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FAQs: PhD students and Postdocs

In these trying times, we offer you our advice and resources about career planning, specifically tailored to PhD students and postdocs.

What can I do to stay intellectually active during Covid-19? 

We all need to recalibrate our notions of productivity in the time pre-Covid-19. This is because we don’t have access to the same resources in the lab, library or field, and because our personal and professional spaces are intermingled. In addition, many of us have added responsibilities to care for those with whom we live. Also remember that stress and change take a toll physically, emotionally, and cognitively. 

If you have discretionary time, and want to tackle some new tasks, here are some things that you can do:

  • Keep writing.
  • Read broadly. What are those articles you haven’t gotten to?
  • Expand knowledge and skills. Online learning can help with grant-writing, coding skills, or other ways of broadening your expertise.
  • Connect with others. Combat isolation by reaching out to close friends and colleagues. Contact those in your professional network you have NOT been in touch with lately. This video (created by Chris Golde for a class) on professional networking can help you understand networking in a different way and feel motivated to reinvigorate some of those ties. 
  • Apply for funding. Start grant applications ideas you have -- or that you can create with current or new collaborators. Landing some funding can give you more time to keep working on projects.
  • Lobby. This can be a time to lobby your elected officials for more funding for postdoctoral positions and research grant extensions.

What is the future of the faculty job market? 

As of the spring of 2020, most colleges and universities have instituted faculty and staff hiring freezes. This means that there will be very few new job searches initiated on campus, even if a position is vacant. For example, at Stanford, the Provost (chief academic officer) must personally approve any faculty or staff search. Fortunately, Covid-19 emerged as the faculty job search cycle was drawing to a close. Most of the Stanford PhDs and Postdocs we worked with who had received offers were able to successfully sign the offers. We heard only a few stories of rescinded offers.

Normally, we would expect the next cycle of job postings in the fall (August - November) for positions to start in the fall of 2021. We do not know how many positions will be approved, but we anticipate that there will not be very many. After the 2008 recession we saw an “L-shaped” market trend -- a precipitous drop, followed by an uptick starting in 2010 and then a new, lower, steady state. By the same token, the proportion of new positions that are non-tenure line, part-time, and fixed term, is likely to be even higher relative to full-time, tenure-line positions. These decisions will come after campuses determine how to handle the 2020-21 academic year.

What can I do to remain competitive on the faculty job market until hiring resumes?

The faculty job market focuses a lot, especially in the early stages, on the artifacts of academic life: papers, presentations, patents and grants. 

In the short term, until research activities resume, keep writing and move your academic work through the publication pipeline. We know that sheltering in place means that many people can’t devote uninterrupted time to this, especially with the responsibilities of childcare and schooling from home.

If you want to expand your pedagogical skills, you can also learn about how to teach effectively by exploring resources offered by Stanford and others. 

Presentations and conferences are taking place virtually. You can reach out and offer to give a guest lecture, seminar talk, or participate in a conference to get your work out beyond campus.  

In the longer term, for the next few years, you face some choices. You can continue to focus on the academic path. You may want to expand your vision beyond academia -- either in parallel with working to stay in academia, or as a new direction instead. Here is the choice space:

  • Delay graduation or end of postdoc
  • Do a(nother) postdoc to build skills and expertise until market improves
  • Widen your search in terms of institutional geography, prestige, resources
  • Explore alternatives beyond academia

How can I cope with an uncertain future?

While we know dealing with uncertainty is part of life, this pandemic is bringing up more anxiety about the present and the future. Because you can’t predict or control how things will unfold, focus on the activities that will help you to feel prepared for the future. Here is a quick illustration on how that could look.

And remember: the skills you hone as PhD students and postdocs – creativity, problem-solving, patience, tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, resilience, self-direction over long periods of time, and the ability to teach yourself new things – will stand you in very good stead in these uncertain times. These qualities will see you through. YOU are one of THE best resources you have. 

Some of our favorite readings to help in these anxious times:

Are other employers still hiring?

Yes! We know that some employers are still posting positions and conducting searches; others are pausing and will be eager to have a strong pool of candidates once active hiring resumes. This video presentation on the labor market gives very recent data aimed at PhD students about employment trends, desired skills, and tips for articulating the value of doctoral training. Now, more than ever we urge you to be active in your job search. Check out this presentation and worksheet from our recent program about tailoring your resume. 

How do I explore career paths beyond academia?

We always encourage you to imagine multiple futures. This is even more true in the Covid era. Your next job after Stanford might not be your dream job, but it is still a first step. You will learn things about yourself, and you will build knowledge and skills. Key actions you can take:

  1. Apply your research skills to your own life.

Researching and experimenting with different career paths can help you feel grounded and focused during this time of uncertainty. Read this article on gathering information about the world of work, test out opportunities, and evaluate your experience to determine where you go next. This piece shares how to use job descriptions as a way into understanding what you care about and want to do next.  

  1. Recognize that experience comes from, and cuts across, many roles and contexts.

Consider the roles you’ve already had both in and outside of academia to assess the full breadth of the value, skills, experiences, and insights you have to offer. This piece will help you see the full range of experiences that employers value. 

  1. Identify your transferable skills.

Perhaps you won’t be doing the same work in the future that you do now. Remember that it’s not so much what you’ve done but how you’ve done it, and how you’ve done it well. Check out our slide deck on ways to examine past experiences and draw out transferable skills.

  1. Build a network of allies and advocates. 

Ask for strategies and guidance from those who’ve reached the places you want to get to. Reconnect with your existing network to find out what’s happening in the world of work, and update them on your interests and plans. Grow your network with new contacts through informational interviews. Get to know them and let them get to know you. Only good things can happen from those relationships. 

How can BEAM help me?

Many PhD students and postdoctoral scholars have never used the services of a career center. Now is a great time to start. We have four kinds of resources:

  • One-to-one coaching and counseling. You can use a 30 or 45 minute appointment to talk about whatever is on your mind. You are eligible for an unlimited number of appointments, and you can switch among coaches. PhD students can use us for a year after graduation.
  • Some of the things you can do in a coaching appointment:
    • Document review - get feedback on your resumes, cover letter, LinkedIn profiles 
    • Interviewing & negotiating - practice telling your story and articulating your needs
    • Resources & assessments -  identify your strengths, values, and interests
    • Building your network - exploring alumni databases, LinkedIn, and your own contacts
    • Creating personalized roadmaps and a game plan for moving your career forward
  • We offer a full range of workshops via Zoom, including panels about industries, Leveraging LinkedIn, Interview tips, and Writing your resume. Find upcoming events in Handshake.
  • We have a comprehensive online guide with information about identifying interests, building networks, and applying for jobs both in academia and beyond.

PhD students and postdocs get a weekly newsletter where we highlight upcoming events. Search in Handshake to find events, resources, job listings and to sign up for an individual coaching appointment. For broader advice on career planning during this time, check out BEAM’s general frequently asked questions here.

The PhD & Postdoc Team at BEAM (Chris Golde, Lance Choy, and Urmila Venkatesh) are here to help however we can.