“All I can do is tell prospective students what has happened to my
supervisees,” she says. “And I take pains to draw to students’ attention
the people I know who have PhDs and who have non-academic careers,
because they are happy and are doing good things.” Unfortunately, she
says, prospective students seldom ask.
Universities collect data, usually at the departmental level, and it
is available to students who request it, notes Dr. Pfeiffer. In Ontario,
departments are periodically required under provincial regulations to track
But not all departments do an equally good job of collecting and dis-
seminating this information, notes Nanda Dimitrov, associate director
of the University of Western Ontario’s Teaching Support Centre. Some
departments simply don’t have the resources to devote to this. “Or there
is this illusion that everyone who wants to go to graduate school wants to
be an academic,” she says.
But, she adds, some departments excel at getting the word out. West-
ern’s English department, for example, hosts a series of workshops to
prepare doctoral students for both academic and non-academic jobs.
Invited guests include representatives from the publishing industry, gov-
ernments and non-government organizations, to keep students abreast of
job opportunities in these sectors. The department works to maintain ties
with its alumni who work outside academia and puts interested students
in touch with them.
“We are increasingly aware of the fact that there just aren’t enough
positions for everyone in academia,” says Pauline Wakeham, the gradu-
ate development and placement coordinator in the English department
The department is about to launch a new website that will profile
graduates working in academic and non-academic careers. It will use the
site to disseminate the results of its recently completed survey of PhD
students who graduated from 2002 to 2007. The survey found that of
37 graduates, 18 (or 49 percent) had accepted tenure-track positions.
Western is among the growing number of universities that provide
students with professional skills-training courses. Western recently intro-
duced the 360º Graduate Student Professional Development initiative; it
brings together workshops, seminars and courses under one umbrella.
One course, a week-long seminar for PhD students and postdoctoral fel-
lows entitled Preparing for Non-Academic Employment, fills up minutes
after it is posted.
U of T recently introduced a similar initiative, the Graduate Profes-
sional Skills Program. Students who complete 20 credits of professional
skills training receive a notation on their transcripts indicating to pro-
spective employers that they have this training.
From the students’ perspectives,
the outlook remains less than
optimistic. Some say the elimination of mandatory retirement in many
provinces has contributed to a dearth of tenure-track jobs. Others blame
Helping grad students learn about
careers outside academe
Who’s job is it?
How well-informed PhD candidates are about
future job prospects tends to vary by discipline.
So says Maresi Nerad, director of the Center for
Innovation and Research in Graduate Education
at the University of Washington – one of the few
centres specifically established to do research on
graduate students and their programs.
Dr. Nerad says that in engineering and
biosciences, both students and faculty are well
aware that many graduates end up in private-
sector jobs. Professors often have ties to people
in industry and do a good job of putting their
students in touch with them. On the other hand,
most doctoral students in the core sciences,
social sciences and humanities aspire to
become professors and aren’t as well informed
about non-academic career possibilities.
But, all departments are slowly coming to the
understanding that they need to expose students
to a wider variety of job possibilities and skills.
“A PhD is not only for an academic career,”
What could graduate schools, departments
and faculty members do better? Dr. Nerad
says they could encourage PhD students to
think about career goals and explore alternate
possibilities early in their PhD training, ideally in
second year. They should encourage students
to think about how their research findings can
be applied to society and who in society could
benefit from them. And they should offer students
opportunities to present their findings to those
outside their field.
Collaborations are also helpful. Graduate
schools should work with career centres and
other campus groups to deliver professional
skills training and career planning workshops,
preferably held at the departmental level, she
advises. And schools should invite alumni to
campus to discuss how they went about finding
jobs outside academia.
Dr. Nerad says the attitudes of some faculty
members need to change, too, so that PhD
students who choose not to become professors
are no longer seen as “second-class citizens.”
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