Choosing Alt-Ac? How to break the news

Fatimah Williams Castro is a career coach who writes for chroniclevitae online and blogs at Beyond the Tenure Track. She knows the challenges that attend breaking the news to faculty advisors when a student decides to develop a career path outside of the tenure track academic stream that most professors would prefer for most of their students.

In a post dated September 11, 2014, she offers advice to both professors and their students.non-academic

For professors, who are unlikely to have a great deal of knowledge about multiple career paths or how to seek work in nonacademic areas, she suggests that they

  • know their limits and set boundaries for themselves about how they can help a student who decides to pursue a nonacademic career: best to refer students to trusted, knowledgeable career-counseling resources, particularly those at campus career services offices who can help students in thinking about their options
  • show nonacademic-leaning students the same commitment as before: these students are still in their graduate program and still fully committed to their graduate level research — they intend to draw upon the knowledge and skills they are developing to craft a meaningful work life for themselves, and need faculty support in completing their degrees productively the same as more traditional students.

Graduate students, too, have a responsibility to manage the disclosure process well which is to say

  • to be realistic about their expectations regarding their advisor’s role in the career-transition process: career decisions are personal and require independence on the part of the student, who may need to seek a great deal of help and advice that his or her supervisor can’t be expected to provide.
  • to take responsibility themselves for finding out about possible alternate careers through research and by learning about the job search process from those with expertise in it.
  • not to discuss nonacademic career plans with advisors too early – advisors and supervisors need to be able to focus on what they do best, which is to say working with students who are serious about their academic programs, and who recognize that the design and carrying out of that work comes first.
  • to recognize that career transitions, and working them through, are emotionally demanding phases of life, so that finding other kinds of support – perhaps through student counselling support units – may be worth thinking about.

Here’s a a link to the article, “Help, my grad student wants to access a nonacademic career!” 





Job markets (yes, that’s plural) for graduate degree holders

On its Student Services website, the University of British Columbia asks the question “What’s the job market like for graduate students?” and provides some answers.

The good news is that there is work, including very good career opportunities, available currently for holders of graduate degrees. A 2011 report by the Association of Universities and Colleges in Canada (AUCC) indicates that the demand for graduate degrees in the Canadian labour market has increased over the past two decades, from 600,000 jobs in 1990 to over 1.3 million jobs in 2009.Screen shot 2014-11-18 at 7.15.25 AM

It’s true that most of these jobs do not take the form of tenure-track appointments at universities: UBC notes that between 60 to 70% of Canadian PhDs do not pursue academic careers, and only 12% of tenured faculty members in Canada are under the age of 35.

However, the increase in the diversity of job opportunities, particularly for doctoral graduates, is heartening. In other words, clearly newly graduated students are able to market their degrees to non-academic sectors these days, which is important given the well-known lack of tenure-track opportunities available to graduating students at the present time.

The site offers a series of videos featuring former UBC graduate students who talk about their non-academic career paths. Six former students, coming out of very different academic backgrounds and now working across a variety of industries, offer their best advice for graduate students when it comes to moving forward with their degrees outside academia.

Their comments cover a range of topics relevant to all graduate students, including choosing between academia and industry, the skills employers look for in graduate students, and strategies for an effective job search.

One of the videos features Peter Wrinch, Executive Director at Pivot Legal, a Vancouver not-for-profit that “uses the law to create social change” with a focus on the city’s downtown east side. As a student of Russian History, Peter says he was focused on a career in academia with little thought to “other careers.” His best advice to graduate students, based on his own experience, is to realize that the employment “field” available to arts students is very broad. If you think about what you are passionate about and look at wider social needs and the ways in which you could fit in, opportunities will present themselves to you.

In Peter’s words “good things will happen to people who are following their passion” but who also make themselves stand out as candidates for the “real-world” jobs that exist.

Visit the UBC site to hear from others like Peter who have moved into professional positions in non-academic fields and have really practical suggestions to offer.


Tech skills are only a start

tech skills screen shotA recent post by Rachel Burstein (Future Tense, September 1, 2014) usefully highlights a great conundrum for employers today in addressing the “skills gap.

Rachel comments on the ostensible shortage in the U.S. job market of suitable technical and skilled labour applicants for advertised positions. However, she challenges those who believe this situation will be solved by putting more resources into training and education in technical skills.


Because, as the headline to her post reads,
“Tech skills aren’t the be-all and end-all.”

Rachel goes on to underscore the value of “soft skills,” or what I call “transferable skills” or “parallel skills,” that are also crucial in the workplace.

In her words, “the problem with the skills gap argument is that it accounts for only one set of skills that employers consider important,” and that is the set related to specific training that a degree may attest to.  The truth is that the skills gap from an employer’s perspective is much broader and includes “skills that aren’t about content or subject matter — skills like communication, critical thinking, creativity, empathy, and understanding of diversity.”

Such skills cut across sector, hierarchy and function, and two in particular, “critical thinking and communication skills,” according to research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, are thought by 93 per cent of the business and non-profit leaders who were surveyed to be more important than a person’s undergraduate major when it comes to hiring.

Rachel goes on to note that “Professionalism/work ethic, teamwork/collaboration, and oral communication rank among the top five skills valued by employers hiring candidates at any educational level, according to one study. Yet employers rank significant portions of those entering the workforce deficient on all these dimensions.”

She recognizes that there is no “silver bullet” for addressing this gap in a systemic way.

However, her comments suggest that graduate students need to realize the importance of developing these so-called “soft skills” while completing their degrees – which is to say that they need to find strategies for developing transferable skills within their institutional settings.

Universities are becoming aware of the need to make this kind of professional skills development available to their students, and many offer programming that is freely available to all students. Online programming is available too, and we’ve mentioned a number of such opportunities on this blog site. Other blogs can provide valuable leads as well.

But the bottom line is that awareness and determination to focus on soft skills while in school is critical to job market success later.

Why we need to take breaks

Business magazine Fast Company thinks that we have to stop thinking we are too busy to take breaks. According to Courtney Seiter (September 4, 2012), there is solid science out there showing that taking time out makes us happier, more focused and more productive.

She provides three “scientific reasons” for prioritizing breaks when you are working:

 1. Breaks keep us from getting bored (and thus, unfocused)

“Basically, the human brain just wasn’t built for the extended focus we ask of it these days. Our brains are vigilant all the time because they evolved to detect tons of different changes to ensure our very survival. So focusing so hard on one thing for a long time isn’t something we’re ever going to be great at (at least for a few centuries). The good news is that the fix for this unfocused condition is simple — all we need is a brief interruption (aka a break) to get back on track.”

2. Breaks help us retain information and make connections

“Our brains have two modes: the “focused mode,” which we use when we’re doing things like learning something new, writing or working and “diffuse mode,” which is our more relaxed, daydreamy mode when we’re not thinking so hard. You might think that the focused mode is the one to optimize for more productivity, but diffuse mode plays a big role, too. In fact, although our brains were once thought to go dormant when we daydreamed, studies have shown that activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander.”

3. Breaks help us re-evaluate our goals

According to the Harvard Business Review, “When you work on a task continuously, it’s easy to lose focus and get lost in the weeds. In contrast, following a brief intermission, picking up where you left off forces you to take a few seconds to think globally about what you’re ultimately trying to achieve. It’s a practice that encourages us to stay mindful of our objectives….”

Courtney’s piece is full of interesting information – including, for example, pictures of brain scans when we are on and off “breaks,” an illustration of the Pomodoro method for time management, Dement and Kleitman’s “90 minute” waveform graph, and scans that show the lit-up brain after exercise.

She also lists four break methods worth trying, and offers a number of other tips, like replenishing your brain with nourishing foods, reading non work-related books, connecting with nature — and taking naps.

There is plenty of good information here. It’s well worth following this link to the article.

Video advice: expand your skill sets

Screen Shot 2014-11-05 at 12.41.37 PMHow can you enhance your “transferable” or “soft” or “parallel” skills portfolio while completing the academic work for your degree?

April McNeil, a career educator at the University of Victoria, offers tips on what grad students can do to make themselves more attractive to both academic and non-academic employers in this video, which is part of the University Affairs Job Hunt archive.

Three observations stand out for me in April’s short presentation:

  • Even if the job market looks bleak in your field at present, it is important to explore what may be out there by the time you graduate by talking to those who have jobs in areas you are interested in. Building relationships by attending events and setting up information interviews is a skill, a way of getting on the “inside track” well before your official job search starts.
  • You need to position yourself as an expert in your area of interest. To my mind this is where social media savvy comes in: what are you doing as a grad student to profile yourself or to connect with discussion groups online in your areas of interest or expertise? April says undertaking contract work can enhance your resume and demonstrate that you have applicable skills in your area. Sometimes what you produce in contract work can count as publications that demonstrate your applied research and communications skills. In any case, whatever the contract, the work should be mined for the ways it demonstrates workplace skills that may not be evident from your program of study alone.
  • April also emphasizes the importance of “industry connections” – which is to say contact and interaction with the world of work whatever the focus of your degree – even if you decide on an academic career. Administrative skills are important everywhere, and even in faculty jobs these days where we are expected to recruit students, manage budgets, start new programs, attract research grants by partnering with the community, and so on. Such things, she says, can constitute a competitive edge by demonstrating that you have acquired a broader skills set while still a graduate student.

Getting started on career planning

There are excellent resources available to you for getting started in thinking about career opportunities — some of them in your own back yard.  Offices of Career Services are available to all university students in their home institutions, and they offer expert assistance in the areas of career and job search.  They are professionals!  You need to get over there and talk to them about how to begin and sustain the thinking that will lead you not just to a job or a profession, but to a deeply satisfying work life over the long run.

Even more immediately, though, career coaches advise that you begin to do some deep thinking about who you are and all that you have to offer to the world — your interests, skills, aptitudes, your work experience so far and what it has taught you about your “work needs.”  In fact, they would say, this is the foundation that your career planning will rest upon.  Shakespeare was right — you have to “know thyself” and be true to yourself. It all starts there.

But how to get started on that kind of self-analysis — that is the question.

There are plenty of books available on job searching and some of them are very good. For example, Richard Nelson Bolles What Color is Your Parachute (any recent edition) is an excellent place to start.

Bolles is very good — more than 10 million copies of his book have been sold worldwide. He’s entirely up-to-date (produces a new edition of this book every year!) on the process of working out answers to these fundamental questions.

You can meet Dick Bolles on youtube as well, for example under “Google Talks.”

There are also many websites that can help you to identify interests, aptitudes and strengths.

As a start to discovering the riches of online sites, visit — here are links to a couple postings that may be of interest

lifehacker offers lots of practical advice, useful tips and is quirky and interesting.  I like the way that it recognizes that the whole process starts with questions of who we are and how we can go about finding work that will allow us to make a “good life” for ourselves that is consonant with our interests, talents, and passionate convictions.



Trying consulting on for size

We know that employers are always on the lookout for degree holders with “real world experience.” Students see this as a Catch 22. They may be seen by employers as lacking significant work experience, yet employers aren’t willing to hire students who don’t have “real world” experience relevant to the job opportunity.

Last month Vitae, posted an article by Rebecca Koenig, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, that profiled science students who decided to try out consulting as a kind of a “professional Plan B.”

She tells of a group of life-science doctoral students at Washington University in St. Louis who, in 2010, started a non-profit consulting company in order to gain industry experience while completing their degrees. Their “Biotechnology and Life Sciences Advising Group,” or BALSA, offers assistance to companies in the areas of market research, analyzing regulations and project launch-plans.

Doctoral and postdoctoral students typically volunteer their time, about 10 hours a week. BALSA charges a small consulting fee and then directs those proceeds to supporting professional development events and “microgrants” for students in science fields.

Students involved in the project say they have found that businesses are hungry for this kind of help, especially in the case of biotech startups that typically “struggle to survive and understand what their final product should look like.”

An interesting outcome of the project is the fact that while 80 percent of the Life Science program’s doctoral students accept postdoc positions, only about 40 percent of the BALSA graduates followed that path. Another 40 percent took industry jobs. As John H. Russell, associate dean of graduate education at Washington University says, “It is really opening career paths that wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have this opportunity.”

The idea has caught on at several other universities in the U.S. and stands as a model for the way that non-Business students in many different kinds of programs can create consultancies. It is true, as the article suggests, that there is some ambivalence on the part of some graduate supervisors about funded “research scholars” undertaking this kind of work, which such faculty feel may distract them from their academic work. For the students involved, though, developing a modest consulting profile while completing their graduate programs appears to be a very good investment that will almost certainly pay off in job searches in the future, especially when it comes to work in the world beyond the academy where many opportunities are to be found for those with expertise — but also with broader job-related experience and skills sets that make job applicants stand out.

See more of Rebecca’s story: Young Science Scholars Try Out Consulting as a Professional Plan B


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