A University of Maryland Graduate School Program Prepares Doctoral Students for Life Outside of Academia

This is a national issue. The University of Maryland is responding to that need. Many students want and are interested in careers outside of academia, and many of them are unsure of how to manage their own career.
— Dr. Susan C. Martin, program director for career and professional development at the University of Maryland Graduate School
Dr. Susan C. Martin

Dr. Susan C. Martin

Recognizing that 50 percent of Ph.D. graduates are finding work outside of academia, the University of Maryland Graduate School (UMD) is training its doctoral students to expand their job horizons.  Launched in March 2016, the professional development program prepares students for careers outside of colleges via targeted workshops, career fairs, panels and online services.

Professional development includes such activities as day long events with targeted workshops and mini-conferences that encourage career success.  But many of these workshops revolve around how students can manage their career, navigate their online presence and tap networking tools such as LinkedIn.

For example, career workshops included: “How to Manage Your Professional and Career Development,” “Job Search Techniques in Industry, Nonprofit and Government,” “Career Fair Preparation” and “Writing an Effective Resume.”  The program trains students to be adaptive by using the skills learned in academia and transferring them into different industries or non-profit groups.

Dr. Susan C. Martin, the program director for career and professional development at the University of Maryland Graduate School, said, “This is a national issue.  The University of Maryland is responding to that need.  Many students want and are interested in careers outside of academia, and many of them are unsure of how to manage their own career.” In fact, Charles Caramello, dean of the University of Maryland Graduate School, has stated that “Graduates from a variety of fields are going into professions other than the academy as their first choice.”     

Job opportunities are increasingly limited in academia as budgets are cut.  But Martin pointed out these graduate students often go through a career transition during their advanced studies.  “As they progress in their studies, they may be exposed to other opportunities that attract them,” she said.  Furthermore, the job market is in constant flux.  But many of the skills that post-graduate students master in research, analytical thinking and data skills are “transferrable,” she noted.

These transferrable skills cover an ability to conduct extensive research, synthesize a large amount of information and demonstrate teamwork skills that easily blend into project management at a variety of businesses.  Most graduate students often overlook that the skills they’re mastering—writing dissertations, thinking critically, educating others as teaching assistants—resonate in the business world.  “They don’t realize the depth and experience they have,” Martin observed.

Making the adjustments into business and non-profit careers happens naturally for many doctoral students.  Ph.D. students, Martin said, “are able to understand and apply new information quickly.”  

Much of what Martin does is provide a roadmap for managing their careers.  She also encourages “informational interviewing,” and tapping their network of alumni, acquaintances and LinkedIn colleagues, to elicit information about how industries work, what jobs they’re looking to fill, how their skills apply and what gaps exist. 

Martin compiled a list of competencies regarding informational interviewing that includes:  1) Know yourself, 2) Identify the specific job you’re pursuing, 3) Keep up with industry trends, 4) Tap your professional network, 5) Manage an online presence.  For example, she cites a history major that landed a communications job with a defense contractor.

Moreover, the UMD program uses online tools such as Versatile Ph.D., which all UMD graduate students can tap.  It offers online seminars, resources and networking capabilities, so they can explore and dig deeper into other professions to see where they fit on.   Graduate students respond strongly to the section on Versatile Ph.D. where doctoral students describe their successful job searches and what enabled them to nab a job.

Martin works in concert with 84 doctoral programs. In fact, the doctoral programs at the University of Maryland enrolled 4,118 students in fall 2016 and that included 1,548 foreign students.  Excluding the foreign students and about 300 unclassified students, the remaining doctoral candidates were 1,704 white, 133 Latino, 268 African American and 225 Asian.

Issues faced by Latino and minority graduate students overlap with that of majority students, except minorities, likely place more emphasis on identifying the corporate and organizational culture to determine whether or not they fit in, Martin said.  Minority students grapple with a variety of questions including: How will the culture fit my values?  What will my day-to-day life at the company be like?  What kind of mentoring is available to navigate the corporate culture and advance?  Is the culture open to diverse and divergent viewpoints?

Many Latino and minority students may have an edge in getting hired by businesses.  “Some organizations have a strong commitment to diversity in hiring and recruitment,” Martin asserted.  Many companies depend on global sales, and bringing in Latino and other minority viewpoints enable firms to better attract a multi-cultural clientele.

One University of Maryland Ph.D. student, Alex Quinones, a 36-year-old Miami native, spent 10 years as a reporter at Gannett and as a digital news producer at Fox and CBS affiliates. He returned to UMD to pursue his doctorate to become a professor “to offer the greatest amount of knowledge possible to future students of journalism.”

Despite hearing that half of all doctoral students don’t end up in academia, he is undeterred.  “I’ve never made a career decision based on availability of jobs.  I became a newspaper reporter when newspapers were on the decline,” he said.

Quinones who is co-president of the Latino Graduate School Association participated in several professional development workshops on giving better presentations, managing time better and managing stress.  He found them useful and concentrated on offering specific tips.

The college of journalism has only four students in their doctoral program and in the past few years has been very successful at placing all of them, Quinones suggested.  As a Latino, he thinks that he’ll find a university journalism program interested in recruiting a minority doctoral graduate. A positive thinker, he’s dedicated to becoming one of the 50 percent of doctoral students who gets hired, rather than moves on to other fields.

The professional development program is just starting and is evolving, Martin suggested.  She’s aiming to “strengthen collaboration and partnerships with the other departments, leveraging the work happening with many departments and create a network of professors and career development across campus.” 

Underlying this complex process, Martin concludes, “The most important thing a Ph.D. student really needs to learn is accepting responsibility for their own career development and maintaining a positive mindset as they move through their own career.” •