Fatimah Williams Castro

Founder & CEO at Beyond the Tenure Track

Building a Better Nonacademic Career Panel

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Just last week, one of my graduate-school deans invited me to present on a nonacademic career panel with three other alumni. It was the fourth such invitation I’d received from my university since I graduated with a doctorate in cultural anthropology three years ago.

I’m happy to act as a resource for my alma mater—and for graduate students struggling to navigate their career options. But sometimes I wonder if I’m doing much good by showing up. I’m convinced that these panels do little to help their audiences explore, much less pursue, options outside the academy.

It’s clear what the panels are supposed to accomplish: They’re meant to dismantle the taboos surrounding nonacademic careers, and to provide a forum for graduate students to ask questions they might not broach with a faculty advisor. The one I just attended followed what’s become the customary format—a 90-minute event in which panelists were allotted five to seven minutes each to introduce ourselves, describe our disciplinary backgrounds, and talk briefly about our current occupations before the floor is opened for a Q&A session.

Most panelists try to squeeze in a quick anecdote about our transition process, usually something to the tone of “keep an open mind,” “explore your options,” “get work experience even if you have to intern for free,” or “here are the do’s and don’t’s of networking.” But there’s no chance to go into detail about the time, money, and sweat equity we spent building our professional networks, figuring out our transferrable skills, and gaining experience to demonstrate our capacity to work outside the professoriate.

So I’m concerned that these quick, little transition narratives may send the wrong message. They may make it seem as if securing a nonacademic job after graduate school is a simple undertaking—that somehow the job market will welcome you with open arms without you doing much of your own work to translate what you’ve done into what you want to do.

Students leave these panels relieved to have heard from Ph.D.’s who’ve made the transition. In my post-panel discussions with them, they often express relief and assurance that nonacademic careers are an option. But what good is an option if you don’t know how to access it?

So the nonacademic career panel often ends up as a reasonable idea with flawed execution. How can we build a better panel? The answer comes in two parts: We need panels to guide students toward their next steps, not just to act as a collection of stories from alumni. And we need a more informed Q&A session. Here are some thoughts on how to accomplish both:

What the Panel Can Do For You ...

A more-productive panel would foster targeted dialogue between attendees and panelists. Hosts could begin the session by asking graduate students to anonymously answer the following questions on blank cards.

  • Why did you attend this session today?
  • What is the one piece of information you want to walk away with?
  • What are your fears or reservations about pursuing a career outside the academy?

Once these cards are collected, the panelists can respond to the answers they see. Meanwhile, career counselors should be present at these discussions. That’s vitally important, because they can answer questions that are beyond the scope of panelists’ expertise. They can also refer students to resources that can provide assistance in career planning.

Panelists could introduce themselves, including their field of study and current job, then answer these complete-the-sentence statements.

  • The hardest part of getting a job was…
  • I wish I’d done this to prepare…
  • The biggest mistake I made was…
  • It took me this long to find a job. I could have been more efficient if…
  • I agreed to be on this panel today because I want you to know that…
  • If you hear nothing else I say today, remember that...

Panelist stories help to spur dialogue and alert grad students that it’s urgent to start doing work now to broaden their career options. In other words, these panels prime students to seek more information and, hopefully, to take further action. So career-planning guides and invitations to graduate career workshops should be on hand to support students who are ready to take the next step. In fact, it’s worth having graduate career counselors on hand to book appointments with students at the end of the panel.

… And What You Can Do For the Panel

A warning to grad students: Quiet as it’s kept, panelists often gather after a session and talk about you. We marvel at the misconceptions that graduate students and faculty members have about the millennial workplace, nonacademic work, and career development in general. We hear often from students who assume that jobs outside the academy are not intellectually stimulating, that work is confined to a cubicle, that there’s some angry boss issuing orders at all times, and perhaps most misleading of all, that Ph.D.’s will be hired for their degrees rather than for their skill sets.

There’s always a feeling that the audience hasn’t asked the right questions, and that we’ve left you without the tools to begin exploring nonacademic career options. At my last session, one fellow panelist—a pharmacology Ph.D. turned technology transfer and business development specialist—whispered to me afterward with a bewildered look: “They don’t have a clue what we’re talking about, or how much they’ll need this information later.”

Have you ever wondered why alumni schlep from our day jobs, often taking off work early or spending vacation time, to sit with you for 90 minutes and tell our stories? No, we’re not getting paid. Perhaps some of us do it because we have a strong bond with our alma mater. But all of us do it because we know that you are more likely to gain inspiration and a sense of urgency to prepare for a broad range of careers from us—fellow Ph.D.’s who have been through the career transition—than from others.

We understand your obsession with quit lit. We understand your intimate relationship with the academy and your identity as an academic, and why you won’t just get over academia and reinvent yourself for a new, often better paid and more flexible career.

So please make it worth our while by asking us questions like these. We want to give you actionable advice, and this is the way to get it:

  • How can I begin to learn about new sectors and occupations?
  • Where can I meet people in my nonacademic careers of interest?
  • How should I connect with these professionals? What’s the best way to describe myself to them in introductions?
  • How much time do you recommend I allot on a weekly basis to explore nonacademic career options, given my focus on my research and program requirements?
  • How did you navigate university career services to get the most of it?
  • What services or resources did you use to help you make the transition? (Somehow Ph.D.'s think they’ll magically know how to crack the nut of a new professional world all by their lonesome, but mentoring services are a business for a reason.)
  • What books, blogs or podcasts were informative during your career transition and early career development?
  • What would you have done differently to make your transition easier?
  • What are three things you recommend I do for the rest of the semester to ease into exploring nonacademic career options?
  • May I have your card? (Even if you’re not interested in the panelists’ careers, this question gives you practice in networking and may open the door to new professional relationships.)

Oh, and Another Thing...

Universities are not off the hook. They cannot rely so heavily on these panels as a primary source of nonacademic career planning for graduate students. Panelist stories are great, but students need concrete career planning and career development strategies and tools. These come from career professionals, not from alumni panelists.

For starters, universities should hire more graduate career counselors, adjust graduate curricula to make internships and career workshops integral to degree completion, develop initiatives to eliminate bias against nonacademic careers at the department level, and equip faculty with information and tools to refer graduate students to quality career-planning resources.

But while graduate schools, graduate and postdoctoral programs, career services, and professional associations work at a glacial pace to better train you in professional development and career planning skills, you might still need answers on your own. So it pays to make the most of the advocates at the front of the room.

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