Life After Grad School: It Does Exist

Most graduate students have the skills it takes to succeed in business – some just need help navigating the world outside of the Ivory Tower.

“Most of them are wrestling with academic life verses non-academic life,” says Paula Foster, creator of WRK4US, a job-help listserve for academics considering alternative careers. “Because the academic world is so cloistered, neither grad students nor their professors have a clear grasp on how the skills they’ve picked up in the academic world could be valued in non-academic industries.”

That’s probably why WRK4US is so popular.

The discussion list allows grad students in the humanities and other disciplines to freely exchange information and advice about nonacademic careers. Membership has grown from 40 in June of 1999 to approximately 550 today.

While it features Ph.D.s who have made it in alternative careers, the most talked about subject has been how to identify one’s skills and market them for outside-the-academy careers, Foster says.

“Some [grad students] are positive, upbeat and excited,” says Foster, who completed her dissertation on business communications at Ohio State University this month. “Others feel puzzled, discouraged and vexed. Some have had positive experiences [on the job search], others have been met with rejection after rejection.”

Job interview conundrums

An issue academics must face on the job interview is the inevitable question: why are you getting out?

Jennifer Hodgdon, a physics Ph.D. who worked on Wall Street before moving back to her native Seattle and a half-time job writing software, suggests honesty – only don’t sound too desperate.

“Saying that you’ve always wanted to get into the finance industry is not likely to be believed – if so, why did you go into physics,” she writes on Jennifer Hodgdon’s Pages on Leaving Physics: What’s Out There. “Saying that you were always excited about physics for the love of knowledge, but now are not so excited about becoming a professor, writing grants, and the long-term nature of the work might be a better idea.”

Absent-minded professor: true or false

An ongoing debate among grad school students and Ph.D.s is whether it’s better to bail out once you realize the academic life isn’t for you, or to stay in the academy extra years to finish a dissertation.

Lucie Melahn, an information architect at a Manhattan-based Web design company, left Cornell University within hours of finishing work for a science masters degree. She says she believes having a doctorate could have hurt her chances in the job market.

She worried about being stereotyped a clueless academic, and having employers worried she’d leave at any chance of a professorship.

“Some people think the desperate Ph.D. doesn’t have a clue about the real world, that this person isn’t going to stick around,” Melahn says.

Melahn swears she has no regrets after devoting seven years to the post-graduate pursuit of science, but research shows people who drop out after six years or so suffer psychologically.

“Studies suggest this is a pretty punishing thing to do to yourself,” says Cary Nelson, author of Will Teach for Food: Academic Labor in Crisis. “There’s no feeling that you’ve finished a phase in your life. It seems to hang over people for a significant number of years.”

Even more devastating, he says, is to get the degree, hang around taking post-doctorates or part-time teaching stints for five or six years before finally giving up.

“If you’ve spent 12 to 14 years doing something, you do not think of yourself as an apprentice,” he says. “You feel like someone who loses a job. When post-doctorates spend more than a decade teaching and doing research, this is what they’ve become. The tend to have a lot of anger with themselves and the institute for failure to see things more clearly.”

Smart people get smart jobs

Peter Stokes, debated dropping out early but stayed to get his degree. He considers his Ph.D. an asset.

“Smart people know an advanced degree is a valuable credential,” states Stokes, executive vice president of, a Boston-based consulting firm, on the website devoted to helping Ph.D.s find work and happiness in alternative careers. “You’ve already proven that you can think critically and analytically, and more importantly, you’ve demonstrated that you have the tenacity to see a large-scale project through to its conclusion.”

John Doffing, CEO,  specializing in recruiting teams for Internet start-up companies, says he’s actually biased toward the over-educated and those with eclectic backgrounds. While the shake-up is causing companies to be more selective, it’s still possible for someone with academic credentials but little business-world experience to walk into a job in marketing, content or information technology.

“The nice thing about new economy jobs is it’s the ultimate meritocracy,” says Doffing, who has a master’s degree in history from Cambridge University. “No one’s ever asked me about Plato, but the rigors of studying liberal arts come in handy.”

Sometimes Ph.D.s and grad-school dropouts must be willing to take an entry-level job that seems beneath them in order to gain experience. That happened to Sean Portnoy, a graduate of Brown University who recently left his cultural studies program at the University of Southern California. He took a job as an assistant producer at after a discouraging job search. He was promoted to associate producer a couple of months later.

“I was basically treated like my master’s degree and teaching experience were nothing special and that people thought that I had no job experience and should be taking entry-level positions,” says Portnoy, of Edison, N.J. “It’s really sad that you have to “prove” your mettle when you’re clearly overqualified for positions to which you’re applying.”

Amanda Barrett, who is pursuing her doctorate in performance studies at New York University, is confident she can parlay her skills and experiences into a job as a business consultant. She became excited about the prospects after realizing that consulting is a lot like advising students.

“Anybody who has made it through a rigorous Ph.D. program has strong logical, analytical and research skills and leadership,” says Barrett, who works part time at a writing center at Cooper Union College in Manhattan.

Barrett says the job of a business consultant won’t be so different then the work she does now at the writing lab. With her help, students turn their ideas into well-written prose by fleshing out ideas.

“I’ll be helping [business] people figure out problems with the resources they have,” she adds. [I’ll be] helping them to figure out what they need, and helping them to take a project to the next level.”


by Jayne J. Feld

Share with:

career, job, jobsearch