Some of the most common concerns I hear from PhDs considering a career outside of academia go something like this: How do I know what kind of job I would be good at? What company will want to hire someone my age with little “real world” experience? Who will serve as references for me when all my references are from my lab or dissertation committee?

These concerns are valid for any graduate student who wants to be a viable candidate for industry careers. However, the divide between the academic and the workplace can be bridged with one or two well-placed volunteer, intern or part-time work experiences.  A little experience goes a long way to helping you get your foot in the door in a new field.

You’ve heard this advice before but you aren’t sure where to find such opportunities and the thought of adding one more task to your plate can feel overwhelming. Here are a few tips that can make getting experience more manageable and strategic:

1. Know what you need out of the experience to make it worthwhile.  Identify one or two things that you want to gain from this volunteer or internship experience. Make these items simple and measurable so you know that you’ve accomplished your goal at the end of the experience. For example, your goal may be to develop two new professional relationships, gain exposure to the language of this industry, identify this field’s common job positions and their roles, or complete a project.  During graduate school, I wanted to sharpen my ethnographic research methods and learn how fields other than my own – Anthropology – use these methods.  The medical school in my town often sought out qualitative researchers for socio-medical projects in clinics, hospitals, and other health care settings. One summer I signed up for two projects. Not only did I gain references and experience in a new field (health/public health), I also earned some much-needed cash over the unfunded summer months while working on my dissertation chapters.  This experience helped me to be a better researcher, as it required me to work in a team and formalize my recording and analysis methods.

2. Be strategic about where you get experience. The organization or internship program you seek to work with should be able to help you accomplish the goals you’ve set for this experience. Also, you may choose an internship at a place or in an industry that has strong ties to your dissertation research topic or methods. You are investing your time and most likely money, as internships and volunteer experiences tend to be unpaid.

3. Coordinate the experience with your overall degree completion tasks and timeline.  Graduate students have limited time in their schedule. Each semester is expertly scheduled to get through coursework, comps, teaching, research, reading and so on.  Schedule your internship or part-time work during the least demanding times of your schedule or when having a structured activity can help to give your school-related tasks structure.  The summer was a perfect time for me to take on the projects with the medical school – it got me out of the library and forced me to structure my dissertation writing time.  One of my colleagues took on a consultant position during her second year of coursework.  She wanted outside experience prior to getting the master’s. In case she decided not to continue to the PhD, she would have industry experience on her resume that could catapult her to a career job.

4. Experience can be informal.  There are various formal internship programs for students. I encourage graduate students to take advantage of these opportunities while still in school. Most internships are ONLY available for those who can get college credits for the experience, meaning that once you graduate you are no longer eligible.  I can’t stress how compelling a reason this is for getting outside of your department and the university WHILE still in graduate school.  It will only enhance your ability to network, introduce yourself in professional settings, work with structure and teams, and gain new knowledge outside of your field of study – all skills that are valuable inside and outside of academia. I talk to so many grad students who wait until they’ve completed the diss to decide that they’d like a job outside the academy. It takes time to get any job (and to know what type of job and position level that’s a fit for you), especially when you are a career changer.

timetoactSorry…that was a bit of a detour from my point that you can create a more flexible and informal internship experience other of these formal ones.  Take advantage of living in a college town.  There are small and mid-size companies and nonprofits in your town that would love to have help for a few extra hours a week or someone who can complete a small project.  Identify three organizations or companies in your town that do work that interests you. Find out more about them: read their website and social media outlets; see what type of events they sponsor or participate in; familiarize yourself with their mission and key projects.  If they still resonate with you, introduce yourself with a polished resume and cover letter and offer to be of assistance on a particular project. Even short-term and project-based experiences can yield a lot of bang for your buck (and time spent).

Take a chance; the process alone will expand your horizons and test your ability to get out there. Let us know how volunteer or internship experiences have helped you explore career options.

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