Best Career Tips for Doctoral Students: Beyond the Tenure-Track Option | Issue 207

Reading time this issue: Under 10 minutes (that will forever change how you plan your career)


  • Editor's Note: Who Will Be Your Career Advocate?


  • Feature: Best Career Tips for Doctoral Students: Beyond the Tenure-Track Option


Editor's Note: Who Will Be Your Career Advocate?


When did you last dare to try something you might fail at?


Every grad student needs an advocate when it comes to career planning.


If you are not already developing your career options, start right now. Even for new doctoral candidate, early and consistent planning will be your best route to a satisfying life after graduation.


That recommendation comes from one of the nations' most articulate graduate student advocates, James Van Wyck of Fordham. In our interview with him, James offers several cutting-edge tips you can put to use now—because the best advocate for your future success is you.


Graduate schools have been exceedingly slow in offering preparation for anything other than academic positions—which are few in number. But savvy students, he explains, can investigate entrepreneurial and governmental venues to discover the best matches for their talents and interests. They should be developing their career network long before they begin job hunting.



An Alumni Dissertation Fellow at Fordham University, James cares deeply about the future of graduate students. You may have seen his articles on the subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education or in Inside Higher Ed. We're delighted that he has taken the time to speak directly to our readers.


We would also love to hear what you are doing to be your own best career advocate. What tips would you offer other grad students? What challenges and successes have you experienced? Email us at with the subject line "Careers" please. Here's to your degree and career success!




Gayle Scroggs, PhD, PCC
Editor, ABD Survival Guide

Feature Article





[Transcript of the All-But-Dissertation Guide interview with graduate student advocate James M. Van Wyck of Fordham University.]


ABDSG: What do you think are some mental hurdles that doctoral students face in preparing themselves for life after graduation?


James Van Wyck: I'd start with what I think is the biggest: don't think of yourself as a student, think of yourself as a professional. And don't get lulled into thinking you can't try on other roles in graduate school. Thinking of yourself as "in school" might mean you forget that it's ok (and even advisable) to be entrepreneurial in how you approach your graduate education. Make the time to look beyond the borders of your discipline and institution.



I would also suggest taking time to examine and perhaps adjust your behavioral patterns. For example, in today's job market (including the tenure-track job market) you can't afford to be shy about self-promotion. You need to circulate your work, to reach out and form relationships with senior scholars, and to collaborate with your peers and partners beyond academia.


ABDSG: If I become more entrepreneurial, I am concerned about how my advisor might react. This is not the time to get on the wrong side of the gatekeepers. How should I proceed?


JVW: This is a huge concern for graduate students, and a very real one. Time after time, surveys conducted by organizations like the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) tell us that graduate students don't do things they should (explore other options, spend time on projects outside academia, visit a career center, and so on) because they are afraid of what their advisor will say and do. So you aren't alone.


I have two simple strategies: first, conduct your parallel activities on a different channel. You needn't tell your advisor everything, and s/he will most likely not find out. I think graduate students often imagine that graduate advisors think about their advisees a lot. They do not. While graduate students tend to think about their relationship with their advisor way too much, I've yet to find the reverse to be true. Graduate advisors are typically high-performing faculty who simply don't have the time to worry about you when you aren't in front of them.


To help conduct this stealth campaign, start putting together a board of advisors, rather than relying on one person for all your advice. Reaching out like this will help you not only prepare for a variety of careers, but it will gradually lesson the spell that your advisor has over you. You'll empower yourself to sift through various types of advice, and pick and choose what is most appropriate in each case. If you have an advisor who thinks preparing for multiple careers is wrong, you can simply ignore this piece of advice, and seek counsel on this front from other quarters.


Second, you might need to fire your advisor. It may not be easy, but neither is having an anchor around your neck. Advisors who live in the 1970s aren't much help in today's job market. Read this article from Leonard Cassuto to diagnose your relationship with your advisor. If you need to fire your advisor, read Cassuto's advice on the subject. Then grit your teeth and take control of your future by finding a new advisor.



ABDSG: Your advice doesn't apply to me as I am totally committed to seeking a tenure-track position after graduation.


JVW: Your statement implies that those who don't secure tenure-track jobs fail because of a lack of commitment. That's not the reason they fail. There's a cruel calculus at play here, and effort and commitment are sometimes beside the point. The numbers of tenure-track jobs shrink every year, and there aren't enough jobs to go around, even for the over-qualified candidates now coming out of graduate school. So you need to know the math, and you need to be preparing for a variety of careers.


And here's an interesting twist: the skills you develop by being open-minded about potential careers may just be the skills that push you over the edge in a tightly contested tenure-track job search. The idea of an academic job is changing underneath our feet, thus the models many grad students see on a daily basis (i.e., tenured faculty at research universities) are often not the kinds of models to copy. On the other hand, look at the profiles of young faculty members at selective liberal arts colleges, and you will see that their CVs are increasingly incorporating public-facing projects.


In what ways might government agency jobs be a good alternative to working in the academy? And how is this avenue best pursued?


The U.S. government employs more PhDs than any other single employer, and these PhDs are not all in Washington, D.C. In fact, when you spend time on, you are almost certain to find a job that interests you.


Candidates with a Master's or PhD are able to apply for higher level positions, so be sure and read up on the tiered system before you apply. A great way for graduate students to see if civil service jobs are a good fit is the Presidential Management Fellows Program. A great resource for the transition from academia to government work is Alexandra Lord, who I interviewed a while back. Be sure and check out her website, Beyond Academe.


How can I best find a non-academic job where my educations and skills will be valued? For example, I like to write, and I want a job that will allow for life-long learning. What kinds of workplaces will value my critical analysis skills and my desire to publish?


I'll give you a quick answer: start reading job ads and researching companies that sound interesting to you. Look at non-profits and startups, established firms, and boutique outfits. In short, do your homework. Begin with the job boards over at Versatile PhD, and go from there. Keep your mind and options open!


What's one skill I should be working on while in graduate school (but probably haven't)?


Public speaking comes to mind. And not the Tony Robbins brand of public speaking. I mean learning to be aware of how you are presenting ideas (and yourself) in a variety of contexts. You can read my thoughts on the subject here.


How should graduate schools get involved in creating a mindset shift that would help graduates find satisfying employment?


Graduate education, particularly in the humanities, is shifting underneath the feet of graduate students. And I think that's why it is really important for graduate deans and provosts to listen to those with their ears closest to the ground. The short answer is that graduate schools must give their own students a voice in strategic planning, a topic I wrote about with a colleague just a few months ago for The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm gratified to see that graduate schools are responding to the changing times in ways that even two or three years ago were unheard of.



James M. Van Wyck is an Alumni Dissertation Fellow at Fordham University. Over the past several years he has held various posts at Fordham, including Facilitator for Graduate Student Professionalization in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, where he helped shape the Fellowship in Higher Education Leadership. His writing can be found in venues such as The New England Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed. Follow him on Twitter: @jmvanwyck




An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resource 

She also speaks fluent Spanish and delights in new exotic Scrabble words as she savors life in the Chesapeake Bay area, California, and Argentina.


BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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