“Your Greatest Moment of Crisis is Your Greatest Opportunity”

Beyond Academia PhotoFacing the expansive world of employment outside of academia can be intimidating and daunting for Ph.D. students, who are often trained to have narrow, deep expertise rather than to take a broad view of their skills and talents. But at this year’s Beyond Academia conference, held February 28th – March 1st on the Clark Kerr campus, keynote speakers Vania Cao and Lisa Munro both emphasized that stepping through that door into the wide professional world is an opportunity to grow from challenges and make the system work for you in the way you need it to.

In her Thursday morning talk, titled “Freeing the Ph.D. your Way,” Cao, who works as as sales manager and support lead at Inscopix, advised graduate students considering the non-academic job market to “take a start-up mindset,” finding out an organization’s needs before applying and coming up with creative ways that your skill set as a candidate might help fulfill those needs.

Cao says that there are just two reasons that you will be hired for a job: your existing problem-solving value (irrespective of your Ph.D.), and your ability to convince the employer that you can gain and provide this value to their business. Because of this, your time is valuable, and should be spent in a way that mirrors your own priorities and expands the problem-solving skills that you most want to cultivate. Cao’s optimism was infectious, and her message of cultivating the skills you love was inspiring to every Ph.D. student in the room.

Munro’s presentation on Friday morning, was equally valuable. In her talk, “The Opportunity of Crisis,” she stressed how to make academic lemons into lemonade when your academic future is unclear and you are not sure what value or skills you have to offer on the job market. She reminded the audience that “there is no seamless narrative of progress in real life,” and cautioned against efforts to conform to a very narrow paradigm of academic success.

Munro encouraged graduate students to seek networking opportunities outside of their tight-knit graduate student communities and create new narratives about their experiences and skills that speak to broader audiences. By doing so, Munro believes that Ph.D. students can become empowered to frame their own stories in a positive light, highlighting the Ph.D. as a body of work, experience, and skills, rather than as an extremely tailored apprenticeship. This process of re-framing may take time, but it will be worth it in the flexibility and control that Ph.D. job seekers gain when they enter the real-world job market upon completing their degrees.

Taken together, these two speeches encouraged Berkeley Ph.D.s to expand our imaginations regarding the skills that a Berkeley Ph.D. confers, and to be confident in our ability to successfully find jobs beyond academia – whether we are starting out with clear alt-ac career goals in mind, or are about to embark on the search to discover what might be a good fit.

Curious about career paths beyond academia? Consider joining the organizing team for Beyond Academia, a student- and postdoc-run organization; explore online resources like ImaginePhD; or make an appointment with the Career Center’s dedicated Ph.D. Career Counselors today.

Maelia DuBois is a Professional Development Liaison at the Graduate Division and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History with a specialization in German history.