Tips on using your time in grad school strategically to build a career in government service and freelance writing.
For most of his adult life, Timothy Wright has been interested in foreign policy and America’s relationship with the world. It’s one of the things that led him to pursue a Ph.D. in history at UC Berkeley, which he earned in 2018. However, during the course of his program Timothy realized he needed to prepare for multiple possible career paths. “I felt the necessity to broaden my horizons and think deeply about what else I would want to do outside of academia.”
To that end, Timothy pursued a variety of opportunities to gain experience beyond the classroom. He worked on campus in project management and also wrote freelance articles on topics including German far-right extremism, transatlantic relations, and American religion. He also served as a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, did an internship at the National Endowment for the Humanities, and did historical writing for Ancestry.com.
Inspired by a friend and interested in government service, he applied twice to the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program and in 2019 became a finalist, leading to his current role as a Management and Programs Analyst for Voice of America. (For more about the PMF, see the 2019 GradNews article Start a Career in Federal Service through the Presidential Management Fellows Program.)
A concern for many graduate students is how to reframe their skills and experience when applying for nonacademic jobs. Timothy says the best strategy he used was to look at the resumes of people who’ve been successful —“I am a master pilferer.” He was also encouraged to find ways to quantify results for an application. “The way things are packaged outside of academia tends to be very results-oriented and concise. It’s most effective if you can pinpoint the impact you had on a project or team.”
Timothy also encourages students to think about both the soft and hard skills that are the basis of academic work. Graduate school can include a lot of organizational work, leadership skills, and teamwork, as well as oral and written communication. “Teaching and giving presentations helped prepare me for my current position, where I frequently talk to groups, and my writing and editing skills are essential.” However, he also suggests that students develop additional skills if they can. Referring to his own experience learning to use Excel and design software to gather and present information, he emphasized that expanding your skillset goes a long way in making the leap from academia. At Cal, D-Lab is a great resource for workshops and trainings to expand your software and coding skills, for example.
When asked for other advice for current graduate students interested in preparing for careers beyond the academy, Timothy gave the following suggestions:
- Be active in developing your passions and interests, a piece of advice Timothy remembers hearing at the Beyond Academia conference. “Think about ways to make those passions concrete and how to get involved in a community related to these passions. Write an article, do an internship, be creative.”
- As early as possible, look for opportunities to gain experience through part-time work or an internship. “It was important for me to start gaining experiences outside of academic research and teaching, and I wish I had started this sooner.”
- Build your network and reach out. Timothy asked a friend who became a Presidential Management Fellow for tips on whom to contact, which allowed him to start making connections. “I did a lot of phone conversations and informational interviews. None of these contacts led to a job per se, but they can give you ideas of where to look, things to do, how to present yourself and draw on your experience.”
- Take advantage of resources available to you as a student. Take classes far outside your discipline or go to a skill-building workshop. “It’s a lot harder to do that sort of thing once you’re not a student.”
If you’re inspired by Timothy’s story and his advice about how to use your time as a graduate student, there are many Berkeley-based resources to support you! Great first steps include an appointment with one of the Career Center’s Ph.D. counselors, an individual consultation with GradPro to discuss skill development, reading the Professional Development Guide, and checking out upcoming professional development workshops and events.
About the Author: Alicia Roy holds a Ph.D. in German from UC Berkeley and is a Hitchcock Postdoctoral Fellow in the Graduate Division.