Graduate students typically think of themselves as specialists in one aspect of a specific field. But according to Susan Basalla May and Eric Schulze, the keynote speakers at this year’s Beyond Academia conference, landing a job requires graduate students to take a much more expansive view of their experiences and abilities.
May — who has a Ph.D. in English and is a partner at the executive search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates — co-authored the book So What Are You Going to Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia. In her speech, she told graduate students that the transition into a new field can require a radical identity shift. “Get your head ready, and get your heart ready,” she cautioned. “If you’ve tried to convert your CV into a résumé and haven’t cried in the process, then you still have a CV.”
But discovering a new professional identity isn’t all doom and gloom. According to May, it can also be a revelatory opportunity to reconnect with the values, interests, and ambitions that drew you to graduate school in the first place. “You may not be used to thinking about what you individually enjoy,” she said, but this process of self-examination is a key first step, long before applications and interviews. “If you go into a search that is driven by frustration or desperation, you don’t present yourself as a good candidate: you end up selling yourself short,” she said. (See tips from May and other speakers for figuring out what you enjoy!)
Another thing that holds graduate students back, May contends, is the feeling that they are underqualified or lack experience. In reality, PhDs are great learners and can often quickly acquire whatever experience they lack. “Go out and get that experience. Take an online course, read a textbook, volunteer,” May advised. “You can DIY this stuff and then present yourself as someone with the required skills.”
Schulze — who has a Ph.D. in Genetic, Molecular, and Cell Biology and is now vice president of production and regulation at Memphis Meats — struck related themes in his keynote talk. He argued that PhDs should view themselves as experts in the acquisition of knowledge, not just specialists in a particular subject area.
“Expertise in just one field is severely career-limiting,” Schulze said. “The most important questions require the dissolution of field boundaries to solve.” When Schulze’s company hires PhDs, he said, “We’re looking for people who start their answers with ‘I don’t know, but this is what I think. Can you work off a limited set of data when there’s no precedent in front of you?”
Throughout the conference’s 32 panels and workshops, speakers reiterated that PhDs have highly valuable skills that are in demand across many industries. Kate McClain, a senior recruiter for the management consulting firm McKinsey, voiced this sentiment as part of a panel called “The Recruiter’s Perspective”: “Having prior business experience is not a requirement for McKinsey.” Rather, she said, her firm hires PhDs because “they tend to have a more creative, robust way of thinking.”
“It was eye-opening to see the value of a humanities Ph.D. beyond the academic job market,” said attendee Jacob Hobson, who recently earned his Ph.D. from Berkeley’s Department of English. “While graduate school teaches you to value your work for the chance that it will land you a tenure-track job, the panelists frequently encouraged us to think about it in terms of skills gained and traits required.”
Now in its sixth year, the conference drew a sold-out crowd of over 300 attendees (approximately 35% of whom were from humanities and social sciences disciplines, and 65% from STEM fields). The conference was founded by graduate students and is organized each year by a team of graduate student and postdoc volunteers. Beyond Academia’s next upcoming event is the Careers Reception, a speed-networking event with companies hiring PhDs and postdocs, which will take place April 25, 2018.