While I’ve never been a supervisor of graduate students, a big part of my job is working with supervisors to give them the resources they need to ensure that their graduate students and postdocs succeed in and out of their research. And supervisors, I see you. I see how hard it is for you to not want for your graduate students what you found, the academic career you were told you were training for when you started graduate school. I see the ways you work to fight against the indoctrination that plagues both you and the people you supervise, that says that an academic life is the only challenging and worthy one. I see you struggle to know what to do, what to say, in the face of numbers like these: that only 18.6% of the people you supervise who finish their degrees will get full-time academic jobs, and about half of the people who start out with you won’t finish at all. I see you avoid the topic of non-professorial jobs because you’ve never had one, and you don’t know what one of those might look like or how you might best help your students and postdocs prepare for one.
I don’t think that supervisors need to be everything to all people. I don’t expect you to be career counsellors as well as brilliant writers, researchers, teachers. I don’t expect you to know the ins and outs of every career your students and postdocs might be interested in. I don’t expect you to stop doing the work of being a researcher and teacher you’re doing. But I do expect you to acknowledge reality, and to do what you can to ensure that all of your students and postdocs succeed, not just those very few who follow in your footsteps. And I’ve got some practical ideas about how.
1. Talk about all kinds of career paths and valourize none.
Ask your students where they want to end up. Ensure that they know the numbers, nationally and within your program, of tenure-track placements. Encourage them to think about a variety of post-degree career paths. Never talk as though the assumption is that everyone will become a tenure-track professor, and never denigrate non-professorial careers. Talk about all kinds of careers as equally valid, and equally valourous.
2. Keep track of your graduates, and not just the ones that become professors.
Know what your supervisees are doing with their PhDs. Be able to point to specific careers when your current students and postdocs ask what people with a PhD in their field could do. Know at least a little about your former students’ transition stories, how they got where they are, what they did to get there, and so that you can help your current students decide what they should be doing to prepare for their post-PhD lives. You already know how to help your students prepare to become professors, but learn how to help them to become other things as well.
3. Know where to refer your students when you’re out of your depth.
Almost certainly, your university has a graduate professional development program. It also has a career centre, one that has at least some capacity to support PhDs in their career development and preparation. It has people like me, whose job is to help both faculty and students navigate the changing academy and what comes after. There are also tons of skill and professional development resources open to students and postdocs looking to diversify their skill sets. Good ones to know about include:
- myGradSkills.ca: online professional development workshops in career development, communication, entrepreneurship, research, teaching & learning
- Mitacs STEP: one and two day intensive workshops in leadership & management, communication & relationship building, personal & professional management, entrepreneurialism
- Lynda.com: over 3,500 online skill development workshops which are free to people with library cards in Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver and many other Canadian cities.
4. Give your students and postdocs things to read.
The number of resources out there for PhD-trained job seekers has grown exponentially since I was conducting my own job search, and being tapped into the higher ed web will help ensure that your students are aware of the realities of the academic job market and glorious variety of places PhD holders happily end up. Some good resources include:
5. Acknowledge that your students and postdocs are working with you for lots of reasons.
Some really, really do want to become professors, and some will. Some see their PhD as a six year contract job that can pay reasonably well. Some want to return to a past career with enhanced credentials. Some don’t know anything beyond the fact that they want to spend a few years immersing themselves in a subject they find fascinating. All are valid, and all should be openly acknowledged. But faculty should also be aware that the culture of academia is such that many people who start not wanting to become a professor will end up internalizing that desire by osmosis. Do what you can to keep that from happening: 100% of people desperate for the thing that less than 20% will find is a recipe for misery.
6. Be open about what a professorial career is actually all about.
Your supervisees see you do very few things. They see you teach and supervise (them). They might see you do limited parts of the research part of your job. They read your finished publications. They rarely see the service, the paperwork, the administrative minutiae, the hours of class prep, the shitty first drafts, the lonely hours writing along with your cat, the struggle to stay funded and keep your lab running, the politics, the meetings, and on. Being an academic is a job like any other, with its good and its bad, and you owe it to your students and postdocs to ensure that they understand the reality (not the fantasy) of doing what you do. PhDs often choose to pursue a professorial career without actually knowing much about what that job will be like, and I’ve seen the reality of a professorial career be an unpleasant surprise more than a few times.