Early in my career I taught graduate students and prepared them to enter the academic job market. Now, after twenty years in corporate and non-profit workplaces, I teach graduate students, faculty, and administrators how to help graduate students and postdocs find non-academic work. Faculty members often ask me how they can support graduate students without knowing anything about those non-academic workplaces and jobs. If you are one of those faculty, here’s how you can help.
- The single most important thing you can do is to say to students, publicly, as a group, with the rest of your department’s faculty present, that you understand that many of them will not get academic jobs and may not want them, and that you value their work anyway. Tell them you will support them with recommendations just as you would for an academic job. Many students believe that you will not take them seriously if they tell you they are interested in non-academic jobs, and you need to counter that belief, repeatedly and out loud.
- The next most important thing you can do is to find out what your graduate students who have left your program in the past ten years or so are now doing in both academic and non-academic jobs. On your department office walls and websites, display the names of the students and what they are doing now. You will find many have interesting, challenging work outside academics; showing current students that is possible, and that you care enough to account for former students doing non-academic work, will help everyone’s morale and mental health. You must counter the practice of only tracking academic placements and forgetting everyone else, consigning them to departmental oblivion and causing current students to fear that you value only academic outcomes.
These two things have the greatest positive impact on graduate students for the least effort, and for little cost except the time tracking down previous students and posting their jobs. Here are some other helpful practices.
- Many of your colleagues quietly tell students “I know the market is tough, but you’re so good, you’ll get the job.” Whether true or not, it creates the incorrect, noxious perception that the best students get academic jobs (sometimes true, more often not) and that anyone who doesn’t get one is not one of the best (sometimes true, more often not). You should make it impossible for your department’s graduate students to hear that without also having also heard that other outcomes are valued (#1 above) and seen what some of those outcomes are (#2 above).
- Many of your colleagues do not believe non-academic outcomes are valuable, worthwhile, and on par with academic ones. This belief will change slowly, and in some cases not at all, but you can help your students by speaking positively of those outcomes to your colleagues, to students, and, especially, in front of both at the same time.
- Many faculty members are disappointed when their department’s best students choose to leave graduate school, or, upon finishing their PhDs, decide to take non-academic jobs. Some say “too bad” and “why would you want to do that?” and “what will you do to stay intellectually active?” and “all that training gone to waste!” Please: do not say things like that, even if you think them. That reaction tells students their future jobs are not what you had hoped for them and therefore not as good as academic jobs. It also makes them believe they have failed the people whose intellects they have been taught to respect and that consequently they themselves are failures. Not incidentally, it also sells a lot of jobs and people short.
- Some faculty respond to the realization that grad students will seek non-academic work by advising them to go to the career center. That can be helpful if staff at the career center know how to help graduate students and if graduate students listen to those staff. Department chairs, directors of graduate students, and placement officers should sit down with staff at the career center to learn what the staff currently do and to discuss what kinds of work their department’s graduate students have gone on to do (which you know now, because you have taken the time to find out). For their part, grad students, having been trained for years to value the opinion of faculty with PhDs, sometimes dismiss career center staff who do not have that credential. The academic class divide between tenure-track faculty and career-services staff needs to be bridged for career centers to be useful to graduate students, and training everyone to value more kinds of job outcomes is a step in the right direction.
- With the best intentions, faculty members often urge students to take adjunct work or another postdoc to improve the students’ chances of eventually getting a tenure-track job, which occasionally actually happens. But much more often it does not; faculty owe it to students to educate themselves about the likelihood of securing an academic job after adjuncting or taking a(nother) postdoc before they encourage students to do that, and to candidly describe those odds of success if they do encourage them.
All these suggestions describe near-term, inexpensive ways to support graduate students seeking non-academic jobs. Of course, many longer-term structural changes are needed in PhD programs to support future cohorts of graduate students, replenish the profession, and train future researchers and teachers: academics must rebalance the supply of PhD students against academic workforce demand, assess whether and how to create good degree programs for non-academic work, and address the shameful economic and professional conditions of its large adjunct workforce. Even tenured faculty members can feel individually helpless faced by these larger issues, but as those issues are being addressed over time, every faculty member can help graduate students a great deal, right now, by respecting non-academic outcomes, by saying so, out loud, and by supporting pursuit of those outcomes.
If you want to comment or ask questions or want me to address additional aspects of this topic, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @akrook.
 Sharon Marcus, “Scenes From the Life of a Graduate Adviser,” Vitae, September 11, 2015, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/1120-scenes-from-the-life-of-a-graduate-adviser