Stacey Patton

Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at Morgan State University

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The Conferencegoer: What Some Faculty Really Think About Nonacademic Careers

Full conferencegoer

San Diego—Last month a small national group of graduate career counselors met on the University of California at San Diego’s campus in La Jolla to discuss one of the academic world’s hottest and most vexing topics: how to help Ph.D.’s and postdoctoral scholars get jobs.

The three-day conference, which was organized by the Graduate Career Consortium, was the group’s 26th annual meeting, and its largest ever: Around 100 advisors and counselors from 80 institutions attended. One-third of this year’s attendees were new registrants, an indication that campus administrators are responding to growing calls from around the country to reform graduate education.

When the GCC formed, back in 1987, only a handful of counselors showed up to these annual gatherings. As recently as a decade ago, relatively few colleges offered career-counseling services to graduate students beyond managing their dossiers. Victoria Blodgett, the GCC’s president, attributed the uptick in attendance to this year’s conference to a confluence of factors: the recent expansion of career services for Ph.D.’s, the creation of postdoctoral-affairs offices on more campuses, the growing demand for better counseling about alternative and nonacademic careers, and the need for more transparent data on job placement for advanced degree-holders.

“More universities are recognizing the need to provide career counseling for grad students and postdocs,” Blodgett said. “The GCC conference is about providing the space for people to come and talk to each other.”

So what do graduate career counselors talk about when they get together? This year, alt-academic training and placement tracking were the dominant themes. Here are a couple of scenes from the conference:

Are students really reluctant …

Craig Schmidt, senior director of the career-services center at UC-San Diego, kicked off the first day of the conference with a morning session called “Career Coaching and Motivating Reluctant Clients.” His session sought to provide counselors with techniques for working with grad students going on the job market.

“Grad students are not just like undergrads,” Schmidt told the audience. “They may have more life experience or not. They come with extra baggage and emotional issues. They often have a limited career vision of what’s possible. Your job as a career counselor is to help them change their perception of where they are to where they want to be.”

But while many of the attendees agreed with Schmidt’s views on the unique challenges grad students face, a few took issue with his characterization of Ph.D.’s as “reluctant.” At individual table discussions after the session, some counselors said their students were anything but reluctant about listening to professional advice or putting in extra effort to get jobs. The problem, the counselors said, is not that students lack urgency. It’s that there’s a dearth of employers who have shown interest in hiring Ph.D.’s—and a dearth of information on how they can surmount that roadblock.

… or are faculty members dismissive?

Which brings me to one of the conference’s most interesting sessions: “Embracing ‘Alternative Careers’: How to Change Culture in 5 Years.” By “culture,” the presenters meant students’ and faculty members’ attitudes about nonacademic careers.

A number of panelists described surveys and research on the types of jobs that students in the sciences have landed in recent years, in addition to faculty and student attitudes about alternative careers. But one panelist in particular—Bill Lindstaedt, director of the office of career and professional development at the University of California at San Francisco—drew gasps from the audience when he shared a few slides.

Lindstaedt had recorded comments made by faculty members during group discussions about career planning, and he displayed a few quotes for the GCC crowd. A caveat: These came chiefly from scholars in the biomedical and biological sciences, so viewpoints in those disciplines might not be so prevalent in the humanities or social sciences. (Lindstaedt also noted that most of these quotes were not taken from faculty at his home institution. “UCSF faculty are generally quite progressive on the alternative careers issue,” he said.)

Out of their own mouths, here’s what some faculty from across the country told Lindstaedt about how they really feel about alternative careers (these quotes are all drawn from his slides):

“Are we creating this crisis atmosphere by pushing our students/postdocs into alternative careers, which is what we are doing when we state there are no careers available in academia?”

-Mid-career faculty member

“The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.”

-Program director at large graduate program

“It’s my JOB to create more people like me.”

-Senior faculty member

“I’m very supportive of students in my lab who decide they want to leave academia. But they’re smart. They’ll figure out how to get there (alternative career) on their own.”

-Senior faculty member

“If a rotation student comes in saying they want to be a science writer, they’re not staying [in my research group].”

-Senior faculty member

“They shouldn’t get distracted until after quals. And after quals, they need to be in the lab doing research. I don’t want my students out of the lab teaching or other distracting activities.”

-Senior faculty member

“I made it and nobody helped me. Plus, I was the only woman in my graduate program. The best students will always succeed.”

-Senior faculty member

One thing is clear, Lindstaedt told the audience: Faculty members are aware of the amped-up discussions about nonacademic careers now taking place at grad-school programs everywhere. “They know the students want this,” he said. “So you might think culture change is done.”

But discussion of this ilk—which he hears over and over again—“implies that faculty are not happy with this new culture and want something else.” Such comments also reveal why so many graduate students stay quiet about any plans they might have about seeking a nonacademic career, for fear that they may lose the support of a faculty mentor who might harbor negative sentiments about the nonacademic track.

Lindstaedt and his co-panelists agreed that those sentiments pose a problem to grad students. Many said the issue is a generational one: Senior faculty members may be disconnected from the current job market, and not well-equipped to prepare students outside their disciplinary specialties, because they’ve always had stable employment.

So what’s the solution? The panelists were short on answers. But they urged career counselors to help fill in the gap by educating both graduate students and faculty members about nonacademic career possibilities. Some campuses are trying to do this through workshops and by linking students with employers from diverse industries. But by the time next year’s GCC meeting rolls around, we might hear something more concrete.

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