Tips and Takeaways on Career Exploration from the Beyond Academia Conference

PhDs John Thompson, Teresa Stoepler, Patricia Soler, Molly F. McIntosh, and Menaka Mahajan (L-R) speak at a panel on Social and Science Policy. Photo credit: Christiane Sachl/Beyond Academia.

At the 2018 Beyond Academia Conference, a two-day annual event that took place this year on March 1-2, keynote speaker Susan Basalla May  observed that for graduate students, career exploration and preparation can feel overwhelming. The solution, she said, is to “Start now, and start small.” Here are some tips and first steps recommended by the conference’s speakers, panelists, and attendees.

  • “The Gracious Thank You,” Susan Basalla May, Ph.D. in English, partner at executive search firm Storbeck/Pimentel & Associates:
Networking lunch
Attendees and speakers network over lunch. Photo credit: Christiane Sachl/Beyond Academia

In her keynote speech, May suggested that, over the course of one month, each time you encounter an article, place, product, or experience that you enjoy, send a thank you to whoever created that thing. In the note, you should say who you are, say what you appreciated, and tell the person that you’re excited to see what they do next.

The goal is  to leave a “paper trail” for yourself, to see what you’re drawn to and what you enjoy in the absence of obligations and expectations. Did you write to a lot of artists? Are the things that you enjoyed all back in your hometown? Do you appreciate a lot of things made by a particular company? It’s also a low-stakes way to practice reaching out to people you don’t know well.

  • “80/10/10,” Peter Fiske, Ph.D. in Geological and Environmental Sciences, Director of the Water-Energy Resilience Research Institute (WERRI) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory:

In his workshop “Putting your PhD to Work,” Fiske suggested that PhDs can fit career exploration into their busy schedules using the “80/10/10” rule: spend 80% of your time on academic work; 10% of your time on professional development and skill-building; and 10% of your time on growing your network.

  • “Just get over your hang-ups and start networking”

Shreyas Patankar, Ph.D. student in Physics:

His takeaway from the “Redefining Networking” workshop led by Sahar Yousef: “Networking” can be boiled down to just ‘simple conversations,’ and these relationships can and should be reciprocal. Networking is a life-long skill, and encompasses not just getting help, but also giving help to those looking for it.”

Evan Klavon, Ph.D. student in English:
“I think the most consistent, and perhaps most helpful piece of advice from the conference was: Just get over your hang-ups and start networking.” With informational interviewing, “there’s no need for the imposter syndrome because the whole point is you want to learn more. You’re not asking for any favors beyond the chance to flatter the person by being interested in them. And then you never know where those connections may some day lead.”

  • “LinkedIn runs on a ‘generosity engine'”

Monica Gates, Ph.D. student in Neuroscience:

Her takeaway from Anna Marie Trester’s workshop “The Language of LinkedIn“:  LinkedIn should be a platform for advertising how you can help people: “Spend some time being generous on LinkedIn. Sit down and think about connecting two people who you think would enjoy knowing each other.” And if you invite someone to connect, “Take the time to write out why you’re connecting—show up as a person. If you’re looking for something, include concrete details so that people can help you. Asking is how the generosity engine works!”

  • “Attend the Beyond Academia conference early in your PhD!”

Evan Klavon, Ph.D. student in English:
“I would recommend that all grad students attend the conference as early in their PhD as possible. There were so many things I wish I’d started casually researching and chipping away at years ago!”