Teach PhDs how to do an actual job search

Many PhD career initiatives focus on exploratory workshops and alumni panels, but Alfredo Cumerma believes the next step should concentrate on the job search itself

August 31, 2019
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In the US, there is a well-established trend that career advising for PhD candidates focuses on the early and middle stages of professionalisation. That is, on exploring career diversity and then concretising that exploration through an internship.

However, at institutions like the University of Virginia or my own alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, the methods for professionalisation are shifting towards a chronological approach.

For instance, Virginia’s PhD Plus programme specifically divides professionalisation into early, middle, and late stages. At Hopkins, in comparison, the decentralised “life design” model empowers students to take charge of their own career preparation by allowing them to source and pool their own resources.

Both these paradigms are important during the end-stage job search. By the last year of their programmes, PhDs should have clearly defined career clusters and be actively applying for jobs. The goal being, of course, to secure a job by graduation.

When designing a job search module there are several factors to take into consideration:

Length: A job search course should be collaborative and cumulative so that PhDs can share their interview preparation strategies, potential employers, lessons learned from interviews and other resources with their peers. You must therefore allow sufficient time for your students to actually land interviews. Ideally, a term of one semester.

Deliverables: Clearly define the resources that your students will create during the length of the course, and ensure that these will be useful for their job search. Examples include press kits, video blogs answering common interview questions, or one of my latest products, a personal job search website that documents your progress and highlights your skills.

By doing so, not only will you be helping students market themselves, but collecting valuable institutional data that can be used to judge the effectiveness of your career training.

People: As a job seeker myself, I have frequently guarded my network from others. Though this feels like a competitive edge, the fact remains that most personal referrals fall through. The upside of this is that once that happens, you are free to share your contacts with others. This should be encouraged in any job search course.

Even if one of your candidates doesn’t make the cut for a job, another one of them might – and this only garners more recognition among employers about the quality of your candidates. As time goes on, your course will build this network of contacts organically, from the students themselves. That network can then be leveraged for later events or workshops.

Collaboration: In an age of AI bots and word screeners, it is important to have several individuals review your application materials, not one. The right buzzwords and jargon can be the difference in getting you past the various systems designed to keep humans out of the mix.

That said, many PhDs may not know any “resume volunteers.” Or if they do, these certainly aren’t willing to repeatedly scan resumes or do so at short notice.

That is one benefit of a job search course: resume review between students for various types of jobs puts them in the position of an HR officer, which accustoms them to looking for weaknesses and prodding points (the source of many interview questions) in a candidate.

The Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu said that “if you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” To get past HR, your students will need to learn to think critically about an application, like HR. They will also certainly have to submit more than a hundred applications to land a job by graduation.

In sum, job search courses provide greater motivation for PhDs by having them work together, pool contacts, provide emotional support and establish their own best practices. As you evolve your institution’s PhD professionalisation, consider those who might be a good alumni representative for your next panel.

Alfredo Cumerma is a Gilman Research Fellow at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches Spanish language and conducts research on Latin American culture and American foreign policy. He is a passionate advocate and practitioner of doctoral career diversity.

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Aren't most PhDs working alongside doing their studies?!

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