PhD’s at the Crossroads: Career Counseling and Coaching for a New Direction

MCDA Newsletter – April, 2019

Universities are producing PhDs in record numbers in all disciplines. It’s exciting to have all this brain power!  We have phenomenal technologies and research coming from university labs, while our PhDs are being groomed to continue their research and teaching. Yet, according to Nature, while the number of academic PhDs has jumped by 150%, the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has declined. Full-time professorship positions are being replaced with much cheaper part-time, adjunct, and contract professorship positions. (Yes, Universities are businesses, too.)

What’s happening to our most highly educated people?

In the US, many end up with entry-level jobs and never catch-up to their potential earnings. Others tap their independence and courage to start their own businesses. Yet others land lucrative roles in business, non-profits and public service.

  • For PhDs in the field of English there are more teaching jobs overseas. Across the entire discipline, creative writing is the only field in which aggregate job postings has doubled over the past 20 years.
  • Many in the STEM fields complete their degree in the US and return to their home countries.
  • In 13 European countries PhDs in social sciences and humanities increase their wages by moving to a different country.  “The long way to professorship in Germany and the relatively low income of German academic staff makes leaving the university after the PhD a good option,” says Thorsten Wilhelmy, who studies doctoral education for the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne..

So what’s a newly minted PhD to do?

How many post docs can they afford? When they cannot find another academic job how do they handle the ‘disloyalty’ to their mentors/professors?  Some of these clients have invested in their PhD as their second career; others have never been outside of academia.

My interest in this population has come from working with clients in a variety of fields from astrophysics to psychology to theater. Working with this population has taken me back to my grad school roots in career counseling and career development theories. Several years ago I co-authored CareerScope for American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and worked with of several cohorts of up to 70 non-tenured PhDs who were hungry for a sense of direction.

Typically a client comes to me wanting help with a CV or wanting some guidance on job search. (Sound familiar?) As you have already deduced, a major part of helping these clients lies in helping them translate their highest academic qualification in American education into transferable skills that are valued by employers. Our role as career counselors and coaches is to help them see that a PhD is not just as the mastery of a discipline, but also training of the mind.

A key question about a resume or CV is, “Who is the intended audience?” This starts the critical conversation about their job search and career goals. A simple question or two that probe their reasons for their academic research can illuminate a whole new way of thinking for them. When I help them explore their original reasons for pursuing their studies, there’s often a “mission” deeply embedded that can drive their career direction.

With these clients we see the gap between the academic and the business mindset. To be able to speak the language of business on their resume and in their next job, they need an overview of how basic business works. They don’t need another degree, but often prefer the comfort of taking online courses. Using this knowledge we can help them map their expertise and related skill into how they can be problem solvers for an organization. (The initiative to learn the business is a plus when interviewing). We can explore their desire to continue (or not) to grow their bench skills.

Many of my PhD clients aren’t familiar with the world of work and thus, spend entirely too much time looking at job boards. We can help them use their analytical skills and natural curiosity to explore the world of work. I love to hear, “You’ve changed my entire way of thinking!” “I never would have considered these options!” We look at five different role options and determine which one(s) are best for them now and in the future. This helps in re-inventing their professional identity that builds upon their academic achievements.

To address the demand of jobs for grads, universities are filling their career portals with interviews of alums telling their stories and advice for other PhD job seekers. Many portals offer a structured approach (aka protocol) for job search activities. Similar portals are found with professional associations, federal agencies, and large non-profits. CareerOnestop has professional association links.

A number of enterprising PhDs have used their own experiences to form membership communities to help PhDs find lucrative work outside of academia. They not only offer job search skills, but also connections and introductions to the variety of career paths others are on.

I invite you to join in this discussion on May 16th 2019 at 12:00pm EDT in the webinar; PhD’s at the Crossroads: Career Counseling and Coaching for a New Direction. My goal is to validate what you are doing well with your PhD clients, provide a different lens for working with this population and to share resources for both you and your clients. (NCBB CEUs eligible). Register today while there are still spots left! A recording will be available afterwards.

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