Career Research

by Dr. Linda Scratchley, Dr. Scott Kerlin, and Dr. Lynn Alden

As you move through your graduate education, it is important to conduct research on the career options available to you. The wise graduate student begins this process early in his/her career.

The most obvious choice for graduate students, particularly Ph.D. students, is a career in academia. These careers involve working within a post-secondary institution doing some combination of teaching, research, administration, and committee work. Many graduate students are groomed for an academic career by supervisors who expect that their students will follow a career path similar to their own.

Academic careers offer a number of positive features. However, what makes academic life appealing to one person may seem disagreeable to another. There are many options outside of academia, and the desire to pursue an academic career is an issue of personal preference.

Whether you seek a career in academia, government, a research institute, an NGO, or the private sector, the successful student examines all the options. Below are some tips on how to conduct career research.

Students considering a future academic career should view the Getting a Job as an Academic guide.

1. Generate Alternatives

In exploring career alternatives, there are a number of sources of useful information, including:

  • Departmental statistics. Where have graduates from your department gone, and what are they doing? To get more specific, you may want to look at the graduates who worked with your supervisor or in your lab. What are they doing now? Other graduate students, especially senior graduate students, are another great source of information because they are often still in contact with past graduates. Your supervisor can also provide you with information about the career paths of other students that s/he has supervised.
  • Scholarly associations. Many scholarly associations provide information on alternative careers for graduates in that discipline. Such resources are often available via the associations' websites. Some websites provide opportunities to ask questions or discuss career-related issues via e-mail or chat rooms.
  • Career workshops at professional meetings. Some associations put on career-related workshops. Plan to attend early in your graduate career.

As you generate the list of alternatives, imagine yourself living each option. Reflect on the positive and negative aspects of each one. Such visualization has the effect of making options seem familiar to you so that they will not be rejected simply because they feel strange.

If you know that you are interested in a career outside of academia, it is a wise idea to specifically seek out a supervisor who has contacts in business, industry, government, or other settings in which you wish to work.

2. Gather Information on Each Option

Gather information about each career. You will need to identify work-related tasks, settings, educational requirements, wages, location of positions, etc.

Occupational information can be obtained from a variety of sources, including 1) professional organization websites, 2) interviews with people in those careers, 3) personal experience in those settings, and the 4) printed media. Try to collect information from each of those sources.

Professional websites and meetings

As noted above, most professional organizations provide job-related information on their websites or at professional meetings.

Interviews with people in careers

Talking to people who actually work in the occupations that you are contemplating provides even better career information than written sources. The advantage of such interviews is that these people have firsthand experience of an occupation-how it feels, what it demands, its frustrations and satisfactions, and how it influences their lives. They are in the best position to provide the most valid information. However, it is possible that one particular person can give you an idiosyncratic view of the field. Thus, to obtain a representative view, it is a good idea to interview several people who are working in each of the occupations you are considering.

When interviewing job incumbents, plan the interview in advance and develop good questions that get at information not available in printed materials (e.g. lifestyle information).

A handout on information interviewing is available.

Sample Questions:

  • What do you find most satisfying about your job? Why?
  • What do you find most frustrating about your job? Why?
  • What aspects of the job would you change if you could?
  • How much influence do you have over decisions that affect you?
  • Does your work affect your personal life? How?
  • What do you find most challenging about your job?
  • What factors differentiate those who succeed from those who fail at this occupation?
  • Is there anyone else that you would recommend that I talk to about this occupation?

Make sure that you get information on both negative and positive aspects of the occupation.

Keep your interview to about 20 minutes, unless the person that you are interviewing indicates that time is not an issue. It is appropriate to send a thank you card after the interview.

Personal Experiences

Personal experience with an occupation is the best method of gathering information. This can be accomplished by:

  • arranging to job shadow someone for a day or two in order to learn what the job entails
  • part-time work and/or summer work
  • paid or unpaid internships.

It’s worth volunteering your time to gain relevant experience. Volunteering also builds a network of contacts that you can draw on when you are on the job market.

Printed Media

Printed information on occupations is available at the UBC Library and the Student Development Library in UBC Counselling Services. Public libraries and government employment services and career centres are other sources of such information.

Online Career Research

These resources offer valuable guidance as you explore your career options and strategies.

General Jobs and Careers Sites (Canadian)

  • Working in Canada website from the Government of Canada provides a comprehensive career planning tool, including detailed information about Canada's job market and available careers.
  • Workopolis has a site for students
  • Canada InfoNet offers quality information for newcomers on career development, self-assessments, and labour market trends.
  • Monster.ca is another major Canadian job search site.
  • Work BC offers information on jobs in BC, the BC economy as well as education and training opportunities.

Occupational Handbooks and Labour Market Information (Canada and U.S.)

  • Canada's National Occupational Classification from Human Resources and Skills Development Canada provides access to the National Occupational Classification 2011, Canada's authoritative resource on occupational information.
  • Industry Canada site provides information on Canadian industry statistics and lists Canadian companies.
  • O*Net Occupational Information Network sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Although some of these sites focus on labour market information, keep in mind that labour market trends change over time and should be used with caution in career planning.

3. Determine What Skills You Need

Do some market research to find out what it will take to be competitive for the kinds of positions you want. For example, if you're interested in an academic position, look up the CV and publication records of people who have been hired within the last few years into the kinds of departments that you would be interested in eventually joining.

The Researcher

An academic with primary research responsibilities will need the following skills:

  • Ability to analyze, interpret, and understand vast quantities of information
  • Problem–solving skills
  • Strong written and oral communication skills
  • Ability to sell one’s research ideas and get them funded
  • Ability to work well independently and with others
  • Project management skills
  • Time–management skills
  • Ability to handle criticism
  • Ability to work well under pressure

If you are interested primarily in a research position, it is important to develop a presence as an active researcher. Publications in prestigious journals are usually necessary and it is also useful to have presented your own work at international, national, and regional professional meetings.

The Teacher

An academic with substantial teaching responsibilities will require the following skills:

  • Ability to analyze, interpret, and understand vast quantities of information
  • Ability to present complex, in-depth information to students in a way that they can understand
  • Excellent oral and written communication skills
  • Ability to learn from criticism
  • Ability to advise and counsel students
  • Ability to supervise student research activities
  • Ability to handle a heavy workload

Many colleges and universities are asking job applicants for “evidence of teaching excellence.” Thus, you need teaching experience, and it is best if you can demonstrate that you have taught at the kind of institution (university, community college) to which you will be applying. You also need evidence of positive student or faculty evaluations of your teaching. If teaching is not one of your strengths, take advantage of campus resources (such as the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology) to help you improve.

Non–Academic Jobs

According to a University of Michigan survey of 500 U.S. employers, the most sought-after skills include:

  • Ability to get things done
  • Common sense
  • Integrity
  • Dependability
  • Initiative
  • Well–developed Work Habits
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Enthusiasm
  • Motivation to achieve
  • Adaptability
  • Intelligence
  • Oral communication skills
  • Problem–solving abilities

These desirable skills look very much like a list of academic capabilities.

According to Howard Figler, author of “The Complete Job Search Handbook”, the 10 hottest transferable skills (i.e., skills that can be generalizable or valuable in many jobs and settings) are:

  • Budget management
  • Supervising
  • Public relations
  • Coping with deadline pressures
  • Negotiating
  • Speaking
  • Writing
  • Organizing
  • Interviewing
  • Teaching

These are skills that you should work to develop during your graduate training. Also, give some thought as to how to translate your graduate experiences in a way that makes clear their relevance to a potential employer in a non-academic environment. Let's take some examples. Through the process of writing a dissertation one develops or improves managerial capabilities, including defining and executing a vision, assembling and organizing resources, and time management. You can list those skills on your resume. Graduate students often supervise undergraduate research assistants, directed studies students, or technicians. Such experiences can be presented to convey supervisory experience. Most graduate students have the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant. If so, take the opportunity to collect teaching evaluations and use them to demonstrate your organizational, speaking, and teaching skills.

If you become familiar with the culture and vocabulary of the field you want to enter, you should be able to effectively translate your experiences into relevant terms.

Case in Point:

“A Ph.D. in molecular biology, whose technical expertise was a prerequisite for being hired as a patent agent at a Boston law firm that specializes in intellectual property, stresses the importance of the writing and teaching skills she developed in graduate school. She constantly applies these to writing patent applications and educating inventors, clients, patent examiners, and now juries.” (Newhouse, 1998)

Once you know what skills you will need to use in your desired occupation(s) — and need to demonstrate in order to break into those occupation(s), — you will be in a position to develop a strategic plan for acquiring or building the necessary skills and experiences.

4. Narrow the List of Alternatives

Once the list of alternatives has been compiled, narrow the choices to between three and five that you would like to explore in more detail. To narrow the choices, use criteria that are of particular importance to you (e.g., income, status, social value, job security).

5. Make Your Decision

The first step in making your decision is to figure out what actually needs to be decided. In general, you want to keep as many options open as possible with the choices that you make. You don't have to have everything “worked out” in order to move forward.

For some graduate students, especially those early in their graduate career, the best choice may be no choice. You may want to widely explore career options without closing any doors.

If you are not ready to decide among your career options, you may want to:

  • put time and energy into developing a plan to pursue all of them
  • take a year to try things and see what you like

Note: Energy spent on options that you later decide not to pursue is not wasted. Finding out what you don't want to do is just as valuable as finding out what you do want to do. In any case, make a plan to do more planning at a specified point down the road.

Even if you make a career decision at this point, you should plan to revisit that decision annually, and you should be prepared to change plans if subsequent information or experiences suggest that an alternative course of action would be more rewarding.

Whether or not you intend to make a career decision at this point, it is useful to evaluate the small set of career options that you have explored in detail.

Yost and Corbishley (1987) suggest that you look at each career option you have investigated, and formulate answers to the following questions:

  • Of what benefit would this choice be to me?
  • What price would I have to pay in order to have this choice?
  • How likely is it that I could actually get this choice, given my constraints and assets?
  • How does this option compare with the others?

The following two exercises are designed to help you evaluate your options.

Boards of Directors

Burton and Wedemeyer (1991) have suggested that in your career planning, you view yourself as the CEO of a corporation responsible for your career. Since most corporations have a Board of Directors, you too should select a Board that can act as a “sounding board” for your ideas and provide you with support and encouragement. People would qualify for the Board because of their ability to provide one or more of the following:

  • Advice: They have a wealth of experience and good judgment
  • Connections: They know people who know people
  • Sponsorship: They will vouch for you
  • Information: They know things
  • Instruction: They can teach concrete skills
  • Support: They will give you a hug when you are frustrated

Arrange regular meetings with various Board members to discuss your current situation and to make plans for future activities. Remember that your Board is there to act as a “sounding board.”

Seek information and advice from others, but try not to be overly influenced by what they think is best for you. Others' advice should take a secondary seat to what your own information and instincts suggest. After listening to lots of people, look into your own heart and do what you think is right.

What If I Need Assistance with the Career Planning Process?

UBC provides a number of career planning resources:

UBC Career Services has an advisor who specializes in assisting graduate students.

If life issues are complicating your career path, UBC Counselling Services offers individual counselling to clarify your concerns and develop strategies to overcome barriers.

UBC Career Services and the UBC Graduate Student Society have combined efforts to provide a graduate student online career resource where you can find:

  • a searchable database of career-related websites
  • a list of career books available at UBC that are specific to graduate students
  • career tips

Check out this career planning resource.

References

Amundson, N. E. (1998). Active engagement: Enhancing the career counselling process. Richmond, BC: Ergon Communications.

Amundson, N. E., & Poehnell, G. (1996). Career pathways (2nd ed.). Richmond, BC: Ergon Communications.

Burton, M. L., & Wedemeyer, R. A. (1991). In transition. New York: Harper Business.

Newhouse, M. (1998, December 4). Transferring your skills to a non–academic setting. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved October 24, 2012 from http://chronicle.com/article/Transferring-Your-Skills-to-a/46430/ .

Schiebelbein, J. (2001). Putting your graduate degree to work: The Canadian career & employment guide. Edmonton, AB: Career and Placement Services (CaPS), University of Alberta.Yost, E. B., & Corbishley, M. A. (1987). Career counselling: A psychological approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.