Exploring Your Career Options

Published: Tues., January 24, 2017

What do you want to do when you finish your degree? Some people start and end graduate school with a very clear vision about what their future career will be after graduation. For others, their future plans may be a little more uncertain. If you want to be a professor, you have many opportunities to see and explore what a career as a faculty member or researcher at a university might be like while you are a graduate student. However, individuals with doctorates can be employed in a number of other fields and for some graduate students it is worth exploring these other career options beyond faculty positions and outside of academia.

Do Your Own Research

Look Up What Department Alumni Do

One way to figure out other career options in your field is to look to other alumni of your department. Where are they employed? What kinds of positions or fields do they work in? For example, in STEM fields, many graduates may work in industry and do research in the private sector or for government agencies. In the arts or humanities, you may find graduates working in museums, publishing, or in other community organizations for the arts. Think broadly about training and experiences. Through your graduate coursework and experiences, you have likely developed many transferable skills that would be beneficial in fields outside academia. Your department may have a list of the types of positions their graduates work in or the companies that employ graduates. Use this as a guide for identifying career options.

Use LinkedIn or Other Online Resources

If your department does not have a list of alumni careers, you may be able to find some of this information through websites like LinkedIn. If you identify someone on LinkedIn in a position or field you are interested in, note their contact information, so that you can contact them later to learn more about their career. Other online resources, such as VersatilePhD.com, can provide a good introduction to career options in different fields. VersatilePhD allows you to search by field, so you can see career options pursued by the with similar academic backgrounds.

Conduct Informational Interviews

If you are exploring different career options, informational interviews allow you to get information on specific lines of work, directly from a person engaged in that field. Informational interviews are not job interviews. Informational interviews are intended to give you an insider’s point of view about a particular type of work or career. The goal of this interview is to gain information about a particular career to see whether that it is a career you would like to pursue.

Finding Contacts

Begin with friends, faculty, or colleagues from your department. Career Services or the Alumni Association may also have recommendations of people or organizations to contact as well. Once you have identified people you are interested in talking with further, you can ask these connections to help make the initial introduction for you. If you think you might be interested in a particular field, you should be proactive in making these connections.

How to Prepare

After identifying those contacts, you should get in touch with them to arrange the interview. You can call them on the phone, email them, or write them a letter. Whatever form you use, you need briefly summarize your background and why you would like to speak with them. Then, request a short meeting with them (over the phone or in person). Lastly, ask if would like anything else from you before the interview. Some may wish to see your CV or resume, for example. You should emphasize that you are not looking for a job at the moment, but that you are exploring potential careers in order to best plan for your future.

Before the interview, try to find out as much as you can about the position or organization as possible. Research the company or position online. Write out the questions you would like to ask during the interview. Some questions you could include are:

  • How did you get started in this field? What training, education, or related experiences helped you find a position in this field?
  • What are your responsibilities and what do you do on a daily basis; what skills/abilities are critical to your success?
  • How would you describe the work environment in your department/organization? Is there an emphasis on teamwork or do employees work independently most of the time? How would you describe the culture?
  • What are the most critical factors used to hire individuals in this career area?
  • Do you have any advice for me?

At the Interview

Even though this is not a job interview, you still want to be professional. Dress professionally. Be on time. Your questions should serve as a guide, but feel free to add additional questions as they come up during the course of conversation. Since you have requested this interview, you should take the lead in the interview and be prepared. Typically, these interviews will last 20-30 minutes, depending on how much he/she wants to talk about his/her work. Respect the interviewee's time. He/she undoubtedly has a busy schedule, so do not try to extend the meeting longer than he/she seems comfortable with.

After the Interview

Organize your notes from the meeting. If you need to follow-up on anything from the meeting, make plans to do so. Send a personalized thank you note to the person you met with to thank them for their time.

Final Thoughts

Remember, it’s never too early to start exploring potential careers. If you know what kinds of careers you are preparing for you can make sure you have the coursework and experiences needed to be successful in those careers. More interview questions and advice are available here.