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

Kimberley Yates, Arts Administrator

In her blog From PhD To Life, Jennifer Polk often presents interviews with PhD-holders like herself who have successfully made the transition to other than tenure-track careers.

One of Jennifer’s “Transition Q and A” posts is a profile of Kimberley Yates who has put her PhD in English to work as Associate Director of the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto.

“Transition” is the operative word in these personal narratives because shifting to work other than a tenure-track position can be challenging. Kimberley is refreshingly direct in acknowledging the recalibration in her own thinking that was necessary once she realized that a tenure-stream position in her scholarly field, medieval drama, was highly unlikely to materialize – even if she were willing to move a great distance to find such work.

For those who find themselves in this position, the first requirement is to think deeply about their personal interests, values, and fundamental needs – in order to identify work and work settings that will draw upon the knowledge and skills acquired through their pursuit of their advanced degrees. The second is persistence – the ability to continue, perhaps through a series of jobs, in the search for a good job fit in a suitable environment.

In Kimberley’s case, she first worked in a non-academic sector, insurance, and could have “settled” (in her words) for this kind of a career. However, her story demonstrates the importance of continuous professional development and an ongoing openness to new opportunities. She was most attracted to university settings, and so, when the opportunity presented itself, moved from her marketing position in insurance to a job in staff administration in the U of T’s Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. There she enjoyed considerable success, and simultaneously worked part-time on a library degree which led her to think more broadly about “digital humanities and how universities work” — which ultimately led to her current position as Director of a university research institute.

The “Transition Q and A: Kimberley Yates” recounts an interesting journey and provides some real-world advice regarding work.

Does finishing a PhD need to take a thousand years?

Margy Thomas Horton asks (and answers) this question in a blog post called 101 Tips for Finishing Your PhD Quickly.”

Margy is an Academic Writing Coach from North Carolina who writes a very useful blog called ScholarShape that focuses on all aspects of academic writing.

It is an amazing cache full of advice emerging from her work with graduate students in many disciplines, and it offers many interesting links to other sources of information on this topic.

Linking to LinkedIn

Why should you join and make the most of LinkedIn?

Peter Daisyme of the online Search Engine Journal says that “while it may not be the sexiest of social media networks, LinkedIn is definitely the most important one for professionals.”

With more than 277 million members, he says, LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network and “a whopping 94 percent of recruiters use LinkedIn to vet candidates.”

Along with these statistics, Peter offers a list of tips in his article “Why LinkedIn is important to your career in 2014” (April 5/14).

For an even quicker hit, and one directed especially to graduate students, here’s a two-minute video worth making time for. In the Career Section of the University Affairs website, Amy Elder, director of Career Services at Brock University, talks about best practices for students when it comes to using LinkedIn.

Her top three LinkedIn tips are:

  • making sure your profile is complete and includes plenty of keywords that contribute to search engine optimization
  • using a customized, personalized invitation for connecting to others
  • joining groups that align with your profile – and participating in their discussions

On the same site you’ll find another short video in which Amy talks about why graduate students should have an online presence.

To start with, she says that for work outside of academia, research points to the ever-increasing use of social media in their job search related activities. She stresses the importance for graduate students of developing a professional digital brand that positively reflects their skills and attributes to potential employers.

The videos were part of a series that were recorded last May at Brock University during Congress 2014 held by Canada’s Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Information interviews — tips on how to make the most out of them

Here’s a follow-up to last week’s post about information interviews and how they can be an important part of a job search strategy.

Heather Krasna describes herself as a career coach, author, and speaker, specializing in finding “meaningful careers.”

She’s a strong believer in the usefulness of information interviews in the job seeking process as a way of building up a personal network while expanding your knowledge about organizations in the field you wish to enter.

At (April 8/11), she discusses the etiquette that governs such meetings.

As we noted last week, information interviews are not intended to be about getting a job, directly, but about finding out about how things work in an organization that aligns with your interests and values.

Two things that Heather says to remember are

  • the importance of you setting the tone as an information-seeker
  • remembering that it is your job to keep the conversation flowing

She then goes on to suggest the kinds of questions you can ask at an information interview in order to maximize the brief time that you have asked for when setting up this meeting.

Go to her website to read, “Questions to Ask During Informational Interviews”  — Heather has 18 suggested questions and conversational openings to help you prepare.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of the career coaches I meet online. While they provide for-fee individual counselling, they also offer a great deal of free advice online, that’s available to the rest of us at the push of a button. Why not take advantage of the kindness of strangers when it comes to online coaching? —750 registered users and counting

Earlier this month, we shared news about the launch of — a free online learning platform designed to help graduate students at Ontario universities develop professional skills – no matter what profession they may choose.

The platform offers graduate students access to 18 free, self-paced modules on topics such as research management, converting a CV to a resumé, mentoring undergrads, mental health and wellness, and intellectual property. went live on Sept. 7. In the Sept. 17 issue of Canada’s University Affairs, Natalie Samson reports that in the first week of its launch, the online tool had attracted over 4,400 visitors, more than 26,000 page views and 750 registered users.

The site developers must be pleased to see such strong interest in the early going. Clearly students are voting with their feet in flocking to this site.

According to Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University and one of the developers of the site, the goal of the platform is to give graduate students the opportunity to develop the skills they need to succeed “both in their graduate programs and beyond.”

She notes that, in her experience, many graduate students are “afraid to tell their faculty advisers that they don’t want to go on in academia.” Yet it is unrealistic for every graduate student to aspire to academic positions in a poor academic job market and “frankly,” she says, “a lot of graduate students don’t want those jobs anymore” anyway.

I think that Sue Horton, former associate provost of graduate studies at the University of Waterloo, is right in seeing as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, on-campus career services, as indicated in Samson’s article.

However, it is good to know that so many students are sampling this new site and figuring out how to use it to their advantage. Self-reliance is a soft skill in and of itself, after all.

Information interviews — a job search strategy that really pays off

“Information Interview” is a term coined by Richard Bolles many years ago in his perennial job-search handbook What Colour is your Parachute? (Berkeley, CA: 10 Speed Press).  By “perennial,” I mean that Bolles has put out a new edition of this book almost every year since its first edition in 1972 and is currently at work on the 2015 edition: in one of his recent tweets (April 25/14), writes: “It’s that time of year again — working on What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015 ed. with all-new updated research!” He is both sensible and indefatigable, an enviable combination.

The information interview is just that: an interview you request with someone who is working in a field that you are interested in – in order to find out what you can about this kind of work, its greatest satisfactions (or challenges), and pathways to attaining it.

You are interviewing in order to make a networking contact, but first and foremost to find out what you would like to know about the kind of work this individual is doing. An information interview is not an attempt to wangle a job or a job interview from the person whose time you have requested. Instead you are looking for a good conversation that will provide advice and research leads as you continue your job search.

Many successful people will quite happily make time for this kind of a conversation if you mean it when you say you are interested in meeting them, are looking for information about their field, will take only a half-hour of their time, and can meet at their convenience.

For further advice, you might take a look at GradHacker columnist KD Shives’s post, “The Informational Interview: The Tool for Taking Your Career to the Next Level” (posted January 31/14).

What I especially like about this piece is Katie’s emphasis on casting a wide net, on doing your research and preparing some questions before you take up anyone’s time – and taking care to observe the time limits – i.e. if you’ve asked for 30 minutes, finish in 30 minutes!


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