A New Way for Ph.D.s to Plan Their Careers

Teresa Dillinger, Annie Maxfield and Sarah Peterson introduce ImaginePhD, a career-exploration and planning tool for doctoral students.

October 23, 2017

What can I do with my Ph.D. and how do I get started? Those are the questions that most often lead Ph.D. students from the humanities and social sciences to our advising offices. They expose complex issues such as a lack of confidence in the skills acquired during doctoral training, anxiety about unknown work and a feeling of disempowerment in the job search. They are the conversations that drove more than 80 career professionals from 56 universities across the United States and Canada to create an online tool to help bridge the knowledge gap between doctoral education and the realm of career possibilities. That tool is ImaginePhD, a free and confidential career-exploration and planning tool for the humanities and social sciences that launches today.

Creating ImaginePhD

Powered by the Graduate Career Consortium -- a professional organization of university administrators leading career and professional development efforts for Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars at their institutions -- ImaginePhD has been in development for three years. To create this tool, we researched and analyzed national career outcomes alongside the skills and interests developed through humanities and social sciences Ph.D. programs. This research resulted in the creation of 16 job families: clusters of jobs organized and aligned with a core set of skills and interests. None of these career pathways require additional formal education (such as an M.B.A. or J.D.). To help users understand the range of careers within each job family, and transition strategies, more than 450 resources were curated specifically for the site.

Once the first iteration of the tool was built, we conducted 26 focus groups at 14 different institutions in the United States and Canada with 150-plus Ph.D. students and faculty to understand experiences with the tool so as to make it as meaningful and useful as possible. That process revealed the distinct role that values play in career decision making for Ph.D.s from these disciplines and the need for time and space to reflect and build community through career exploration.

It also became clear that a linear approach to careers would be quickly dismissed. Using the focus groups' feedback and suggestions, we refined the site to provide more distinct content, opportunities for reflection, a comprehensive values assessment and a planning tool that reflected their expressed needs.

Making the Most of ImaginePhD: Stages and Strategies

People in higher education can use ImaginePhD in many ways, since it is designed to meet users where they are in the process of exploring and planning careers. Here are some suggestions for getting started based on doctoral program stage. Of course, these are not the only ways to delve into the site. We encourage all students, postdocs, faculty members and administrators to log in, explore and find different uses, identifying aspects of the site that are most beneficial.

Early-stage Ph.D.s:

At the beginning of a Ph.D. program, career options and planning can feel premature or just overwhelming. My Plan can help users get organized and create a calendar of short- and/or long-term goals toward degree-completion deadlines, funding and skill development. The Skills Assessment section will help users identify key skills to develop over the next year(s), and taken early, can serve as a baseline as students continue through the Ph.D. program. Creating My Plan is a good conversation starter with trusted mentors and career advisers, and it also provides the opportunity to check in and agree upon next steps for successfully completing Ph.D. milestones or exploring career pathways. As one Ph.D. student who participated in the Beyond Academia Conference told us, “It shifts my thinking from someone who follows my adviser to a person who takes responsibility for my own self-assessment and skill acquisition.”

Midstage Ph.D.s:

Midstage is an ideal time to reflect on strengths, identify areas for growth and think about what is and isn’t enjoyable about academic work. The Interests Assessment provides an unusual opportunity to reflect on the particular tasks required in different kinds of work. People who are the most satisfied at work do something they are good at and that they enjoy every day. The Skills Assessment allows the user to articulate strengths and identify areas for development that can be integrated into the Ph.D. program in the coming years so as to best leverage university resources.

This is also a good time to start identifying job families that may be of interest. Each family contains detailed information organized into four areas: Explore, Connect, Build Skills and Apply. At this stage, paying particular attention to resources listed in each of those sections will help users learn about the range of jobs and transition strategies of other Ph.D.s, get ideas about how to start contributing to professional communities early and seek out needed skill-building experiences. One focus group participant told us: “I really like the resources and I especially like the Explore part -- being able to click on it and seeing the examples of actual people who have transitioned from academe into jobs.”

Finally, mapping out a dissertation-writing timeline alongside career-development goals for the next two to three years on My Plan will help Ph.D. students stay focused on finishing, while keeping options open for post-Ph.D. employment.

Late-stage and completed Ph.D.s:

In the last year of dissertation writing or upon completing the degree, the Values Assessment can empower users to identify what is most important in their next work environment and to establish some parameters for a job search, leveraging their time most effectively. They can take the Interests and Skills Assessments to identify and then Explore aligned job families, broadening career options. When researching job families, it is best to pay particular attention to the Connect and Apply sections, where one can source networks, communities and job boards, as well as develop application materials. “Paired with the results that came later, it was really assuring to see that jobs exist that align with my core values outside of work in academe,” another focus group participant, a late-stage Ph.D. student, told us. “I’d honestly thought of the two as mutually exclusive until now.”

While ImaginePhD can be used independently to enhance self-awareness and options, it can be even more powerful when explored and discussed with peers, faculty advisers and career professionals. Building communities of support is integral to building confidence and taking risks -- which is what job searching is. Talking about the insights gleaned from the Skills, Interests and Values Assessments can help users reflect and analyze the results more deeply, consider future goals, and introduce them to others who have pursued or are exploring similar paths. If there is a career professional on campus dedicated to working with Ph.D.s, they are eager to help at any stage in this process, and ImaginePhD can be a great tool to get a conversation started.

Finally, a number of academic institutions and professional societies have generously supported this effort and in so doing have demonstrated their support for the diversity of career paths followed by humanities and social sciences Ph.D.s. If your academic institution is among them, know they are making visible their support for your career path -- wherever it may take you.


Graduate Career Consortium logoTeresa Dillinger is the project lead for ImaginePhD and an academic administrator of professional development programs for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in graduate studies at the University of California, Davis. Annie Maxfield is the product design and development lead for ImaginePhD and an associate director for graduate student relations and services at the University of California, Los Angeles, Career Center. Sarah Peterson is the content lead for ImaginePhD and an independent Ph.D. career consultant. All three are members of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top