We’re so pleased today to bring you the first in a two-part guest post from Dr. Erin Clow, who is a recent graduate of the Political Studies PhD program at Queen’s University. While studying at Queen’s she was involved with a number of on and off campus groups. Erin also worked for the SGPS as a Student Advisor, volunteered in Career Services, served as an executive member for PSAC 901 and sat on a number university senate committees. Erin now works in the Equity and Human Rights Offices at Queen’s as an Equity Advisor. From very early in her program, Erin knew that the traditional academic path wasn’t where she saw herself in the future. Erin is an outspoken advocate for alternative academic career choices for PhD graduates. Her latest work was featured in the August issue of University Affairs. Outside of school and work, Erin is a member of the Cantabile Choir and an avid runner.
Hacking your Graduate Degree for Alt-Ac Potential – By Erin Clow
I remember this time of year. The beginning of a new academic term, or perhaps the beginning of a new academic program, is filled with anticipation, excitement and perhaps even some trepidation. Five years ago, I started my PhD in Political Studies at Queen’s. I, like many of my peers, entered my program thinking that one day I would become a faculty member, but in those first few weeks something shifted. I quickly realized that academia was not where I saw myself in the future. Now, I would like to say that this transition from a traditional academic career path to the world of alternative academic (alt-ac) careers was a graceful and seamless process but ask any of my close friends or family members and they will tell you that it was nothing short of an existential crisis. I felt like I had made a mistake. Why pursue a PhD if you never intend to pursue a traditional academic career? Five years removed from this moment in time, I can confidently say there are countless reasons to pursue a PhD, even if a traditional academic career isn’t your chosen path for the future.
Resolute in my decision to pursue an alt-ac career post-graduation, I then turned my attention to how I could hack my PhD for alt-ac career potential. For me, it really came down to three questions:
- What do I want to do post-graduation?
- What skills are required for that particular job and/or field?
- What skills can I improve and/or gain to strengthen my resume?
In an effort to answer these questions I made strategic choices throughout my time as a PhD student to improve or gain particular skills, extend my professional network, and build a resume filled with easily transferable and understandable experiences for the alt-ac employer.
While there is no exact science to the process of hacking your graduate degree for alt-ac career potential, below are my top three tips.
- Extend your Professional Network
As a graduate student you will be provided with a number of opportunities to volunteer your time on various committees and/or boards. As a PhD student, I served on departmental committees, two university senate committees and on a number of other community boards. Now, there is a fine line between extending your professional network and overextending yourself. Be strategic in your choices. Find what you enjoy doing and volunteer your time as a committee member or board member. The connections you make through these experiences will extend beyond the walls of the university and can prove invaluable in terms of future career opportunities. You never know what connections you can make or when that relationship you developed over the course of a year on a board will become essential in your quest for alt-ac employment.
- Replicate Alt-Ac Employment in your Academic Degree
Once you’ve tackled the question of “what do I want to do post-graduation,’ my suggestion would be to find an opportunity, paid or volunteer, that as closely as possible replicates your post-graduation career ambitions. This experience will help to either confirm or complicate your post-graduation goals. In addition, it will strengthen your resume with an experience that is easy to understand for alt-ac employers and transferable to the world of alternative academic careers. I knew that post-graduation I wanted to work with people in a helping and/or advisory capacity, so throughout my PhD I sought out positions which involved working with people in a coaching or advising capacity. I worked as a Student Advisor with the Society of Graduate and Professional Students (SGPS) and volunteered as a Peer Career Educator with Career Services. Both of these experiences are prominently featured on my resume and discussed at length during alt-ac interviews. While these experiences are intricately connected to my time as a student, the skills I built in them transfer well beyond my PhD degree. In essence I am saying: make it easy for the alt-ac employer to see how you “fit” within their organization.
- Be Honest with Yourself and Push your Comfort Zone
If you’ve decided to pursue a graduate degree, I am fairly confident that you are someone who thrives on a challenge and loves to learn. Learning during your graduate degree will happen both inside and outside of the classroom, as trite as it sounds. Take some time during your graduate degree to do an inventory assessment of your skills. Be honest with yourself. Are there certain skills which you would like to improve upon or even gain? Take some time during your graduate degree to push yourself outside of your comfort zone to develop and harness these skills. How you develop these skills will vary greatly. There is no precise method. One of the particular skills I wanted to work on during my PhD was my ability to facilitate and lead meetings or negotiations. What better way to gain this experience than joining the PSAC 901 union bargaining team representing TAs, TFs and Post-Docs at Queen’s? This was a new adventure for me and, if I am being honest, at times I felt uncomfortable and overwhelmed, but in the end practice really did make “perfect.” I am by no means an expert negotiator, but I do have a specialized skill, which prior to joining the bargaining team, I lacked. Through this experience I gained new skills, honed others and learned a tremendous amount about myself.
Hindsight truly is 20/20 and what I wouldn’t give to go back in time with this information.
But what I can tell you now is that pursuing a PhD without the intention of ever seeking out a traditional academic job after graduation is not a mistake and, in fact, it can be an incredibly rewarding and insightful journey.
Stay tuned next week to find out how to take these experiences from your PhD and translate them into the alt-ac speak that your potential employers will understand.