more than doing the research myself!).

myIDP interests assessment 11-27-13 (2).jpg 

The evaluation will also provide a customized list of possible careers based on the results of your assessment. From here, you should do more research on these careers. Find out what the day-to-day activities for these jobs are. Could you picture yourself in that position? Find out where these jobs are located (in terms of companies and geography) and what the pay is like. Google is the best resource! There is no end to the amount of information you can find on your careers of interest. Spend a good chunk of time with this, and spread it out over a couple of months. Really get an idea of what’s out there and where you may fit in. If you can narrow the list to a select few careers, continue to follow through with them all.

Another great thing to do is to contact professionals in the field and get them to tell you about their job, how they got there and what kind of skills it requires. If you can, find someone who is willing to mentor you as you navigate your way through your PhD and into that specific career. Many professionals will be happy to do so, since they were previously in your position.

Year 4: Now that you are veteran graduate student, you should be great at time management (right?). That means you can manage a sliver of time for the next step of career exploration:  skill building. Once you have identified your careers of interest and what skill sets they require, you need to enhance those skills to make yourself the perfect candidate. Although many of the skills will be inherent to the graduate degree, you need to be able to demonstrate to employers that you really own that skill and can apply it. Say you are interested in entrepreneurship. You could start a club or plan an event to demonstrate your management and leadership skills. You could take a class in management, teaching, advertising or writing, all here on campus. You could plan an outreach or fundraising event, or write educational materials for a primary school or library. The possibilities are limitless but you will need to do some work to find them.

This step of career development will no doubt take the most time, energy and creative thinking, but having a stellar set of transferrable skills (and clearly demonstrating them) is what is going to set you apart from all the other PhDs. This step will also require you to spend some time outside of the lab/classroom/office. But believe me, this will be a breath of fresh air compared to the drone of academic work you’ve done for the past few years.

Keep up to date with the GCA website and Facebook page, and the Stony Brook Career Center, which regularly advertise skill-building opportunities. Get on LinkedIn too; you can find plenty more opportunities there as well.  This blog will also serve to broadcast opportunities other SBU graduate students have accomplished, so keep checking in here for new posts. Get yourself out there and don’t be afraid to try new things!

Year 5 & beyond: You are now yearning for graduation to come. You should have a clear idea of the career you want, and a great set of skills to use for that job. The next step is breaking into your field of interest. This involves getting experience and networking. I’m sure you’ve already heard the virtues of networking. In fact, most people will tell you that no amount of relentless job applying can rival the value of good networking. You can network at specialized events like the Research Your Future symposium or the What Can You Be With a PhD convention. Be on the lookout for events like this on or around campus. You can also network by simply emailing or calling people in the field. You may not get a response every time, but in general most professionals will be willing to speak with you.

Getting experience in your field of interest is of equal importance to networking. Many employers want to hire someone with previous experience, but how can a fresh PhD have any experience outside academia? Volunteering and internships are the best solution. During your final year/s in graduate school, look for a volunteering opportunity or internship you can manage while still being a student. LinkedIn will be a great resource here, and Volunteer Match lists some local opportunities. Just like skill building, the “gaining experience” step will require a considerable amount of time and effort. But there’s no substitute for real-world experience, and it will no doubt put you a step above other job candidates. Alternatively, many fellowships and paid internships are available for recent postgraduates. Searching and applying for one while you are still in school will set you up with an easy transition after graduation. Then you can network, build skills and gain experience (while being paid), all before you enter the job market.


I hope that this breakdown will make career development seem less daunting than it actually is. It’s very exciting to find your niche and realize the kinds of places a PhD can take you. Remember, nobody said it would be easy, they just promised it would be worth it.

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