Tips on using your time in grad school strategically to build a career in public service and the arts.

Photo of Nilofar Gardezi
Nilofar Gardezi.

In many ways, Nilofar Gardezi’s path from an English Ph.D. to a career in public service is rooted in her personal story. “With my background as a refugee from Afghanistan, I have always wanted to stay connected with low-income communities, and to non-native speakers of English,” she says. Nilofar came to graduate school intending to combine her studies in twentieth-century African-American literature with public engagement: “My mentors in undergrad were experts in their fields, and they were engaged with the wider community. That seemed to me like a good way to be in the world.”

Nilofar used her time in graduate school to serve these communities, while also developing valuable professional skills. She spent several summers working for Summer Bridge, a six-week program that helps entering undergraduate students adjust to life at Berkeley; she also worked at the TRiO Program for several years, where she supported Berkeley students with disabilities. Through these experiences, Nilofar realized that she found the greatest fulfillment in her community-facing work and that she would be better able to do such work outside of the professoriate.

To move towards a career beyond academia, Nilofar spent the year after she graduated lecturing in her home department while exploring different career paths in community organizations. She worked as a journalist with Oakland Local and applied to the competitive Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program, an initiative that places recent Ph.D. graduates in positions at non-profit and government employers.

As it turned out, the Mellon/ACLS competition kick-started the next stage of Nilofar’s professional journey toward a career in public service. She was selected as a Public Fellow and placed as an impact analyst with the Bay Area Video Coalition. In this role, she had to quickly surmount a steep learning curve: “I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning to strengthen my quantitative skills.” To do so as quickly as possible, Nilofar reached out to other ACLS public fellows who worked in a similar role: “The public fellows program has a really strong alumni network, which is a great aspect of the program.” This hard work paid off, as Nilofar acquired a firm grounding in evaluation and impact analysis: “Bringing this new set of skills into my work helped me see my work and research as an applied and living thing.”

This experience also gave Nilofar the abilities and concrete experience that she needed to land her current role as a Program Policy Analyst working at the University of California Office of the President (UCOP). At UCOP, Nilofar works in the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, supporting and promoting the extension work of UC researchers and staff to improve the lives of all Californians. In this role, Nilofar is able to make a direct contribution to the well-being of the people of California, which she finds extremely satisfying: “It’s exciting to have an impact at the statewide level.” And the stability that her current job provides has also made it possible for Nilofar to reengage with the arts: she recently joined the Board of Directors of Arts for Oakland Kids, a local nonprofit that improves the learning and achievement outcomes of Oakland kids through hands-on arts education in under-resourced public schools.

When asked for her advice for current grad students who are interested in preparing for and/or exploring jobs beyond the academy, Nilofar gave several suggestions:

  • Be humble and open: Don’t let the fact that you have or are working on a Ph.D. (or “Phud,” as she and her husband jokingly refer to their doctorates) go to your head. There’s going to be a lot to learn in any new job setting, so approach new opportunities with a willingness to learn.
  • Develop your skills in project management: Try thinking about your dissertation or thesis as a large-scale project with different work streams. Nilofar did this by approaching her dissertation work much like a traditional, nine-to-five job: facilitating meetings of her committee with outcome-oriented agendas, working towards consensus, developing a list of action items, and generally becoming the project manager of the process.
  • Take time to explore what’s out there. While graduate school can feel all-consuming, carving out time to connect with the wider world helps keep things in perspective. It will also help you identify the types of jobs you’re interested in, and the types of work you don’t enjoy. Informational interviews are a great way to start – listen to someone else’s story and interests, share your own, see where there may or may not be fruitful overlap, and go from there! Don’t forget to be a resource to those you interview as well.
  • More generally, try to develop a sense of focus and applied purpose. Reflect on your interests and priorities, think about how they inform where you’d like to go professionally, and gain more clarity by doing rather than abstracting – maybe a paid internship, paid consultancy on a project, or other small project work. There is no wrong move and each experience builds your resume. You will be both taking your next steps and demonstrating a clear commitment and transferrable skillset to the people you meet during your job search process.

If you’re interested in working towards a career like Nilofar’s, there are tons of free resources available to you as a Berkeley graduate student. To start conceptualizing and working towards the career you’d like to have after grad school, make an appointment at the Career Center with one of the two counselors who work exclusively with graduate students. Or if you’d like to learn more about developing your skills while in grad school, make an appointment at GradPro to learn more about professional development resources and events on campus.


David Bratt is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures and a Professional Development Liaison in the Graduate Division.


Categories: October 2019, Professional Development