Research, teaching, and service are often framed as the three pillars of a tenure-track faculty job. This framing arguably simplifies the job and overlooks a core role that faculty play as mentors and, relatedly, career coaches. For both undergraduate and graduate students, faculty serve as role models and sources of information about what it means to be a professor. Yet faculty may not realize their role as a career coach and miss opportunities to encourage undergraduates to consider a PhD or help a graduate student design a dissertation that will best suit their career goals.
By overlooking the career coach part of the faculty job, some of us miss opportunities to talk to curious undergraduates about careers in research. I have found that part of this is because these students often articulate some kind of direction for their futures. For example, many of the students who ask the kinds of questions that promising students for graduate school ask are planning to pursue an MSW or law school. During my first semester on the job, I would stop the conversation there, assuming they have a clear career direction and not taking it any further. But I remembered that I was that student at some point, planning for a MPP or MPA, but also not knowing anything about a PhD. What I have started doing instead of stopping the conversation is telling students that I see something promising in them and asking them if they’ve considered a PhD. Nine times out of ten they have not because they don’t know anything about what a PhD program entails or what jobs you qualify for with a PhD.
Undergraduates are only seeing the most externally facing part of our work, our teaching. If they’re not interested in being teachers, they usually aren’t thinking about what we do. This is in part because less than 3 percent of Americans hold a PhD, so most college students don’t know anyone with one, besides their professors. The focus on MSWs, JDs, and MBAs is in part because these degrees have some clear career trajectory: with a MSW you become a social worker, with a JD you become a lawyer. But the odds are that students are also more likely to know someone with a terminal master’s degree than with a PhD.
Taking the time to talk careers in research with curious minded students who seem to have clear career goals can open up options they had never considered because they didn’t have any information. Planting the seed can encourage first generation college students and Black and Brown students who are so severely underrepresented across the disciplines to consider a career in research. Being told by someone who is already in that position that they have promise is what they need to even consider that direction.
Approaching the Future for Graduate Students
As a recent PhD, I have noticed two issues in career coaching with graduate students. First, some faculty make assumptions about what graduate students want to do with their careers without actually discussing career goals with them. Second, conversations about career goals often happen too late in the process, such as when the student is starting to apply for jobs rather than getting them thinking about how to craft their CV for their goals, potential goals, or plans and back up plans.
Faculty sometimes assume that graduate students want to be tenure-track faculty at the highest level of prestige they can achieve. While this may be true for some graduate students, some students have more specific goals in mind. For instance, I knew I wanted to be at a racially diverse undergraduate institution where I could mentor and be a role model to students of color. That goal made larger public universities that were NOT top tier programs a better fit for me. I got lucky that my publications record also made me a good fit for these universities and didn’t make me seem overqualified for those positions, but that wasn’t planned because I didn’t have insight into that part of the application process.
What faculty can do is to have conversations about career goals early and often. If a grad student knows early on that they’re planning on a teaching job or extra-academic position, there are things they can and should do to get their CV ready for those jobs. For teaching jobs, they need demonstrated teaching experience. For extra-academic positions, experience working with teams can be a plus. And for policy or evaluation positions specifically, it is good to have a research project that has policy or applied implications. Helping students be aware of the kinds of opportunities and research projects they should focus on will help prepare them for the job market of their choice. These conversations are increasingly important as graduate students may need to consider a range of jobs when on the market and need to be prepared for a plan A and B.
For students who aren’t sure about their goals, faculty are in a unique position of having former students, colleagues, and friends who have pursued a range of jobs with a PhD. We can help graduate students network for informational interviews so they can identify their preferred career direction. If you’re organizing a job market workshop, you can also invite alumni to share their experiences across R1, teaching, tech, policy, and government jobs, not just R1 positions.
Career coaching is not just the job of your campus’ Career Center, it is an integral part of our jobs as tenure-track faculty. We are in the best position to identify promising undergraduates who should consider a career in research and to help our graduate students consider their career goals and implications for what and how they do their dissertation research. Passing the buck on this work only serves to disadvantage our students and restrict information about PhDs to the exclusive few who know 1 of those 3 percent.