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Career pathways for PhDs:

April 15, 2021

Q&A with Hyun Ja Shin, Director Graduate and Postdoctoral Career Services

What’s the current state of the academic job market for PhDs?  How does this look across disciplines?

We all know that things have been tough for graduates seeking teaching positions in the academy in recent years. Tenure-track positions, particularly in the humanities, had been dwindling over the past decade – even before the pandemic – a trend driven in large part by institutions replacing tenure-track positions with contract or adjunct positions. In the past year or so, we’ve seen a dramatic effect on academic job postings with widespread university hiring freezes and closures or contractions of financially-constrained institutions.

While we know that there will be longer-term effects on academic hiring due to the pandemic, we also predict a rebound in the academic hiring market as the pandemic stabilizes and institutions start to recover.

How are PhDs using their training in careers outside the academy?

Some PhD students find careers outside the academy that allow them to directly apply their subject matter expertise: economic consulting positions, research scientists in pharmaceutical and biotech companies, and computer scientists in tech companies. Others are finding positions with academic or research journals, in healthcare communications, policy organizations and think tanks, and as curators.

Graduate students are highly valued for the many skills they develop over the course of completing their PhDs.  Their thesis, for example is an enormous project management exercise. They are creative problem solvers, excellent researchers, and have the ability to handle ambiguity and manage large amounts of information. Through teaching experiences, they develop excellent communications and mentoring skills. Their desirability as potential hires is not limited to their specialized subject matter expertise – and may not even draw upon it – but they are nonetheless competitive for having gone through the unique preparation you can only get through graduate school.

Can you share some examples of careers or job placements that were unexpected outcomes based on a PhD’s research focus?

PhD students have found fulfilling careers in such a broad range of industries and job functions.  For example, we have seen a Music PhD hired as a user experience researcher, a Classics PhD transition to a position as a creative strategist at a digital marketing firm, and a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations PhD take a job as a business analyst.  Physics PhD students have landed jobs in finance and consulting.  It’s definitely a testament to the array of strengths our PhD students bring to the table.

We recommend that PhD students take the time to connect with alumni and build their networks throughout graduate school. It is an invaluable way to learn about diverse career paths that alums before them have taken, to get advice about how to prepare for these careers, and to make professional connections that will serve them well when applying for jobs and beyond.

What measures are PhD candidates taking to make themselves more competitive in the job market?

We see PhD students taking advantage of a wide array of opportunities to build professional skills and experience. Some students are able to take traditional summer internships, but those are by no means the only option. Many Yale organizations offer fellowships and part-time positions to graduate students during the academic year. For example, the Office of Career Strategy, the Office for Graduate Student Development and Diversity, Graduate Student Life, and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning all hire McDougal Fellows to support our programing initiatives. OCS also oversees the Graduate Professional Experience Fellowship which has enabled 40 PhD students to work on projects in offices across Yale this year.

Many graduate students are very active in the Graduate Student Assembly (GSA), the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS),  and other student-led groups. These organizations offer excellent opportunities for students to gain leadership and managerial experience, to engage with university administrators, alumni, and others outside of their department, and to work on practical problem-solving in a team environment.

Other students choose to build their skill set by working a pro-bono consulting project organized by the Yale Graduate Consulting Club, taking part in a program at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking, or participating in a workshop at the Digital Humanities Lab.  The professional development resources at Yale are truly deep.  Online courses offered by Linkedin Learning, which is free to Yale students, also can be very helpful. We also suggest trying out job simulations to learn about a particular job function or test yourself on realistic business problems.

I cannot overstate the benefits of the Three-Minute Thesis Competition (3MT). The ability to communicate complex ideas and concepts to diverse audiences is such an important asset in any career.  And of course, practicing this skill will help any student shine in job interviews as well! It’s a challenge, but students who step up to the plate will reap dividends as they seek a career and advance within it. Video presentations by our 2021 3MT finalists are now on YouTube – we invite the Yale community to vote on your favorite presentations and attend the awards ceremony on Saturday, April 17!

As student consider ways to advance their professional development, we encourage them to visit the Office of Career Strategy (OCS) website for additional resources and to make an appointment  for one-on-one advice on how to leverage their time at Yale to prepare for life after graduate school.  OCS can also help students excel in their job hunt by discussing job search strategies, providing feedback on resumes and cover letters, conducting mock interviews, and advising on salary negotiation.