How Graduate Advisers Can Bolster Their Career Guidance

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Dear graduate advisers,

I write to you again about your students’ futures — all of them.

In my last piece, I asked, what can graduate advisers do to think strategically about career preparation within the current flawed system of Ph.D. training? In this piece, I suggest a few steps you can take to help your Ph.D. mentees.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably uncomfortable outsourcing career preparation for your mentees. You aren’t a part of that mass of graduate advisers who, because they feel unprepared, absolve themselves of the task of preparing Ph.D.s for diverse careers.

But you might — and with good reason — find it challenging to rethink and recalibrate how you mentor graduate students. Many graduate advisers who want to help advisees feel ill equipped for the new normal of graduate training.

So how might you best approach a task for which you feel underprepared? Begin by recognizing that advising Ph.D.s today requires teamwork. You’ll never be able to stay abreast of employment trends or master nonacademic cover letters. But you need not — and should not — do this work alone. Good advisers follow the spirit of this passage from the Hippocratic oath: “I will not be ashamed to say ‘I know not,’ nor will I fail to call on my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.”

In previous pieces on the graduate adviser-advisee relationship, I’ve focused on the ways the relational dynamic is changing — or, at least, it should be — as more and more Ph.D.s head into careers beyond the academy. In an earlier “Carpe Careers” piece, for example, I argued that graduate students need to learn to manage their advisers — and here I’d reiterate that the best graduate advisers are those who learn to cede authority to a plurality of advisers. In graduate programs across the nation, the old adviser-advisee dyad is, we hope, being quietly and belatedly laid to rest.

So you can’t do it alone, and you know it. But what’s your role as part of this plurality of advisers? The answers will vary by institution, discipline and student. But the good news is that quality resources for graduate mentoring are beginning to accumulate. Chances are your college or university has policies and manuals that can help guide your advising. (See, for example, the University of Michigan’s guide on this subject.) Local resources, including conversations with graduate career counselors at your institution, can be combined with the growing trove of writings focused on Ph.D. career preparation.

A word of caution: you shouldn’t cobble resources designed to prepare students for careers beyond the academy onto otherwise unchanged advising practices that presume the primacy of academic careers. Strategies like the ones I suggest below need to become a part of how you do what you do — regardless of the career your advisee is heading for. In other words, don’t maintain a plan-B attitude about careers beyond the academy, and don’t let that attitude shape your advising habits. Leonard Cassuto writes in The Graduate School Mess that the “first and most important preparation that professors can offer students about non-professorial employment is to convey their own awareness and approval of this alternative.” Here are some other specific recommendations.

Get out there. Your feet — or however you get around — are your first and most indispensable resources. That’s because in order to show your Ph.D. students that you support their career choices — especially those beyond the academy — you need to know what the world of work looks like today. And there’s no substitute for being in the physical spaces that Ph.D.s are headed toward. Do some on field research of your own.

You know the feel of a research university, for example, but have you ever been in a community college? Many of your students may go on to teach in community colleges. You should check one out. Make a connection, perhaps with a graduate of your program who works in a community college, and ask to shadow them for a few hours. Buy them lunch and ask honest questions about the workload, quality of life and so on. After all, if and when you present careers in community colleges as an option to your mentees, such advice needs to be based on at least some firsthand knowledge.

You may have had a job outside the university or never worked outside academe. In either case, chances are that the world of work beyond the academy is much different from what you experienced or now imagine. I’ve made it a habit to visit the workspaces of Ph.D.s (as well as those of A.B.D.s and M.Phil.s) — I aim for one a month. You need not commit that much time and energy; even visiting two or three Ph.D.s at work will reframe how you look at careers beyond the academy. Such field research will help you be a better adviser to graduate students, and I’ve found it also helps me as I teach and advise undergraduates.

In turn, you need to encourage your advisees — from the day they step on campus — to visit a wide array of workspaces. These visits can be informal: a few hours shadowing one of your former mentees at a nonprofit foundation. Or they can be for-credit internships. The point here, again, is that there is no substitute for experiencing these spaces firsthand.

Break it up. Concurrent preparation for teaching- and research-intensive careers as well as those outside academe is possible, but doing so is more realistic if the task is spread across the entire span of doctoral training. So break career preparation into manageable chunks for yourself and your students.

Plan, manage and track progress using a personalized professional development plan. Take your cues from resources like So What Are You Going to Do With That?Strengthsfinder 2.0 and the myIPD online resource for STEM students. It’s now easier than ever to create a structured plan: Imagine PhD equips Ph.D. students with a personalized plan and has a list of suggested goals that’s a good starting point for mentor-mentee discussions. Doing a personal inventory of strengths and goals helps you and your students get a sense of what they are good at — it is all too easy to let strengths atrophy in graduate school — what they value and what kinds of careers they’d enjoy. So do this kind of diagnostic work early in your advisee’s career and then periodically return to the plan to check their progress.

Look around you. Career-oriented resources for graduate students are increasingly robust. On many campuses, highly qualified advisers, often members of the rapidly expanding Graduate Career Consortium, now serve graduate students long neglected by career services offices. And your campus is a terrific place for you and your students to conduct informational interviews and acquire knowledge about potential career fields.

Do you have a student looking to learn about project management, or careers in higher education administration? Or perhaps you have a student who is passionate about diversity in higher education? There are scores of project managers and administrators with Ph.D.s on your campuses — and even more at the universities in your area. A simple email connecting your student to those contacts goes a long way. Model effective networking; craft a standard email for this purpose, and cc your mentees.

Look to your past. Last time, I wrote about how graduate advisers need to consider the connections they already have and identify ways to connect their students to them. It’s necessary work. In fact, perhaps the most important step you can take for your students is to recognize that you have contacts that can help your students. Even the best graduate advisers I meet often need prodding to recognize that they are well connected.

Here’s an exercise that may help get the ball rolling: try to find out what happened to your Ph.D. cohort. A few months back, I watched while two tenured faculty members who earned Ph.D.s from Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1980s completed the exercise. (The cohort at UCLA was sizable, yet the activity took less than an hour.) Both found the exercise illuminating, helpful and surprising. Take the cohort challenge yourself. You’ll probably be surprised at the diverse outcomes, career zigzags and overall trajectories of your peers.

Get on LinkedIn, and avail yourself of your already-strong network. Your cohort from your doctoral days is a useful study to help you find out about the kinds of careers Ph.D.s have sought out for themselves in the past and might lead to renewed connections that may benefit your mentees.

And finally, for more on mentoring, you might check out The Elements of Mentoring by W. Brad Johnson and Charles R. Ridley. Styled after The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, the book is a compact resource for navigating the adviser-advisee relationship.

By: James M. Van Wyck (He offers some specific advice on how they can help their Ph.D. mentees.)

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