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Perhaps you’ve just begun your graduate program, wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, and want to know what may be out there for you if you stick to your plan of study. Perhaps you’re mid-way on your path to the doctorate and wonder if academia is really for you. Or, perhaps you’re nearly done with your degree and want to pursue some non-academic work options, but the inertia of your march down the path of the traditional academic job search leaves you feeling like it’s just too late to do anything else.

Regardless of which description suits you best, you have a host of options beyond what can seem like the unending vagaries of a fickle academic job market. Whether you’re in the first or final year of your program, or anywhere in between, there are several conceptual and concrete steps you can take to maximize your employability in areas outside of traditional academic employment. Here are some steps you can take towards being a career-savvy graduate student:

Consider your conception of your graduate training

You face a fundamental choice in how you view your own graduate training and in how you represent it to others. You can view your time in graduate school as either:

  • A progressively specializing process for a singular career path; or
  • A program of research, teaching, scholarship in which you develop a broad skill set that can qualify you for any number of career paths.

You may very well vacillate between these options throughout your time in graduate school – perhaps even over the course of a single day. But it’s worth trying on both and asking yourself which feels more comfortable (and comforting) to you over the long term.

Plenty of outstanding PhDs are destined for tenure-track jobs, and shouldn’t force themselves to think otherwise. However, plenty of others sense the desire or need to allow themselves some other options as they complete their training. Most importantly, adherence to either of these beliefs shapes how you use your graduate training and what it can do for you when you finish.

If you’re committed to pursuing an academic career path, start doing the work of faculty as early as possible.

What that means depends on what strata of academia is your primary focus. If you aspire to a UC Berkeley-like, R-1, research university then seek out opportunities to publish and present your research even if it means starting with lower tier journals and conferences. Look for opportunities to write your first grant proposal or assist your PI in the writing of her/his next one. Make scholarly production and dissemination part of your routine. If your goal is more of a teaching-oriented institution, develop research ideas that can be carried out utilizing undergrads and without the substantial infrastructure found at a research university. Serve as a mentor in your lab or through the campus Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP) and seek out opportunities to enhance your teaching through additional TA-ships and taking advantage of programs offered by the GSI Teaching and Resource Center.

If you entertain the second option, then, consider these additional tactics:

Utilize one of the PhD-level Career Assessment Tools

Many if not most grad students at Berkeley come straight from undergrad and have not had significant work experience in the business, government or nonprofit sectors. If you want to better understand how your skills (soft as well as research), role preferences, and interests might translate to other roles and professions, a great place to star is the online assessment module of either MyIDP (for STEM), or ImaginePhD (for humanities and social science grad students). These tools were both designed specifically for advanced degree holders and combine an assessment of skills, values, and interests with links to information and resources about the most common professional opportunities associated with your profile. Both are free and confidential.

Pay attention to where others who finish or leave your program are going

Don’t hesitate to talk to colleagues who are making choices that intrigue you, even if those choices appear to be divergent from your own career goals. What happened to the 4th, 5th, or nth year grad students in your lab/program who left when you were in your first year or two? Use LinkedIn or even Google to find out where they (who share a common skill set and subject matter expertise) have landed. If it seems interesting, shoot them an email and invite them out for coffee.

Burn no bridges

Stay in touch with former colleagues from any places you worked before entering graduate school (including summers). Reestablish contact with them if you’ve fallen out of touch. These people can be good friends and crucial first steps in networking if you ever embark on a job search outside the academy.

Pursue other interests, as long as they don’t slow your progress in or compromise the integrity of your work in your program

There’s a limit to how many hours a week you can work productively on your research. Consider taking on independent freelancing, consulting, or volunteer work. Such work will allow you to test-drive other kinds of work, as well as, provide opportunities to demonstrate your abilities in a non-academic setting and expand your network. If you’re interested in exploring the work of other professional realms, but have less time to commit, check out the offerings of InterSECT Job Simulations. InterSECT is an online platform that allows PhD-level scientists and humanists, regardless of professional stage, to explore future career options; providing free, true-to-life job simulation exercises that help you answer key questions such as: What are my professional interests and skills? and How do my interests and skills translate to potential careers?

Alternatively, as trivial as it may sound, find a hobby – buy yourself a watercolor set, take up boxing or belly dancing, or join a local hiking group. Well-rounded graduate students are invigorated graduate students; invigorated graduate students get more out of their programs.

Take advantage of all that Cal offers you

Audit classes outside your field or department, or take some non-credit courses or workshops in anything from Intro to Python to the Basics of Project Management.

Use your summers well

If you are not in a lab, your academic schedule often affords the opportunity to try on new work opportunities each summer – which don’t necessarily have to follow your field of study. Ideally, you can find a way to gain additional experience and support advancement in your program, but sometimes the best way to move forward in the fall is to come back having spent the summer doing something entirely different.

Come to the Berkeley Career Engagement early and often

There are counselors here who work specifically with PhDs and graduate students. We can help you develop a plan of action for shaping your graduate training at any stage of your program. We can also help you pursue part-time work or internship opportunities so you can test the waters of areas of potential interest to you.

Make strategic choices around whom you work with

If you anticipate wanting to be flexible in where you go in terms of career after graduate school, consider the implications of working with an advisor or chair who is singularly academic in their understanding of what’s an “appropriate” career path for a graduate student or PhD. Similarly, we’re here to help you figure out how to talk to your advisors and committee members if your plans change once you’ve begun work on your dissertation.

In closing

If you even remotely entertain the prospect or contingency of putting your graduate training to work in a job outside of academia, it’s worth considering these fundamental strategic issues. But you should also know that adopting a broader understanding of what your graduate training is potentially qualifying you for need not come at the expense of first-rate scholarship and/or research. Deliberate consideration of where you want to head in terms of career will make you a more dedicated practitioner in whichever path you ultimately choose.

Finally, if your decision to come to graduate school was at all influenced by uncertainty around “what to do with yourself in the real world,” don’t use the years you spend here taking refuge from that difficult question. Left unattended, it will likely be waiting for you when you finish. In contrast, the more you can use your doctoral or graduate training as a means of answering that very question, the happier you’ll be. Thinking about and acting on what you want graduate school to do for you once you’re done, and, as importantly, how you want to use it while you’re here, will add professional clarity to the already extraordinary accomplishment of completing a program of graduate training at Berkeley.