Why do So Many Bright Grad Students Get Stuck in School?
“There are so few professorships in my field that when a position opens up everyone knows about it,” Eric said during a networking event for grad students in Boston.
Eric, a PhD student at Harvard, was living below the poverty level.
He was supporting his wife and 2 young children on his grad student stipend.
Eric didn’t earn much, but it was barely enough to pay the bills for his one-bedroom apartment and groceries, and once in a while he saved $50 a month.
“My wife and I looked at houses near some universities that may be hiring and they are nearly 1 million dollars,” Eric continued.
“I know I only have to put down 10%, but still…” he paused, looking down at his worn-out dress shoes.
“Even if I got a professorship, I don’t know how we would afford a house. Sometimes I wonder how we will make ends meet when I graduate.”
Eric, like many other grad students, didn’t want to graduate because
he didn’t see a future beyond graduate school
While Eric’s stipend was low, it covered the basic necessities for his family.
If he graduated, how would he feed his family?
Eric and his wife were international, and she didn’t have a work visa. It was up to Eric to provide for his family.
Eric’s passion was in basic science research, but he knew that his chances of getting a professorship were about 1 in a 100.
He applied to professorships and industry jobs but didn’t have any job leads, so decided to put his graduation on hold until he had a job lined up.
Eric’s 5 year PhD turned into a 6 year PhD.
After 6 years he still didn’t have any prospects in academia or industry, but he found a postdoctoral position in another group that paid slightly more than a student stipend.
Eric purposefully held back his graduation so he could continue getting his stipend, but other students are subconsciously avoiding working on their thesis, because of the uncertainty of the job market.
Typical fears that may hold you back from finishing your thesis include:
- What will I do after I graduate?
- What if I realize that getting a graduate degree was a big waste of time?
- What’s the point of doing the work if I can’t get a job anyway?
Since most universities don’t offer career development services (especially for non-academic jobs), students don’t know how to begin exploring career options.
Instead, they resign to a grad student stipend that barely covers their basic needs and possible unemployment after graduation.
You don’t have to resign to a bleak future.
The only way is get rid of this fear is to face it: What will you do after you graduate?
5 Strategies to Avoid Staying Stuck in Grad School Due to Fear of Unemployment
1. Face the worst case scenario
What is your worst case scenario if you don’t have a job lined up when you graduate?
Do you have to move back with your parents or find a postdoc?
It is important to face the worst-case scenario; sometimes it is not as bad as you might think.
Eric was an international student, and if he didn’t find a job he would need to return to his native country where there were even fewer job opportunities in his field.
Since he had no job prospects, Eric negotiated a postdoc with another supervisor until he found either a professorship or an industry job.
Mark, another grad student, couldn’t balance the job search and grad school simultaneously, so he decided to focus 100% on his thesis until he graduated.
Since he didn’t have a job after leaving grad school he moved back to his parents house – not ideal situation, but he had a roof over is head instead of carrying the burden of an unfinished thesis.
Whatever the worst case scenario is for you, simply face it and see what you can do to avoid it or make the best of it.
Remember that when you are avoiding something due to fear, you are actually living that fear day in and day out.
Most of the time, the worst case scenario doesn’t happen, but it is empowering to realize what your options are if your worst case scenario were to come true.
Would there be an advantage to getting a break for 6 months after grad school instead of having to transition into a job right away (even if you do have to live with your parents)?
Once you mentally accept the worst-case scenario you can free up some of your mental energy to explore what your options are – and there are probably more than you think.
2. Inform yourself about your options
One of the most common reasons that students fear the job searching process is that they don’t have know what’s out there.
Most students start graduate school preparing to go into an academic career, and there is a lot of mystery about non-academic career paths.
- What is the life-style like in industry?
- Is it easier to balance work with family in academia or industry?
- After you realize that academia is not for you, how do you know which career options are a good fit for you?
If your university has any career development training, make sure you take advantage of it.
Spending 1-2 hours a week exploring career options and going to networking events is the best way to find out what career paths are out there and what would be the best fit for you.
After all, the reason you went to graduate school was to have better career opportunities.
Take time every week, or at least twice a month, to actively learn about career options so you don’t get stuck in school because you don’t have a job lined up after graduation.
You owe it to yourself to know what opportunities are available to someone with your qualifications
3. Network consistently and stay in touch with important people
Grad students usually don’t like to network, because they are not trained in networking skills (and more importantly) how to follow up after networking events.
Some students feel networking is “insincere” or “using other people to get a job.”
Even students who see value in networking, sometimes think that it is not a good use of their time until they are close to graduating.
It is actually never too early start networking.
A PhD-level job search takes 6-12 months and even if graduation is several years away, you will gain valuable information from professionals about all the available career options.
However, if you don’t follow up with people, there is little value in networking other than free food and a vague idea of what life is like after grad school.
The most practical networking etiquette is to collect business cards from everyone, and to invite them to your Linkedin network within a day after meeting them.
To take your networking to the next level follow up with people who work in careers that would be the dream job for you, or seem like they would be good career mentors.
Ask them if they would have time for a 15 minute phone conversation or join you for lunch or coffee to learn more about their careers.
Most of them will say “No”, but even if you just get a 1-2 people on the phone or lunch, you can gain valuable insights about career development, and possibly even referrals for jobs in the future.
As a last resort, if there are no networking events in your area, reach out to alumni from your department.
Learn about the career paths they are on, what their lifestyles are like, and what skill sets are necessary for their jobs.
4. Develop Marketable Skills
Twenty years ago you could get a job relatively easily, because employers assumed that if you could finish your PhD, you were smart enough to learn the skills needed for the job.
Unfortunately, in today’s job market it is not enough to be smart anymore.
Employers are looking for people with very specific skill sets.
You can find out which skills are most sought-after in different career paths from job ads or professionals.
This information will help you to shape the direction of your thesis or find a side project that will allow you to learn these marketable skills.
When you have a diverse set of technical skills, you are more likely to find jobs that match your background.
However, it’s also important to stay within your general field of specialty so that you don’t seem “unfocused” on your resume or during your interview.
The best way to have a diverse skill set while still being focused on your area is to get feedback from professionals during a phone call or coffee about their recommendations for marketable skills that would be the best fit for you given your background.
In addition to technical skills, employers are also looking for soft skills such as:
- Leadership skills
- Communication skills
- Ability to cope with conflicts
If you focus only on your research, you will not be able to cite examples during your interviews that show that you have practical interpersonal skills.
Or, even if you do get the job, you will not have the skills to communicate effectively with your coworkers and manage projects.
While finishing your thesis research is one of your highest priorities in grad school, it is also essential that you learn interpersonal skills so you have the leadership experience needed to manage projects and communicate effectively with your coworkers.
5. Get clear on your graduation requirements timelines
Graduating and job searching can feel like an intricate dance.
The order of event have to be in just the right order so you don’t miss a job opportunity because your thesis is unfinished, or that you don’t end up on food stamps because you don’t have a job when you graduate.
When a position opens up in industry they want to fill it fast (like yesterday) and you want to be aware of these opportunities as soon as they open up.
However, you also need to stay on top of your thesis requirements because you don’t want to be in a situation where you are offered a position but your PI will not let you graduate.
Nevertheless, if things don’t work out perfectly and you don’t have a job when you graduate, enjoy it.
It may be the last time in your life that you get 3, 6, or 12 month break.
Take some of the pressure off yourself.
The best thing you can do for your future and career is to keep yourself informed by engaging in networking events and learning about different positions.
If you know your options and have an exciting career to work towards you will be motivated to finish your thesis, instead of holding back your graduation because you may not be employed afterwards.
Don’t let uncertainty of the future hold you back from finishing your thesis.
If you stay proactive and learn about career opportunities, you will be surprised at how many career paths are open to you.