Transition Update:
Maureen McCarthy

I remain employed by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), but the scope of my responsibilities has expanded significantly since my 2014 Transition Q & A. Both my title and my daily tasks have changed many times! Today, my role is more outward-facing—I attend more meetings, give more presentations, and write more reports and proposals. I also have more responsibility for directing and guiding strategy, and I credit my PhD with providing the skills to grow quickly in the organization.

One of the first projects I led at CGS was dedicated to changing the cultures of humanities doctoral programs to value diverse career paths. This is precisely the work I hoped to do when I came to CGS! We seem to be in an exciting moment when increasingly programs, university leaders, and funders across disciplines are recognizing that graduate students can and should be pursuing a wide range of careers. This is not a new idea. I’ve discovered in my research that as early as 1947 federal reports counselled universities to offer professional development to PhD candidates who desired a career beyond academia. The energy of this moment, however, is new, and I’m hopeful that the many initiatives cropping up around the country will result in real change.

In light of my experience working intensely on this issue, I have some additional advice for PhDs transitioning out of academia, ranging from practical to philosophical:

  1. Read job ads. Sign up for job alerts and identify experience and skills that are valued in the jobs that appeal to you. Then revisit your resumé to determine what could translate and where you may need additional experience.

  2. If you are in the humanities and don’t know where to start (e.g. what keywords to search for), take a look at the Mellon/ACLS Public Fellows program website. They maintain an archive of the descriptions of all public fellows positions since the beginning of the program. While you’re there, learn more about the program and consider applying!

  3. Reflect often on your goals. Graduate school has a way of helping you discover your needs, strengths, limitations, values, stress management tactics, and work style. Use that! Self-knowledge is key to your career journey. Free tools such as ImaginePhD (for the humanities and social sciences) and myIDP (for STEM fields) can help you structure reflections on your career goals, explore possibilities, and map out a realistic plan. More institutions are investing in graduate career advisers—take advantage of their expertise when it is available, and advocate for their importance on your campus.

  4. Recognize your power. Graduate students have a unique position in their programs to advocate for change. Too often, students do not realize that they have the power to articulate how their programs could be doing better. Respond to surveys that ask about these issues. Talk to student government leaders (or become one!), department heads, and graduate administrators about changes you would like to see.

Never discount the potential impact of one-on-one conversations. Sometimes, merely telling your adviser that you are considering broad career options can shake their assumptions and cause them to reconsider their stance on “non-academic” careers. 

All of the above applies to alumni as well.

Any update on my life from 2014 to 2018 would be incomplete without noting that my life now features two small, noisy, extremely needy roommates who never seem to sleep. CGS has been supportive of my transition to parenthood; twice I have been promoted while on maternity leave.

Still, it’s no secret that being a working parent is difficult. The US labour system is not designed to support families. I have travelled to several conferences with a nursing baby in tow, ducking out early from some sessions, arriving late to others. I have arrived to work dragging from the cumulative toll of months of sleepless nights. That said, I have also discovered a new efficiency, new reserves of energy, and an understanding of what is and is not worth my time and attention that makes my work stronger.

Maureen McCarthy
Maureen McCarthy (PhD English) originally wrote a Transition Q & A in February 2014. Maureen was then the assistant director of advancement and best practices at the Council of Graduate Schools. She is now the director of advancement and best practices.

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