Graduate Student Handbook

Life After the Ph.D. & Preparing For It

For graduates of our department the ways of supporting oneself just after obtaining the Ph.D. typically proceed by one of the following avenues:

  • Continued research training as a postdoc for 2 or 3 years with an expert whose field and approaches one wishes to master. Such training, the research publications and visibility that may result from it, and what these imply about grant-obtaining potential are important persuasive factors for later obtaining a tenure-line faculty position in a research university. If then hired on such a line, one usually has a period of five-plus years to prove oneself worthy of a permanent appointment in terms of one's present and projected research and publication productivity, reputation in one's field of work, teaching quality, and professional and departmental citizenship. If rejected for tenure, typically one must leave the institution by the end of the seventh year.
  • Immediate pursuit of a faculty position at a college or university without an intervening postdoc. For the most part, such positions are only offered at institutions which emphasize teaching (primarily at the undergraduate level) over research and which often require of their faculty heavy teaching loads. Issues of obtaining tenure usually apply in these institutions, too, although the criteria weigh more exclusively on teaching excellence and citizenship.
  • Placement in non-academic positions calling for skills that our graduate programs foster. Opportunities for such employment often exist at research components of medical schools, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies such as the many branches of the National Institutes of Health and agencies focusing on child study, and at civilian entities such as the Monell Chemical Center (re olfaction and taste) and The Lighthouse (for the blind). Other job possibilities for which our graduates are often well prepared are to be found in industries promoting development in communications, computational science, and artificial intelligence.
  • Placement in positions ostensibly unrelated to our program's training. Even here, it is the general experience of the few graduates who choose this route that their training has given them a competitive advantage in being selected for a job and/or later promoted. It is common knowledge among many high-level employers that the perseverance, strategic planning, problem solving, and articulate command of English required to obtain the Ph.D. in the face of the many ambiguities inherent in doing pioneering research work as a graduate student equip the degree winner to succeed in conceptually demanding jobs where others fail.

In preparing for any of the above post-Ph.D. avenues of employment, it is important to plan ahead and not wait, for example, until the often frantic last few months of completing the dissertation to start looking. Here are some pointers about planning ahead:

In general, think at every stage of your stay in our program just how your curriculum vitae (CV) should look by the time you graduate so as to best impress a prospective employer. Also consider what it will take to similarly impress your research sponsor and other faculty in the program whom you will later likely be calling upon to write letters of recommendation. In the above respects, a good grade record is important, but much more important is showing that you can do independently conceived and executed research on important issues and get the results of that research published in first rate journals, before the Ph.D. if at all possible. It will also help - as evidence of your grant-getting ability - if you can have furnished your CV by the time you graduate with a record of a self-obtained research fellowship from a major funding agency (that is a reason why the experience of writing a fellowship application is required of you in your first year). The exercise of this skill may even come immediately into play in the case of securing a post-doctoral fellowship because some would-be postdoc sponsors haven't the fellowship funds themselves to award but require you to obtain your own. And even if they do have the funds, they often like to see in applicants they choose to sponsor the evidence of a fall-back skill at self-obtained funding should their own funds later fall short.

More specifically, well before your last year in the program try to get acquainted with the people in the "outside world" you might later want to approach for a post-Ph.D. position so that when the time comes you will have the advantage of already being known to them. There are several ways to do this:

  • Take every opportunity to be introduced (by the faculty or yourself) to the often well-known researchers in your field(s) of interest whom the Department and its programs import each year as colloquium and seminar speakers. Where appropriate, acquaint these speakers with your own research interests and results and invite their advice, thereby setting the stage for some continued dialogue in the future - one intended effect being to establish person-recognition should you later apply to them for a position. Quite occasionally one of these speakers will be an alumnus of our own program whom, of course, we will be quite proud to parade before you both as a product and as a role model. Discussions with such speakers afford you an especially privileged opportunity to peek behind the scenes as to the nature and prospects of some work possibilities after the Ph.D.

  • Attend professional conferences and workshops in your field of interest where you can meet your potentials employers. Your sponsor and other faculty can help with introductions. But to best accomplish this, give a paper or present a poster on your work. This gives you a special visibility and attractiveness. Take special note of the people who then seek you or your poster out. For the same reasons as set forth in (a) above, engage them in dialogue about their own interests and possible overlaps with yours. See if they have any advice to give. Get their addresses for the possibility of continuing the dialogue at a later time and, within the bounds of not overstepping into purely feigned shared-interest and advice-seeking, indeed afterwards stay in touch.

  • As you approach your final year in the program begin paying attention to the various forums (such as the APA Monitor and the relevant professional journals and overall bulletin boards such as, CVNGT) where offerings for postdoctoral and starting-level faculty position are posted. Also, the department, the program, and individual faculty members receive notices of offerings through more private channels and will make these available. As another possible source, keep in contact with your student colleagues who have graduated before you because from where they are in their own newly-gained positions they may become privy to job openings well in advance of being formally advertised and even may be able to campaign prospectively in your behalf.

  • As a service to our graduate students who may be contemplating the non-Academic market place as a source of post-Ph.D. positions, the Program each year or two dedicates one of its area seminars to invited speakers from a variety of industry fields theme-related to the training we give. These speakers-often 2 or 3 successful alumni from our program-are asked to lay out the advantages and disadvantages of going into these fields both as generally known and as they, the speakers, have personally experienced. They are also asked to identify the ways our students can learn what job openings are currently available and to give advice as how to pursue these.

Finally, in the longest-term sense of preparing oneself for a career after the doctoral degree, the student should take every opportunity of his/her stay in the program to think deeply about the theoretical underpinnings of the chosen research field, the problems remaining there to be solved, the adequacy of the methods and design for investigating these, and the meanings of the data collected. All the while, the student should be careful not to ignore findings that lie ostensibly outside of hypothesized aims but which could possibly hint of greater truths and more important research to be done. Such observations and reflections and the directed aims they are imbedded in, if assiduously attended to during this relatively uncluttered stretch of time (compared to what will generally obtain after the degree), are likely to become the inspirational source for much of the research the student will do later in life.