Expanding Career Options Best Practices

Expanding Mentees’ Career Options: Information and Advice for Humanities and Social Science Faculty

In winter 2016, a panel consisting of faculty, staff, and a TGS alumnus gathered to discuss insights, challenges, and caveats to guiding PhD students toward various careers. The panel’s goals were to help faculty better understand how they can assist students and not feel unnecessarily limited by their own academic location, for example by partnering with Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA). Special thanks to our panelists:

  • Elliot Heilman, PhD Communication Studies, Communications Manager at Illinois Humanities
  • Mearah Quinn-Brauner, Assistant Director, Northwestern Career Advancement
  • Angela Ray, Associate Professor, Department of Communication Studies
  • Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Associate Professor, Departments of Sociology & African American Studies

Being open about the academic market and students’ individual career goals are important facets of mentoring relationships. Finding any job takes strategy and planning. Many mentors of PhD students feel that because they chose careers in academia they are ill-equipped to advise mentees undertaking a position in a search “expanded” outside academic institutions. However, there are many ways mentors can and should assist PhD students to articulate their transferrable skills and move toward fulfilling careers. For other matters, such as learning about other career fields and preparing applications for those fields, Northwestern’s Career Advancement office can provide complementary guidance.


  • PhDs have many skills highly desired in industry, nonprofits, government, and the private sector, including working on teams, meeting deadlines, managing IRB specifications, researching topics and distilling information concisely and accurately, analytic writing in multiple prose genres, clear oral communication, etc. Students may not necessarily think about how skills other than publishing and dissertation writing translate across a variety of sectors.
  • A graduate student who is interested in a career beyond the academy should know about the variety of resources that are available at Northwestern. The dissertation mentor can play an important role, in tandem with these resources.


  • Be mindful of language that implies non-academic jobs are second tier.
  • Use multiple approaches to advising, including:
    • One-on-one counseling with students approaching or on the market;
    • Group events that convey pertinent topics (job markets, talks, post-doc applications, etc.) but also build community;
    • Panels that invite alumni in non-tenure track positions back to campus. Their reflections can enlighten students as well as faculty. Faculty presence at such events may also demonstrate to students that they are comfortable with a range of placements.
    • Have your program collect resources such as graduates’ successful applications, cover letters, sample CVs and resumes, etc., and make them available online for all students to access. Make sure that these include placements in academic as well as other employment sectors.
  • Be willing to share any of your own stories that can lower students’ fear and anxiety.
  • Network with colleagues in and outside of academia to help improve your knowledge of current opportunities.
  • Work with your mentees to keep open clear channels of communication all the way through the job search process. The timelines and protocols for applicants searching and being interviewed may differ considerably from academic posts, however the mentor’s role as support, sounding board, and strategist is just as important.
  • Often, students begin thinking about non-academic appointments while dissertating, as completing the thesis milestones can be a frustrating process.  In discussing future plans, the mentor may find it useful to inquire about the student’s reasons for contemplating non-academic positions, in order to help the mentee disentangle immediate issues from long-term goals.
  • If a mentee wants to initially pursue a position outside academia yet keep their options within the academy open, it will likely be important to show a steady record of publications. Consider this and other relevant factors in counseling your student. Help them proceed with eyes fully open.


  • Northwestern Career Advancement (NCA) supports doctoral students in all disciplines, mainly through one-on-one advising, events, and connections with employers and alumni.
    • The career adviser’s primary goal is to support students in any career that they choose, not guide them in one direction.
    • Advisers also focus on how students can research career fields, including use of the Versatile PhD tool.
  • The Graduate Engagement Opportunities (GEO) program through the Center for Civic Engagement allows graduate students the opportunity to connect theory to practice through internships with community organizations. This is a great opportunity for students to explore their career options both in and outside of academia, and decide if outside careers might work for them.
  • TGS’s Career Pathways website also provides information about how graduate students can prepare for careers in a range of fields, including academia, nonprofits, and industry.