Post-Ph.D. Job Market: Timelines

I recently gave a talk at a WimNet group meeting regarding my post-Ph.D. job market experiences and lessons learned. A version of the slides that is not Columbia-specific and applicable to many EECS students is available below:

The first part of the talk focused on the job market timelines and demonstrated a step-by-step guide to approaching the job market while keeping the timelines in mind. Below are some additional details related to this part of the talk.

During graduate studies, Ph.D.s in sciences and engineering oftentimes hear a very optimistic, encouraging message: “With a Ph.D., you can do anything!” This messageĀ  is substantiated with lists upon lists of possible post-Ph.D. professions, giving students a welcome sense of opportunities, but very little actual practical guidance. As students are nearing graduation, though, and start exploring the job market, a very different reality sets in. The overall message and the lists are inspirational, but are not particularly useful, as, once on the job market, students realize that oftentimes to the rest of the world they appear to be able to only do what is directly related to their research – and not much else.

Together with the motivational “you can do anything!” message, three things should really be mentioned:

  • The better you do in your Ph.D., the larger the “anything” becomes,
  • You will need to invest time and energy in preparing for any career that is not ~80 – 100% just like what you currently do, and
  • There are fixed hiring cycles that you need to be aware of well in advance of getting to the job market.

JobMarket_TimelineThese three considerations translate to the following four-step process:

1. Up to 1.5 years before graduation, focus on doing the best you can at what you are working on, and don’t worry too much about the job market. When putting together a resume for any position whatsoever, you will need to demonstrate achievements in whatever you were doing. The absolute worst thing to happen to a Ph.D. student is for her to come to the office or lab day in and day out and, seeing no concrete future, get nothing done. Remember that excellence is transferable – develop that core excellence!

2. When you are 1.5 years away from your intended graduation date, think hard about what you really want to be doing.

  • Think about what you want to do before thinking about what is out there for you. The world is wide and there are so many things out there that are not readily seen from inside the Ivory tower – there may be many cool opportunities you are not even aware of.
  • Also, think broadly, then narrow down the options. Like with entrepreneurship or any other ambitious undertaking, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. You absolutely need to narrow down your options from an optimistic-but-not-practical “anything” to a manageable subset of closely related occupations along one or two potential career tracks.

Overall, for this part of the process, I found the book Start-Up of You to be very useful. It is current (unlike the classic What Color Is Your Parachute, which I found useful but somewhat dated), practical, and provides a nice framework for both thinking about what you like and what is needed. Big like! šŸ™‚ I also really liked LinkedIn’s Alternative PhD Careers Group, which offers a supportive environment for exploring different career paths.

3. Once you chose the direction, if the direction is not fully aligned with what you are already doing, dedicate 1/3rd of your time for 4 months to get good at what you want to be doing. This is not mandatory if you want any job, but is absolutely essential if you want a good job. I heard this advice during a Google Scholars Retreat from an RF Engineering Ph.D. who became a software engineer at Google. A typical RF engineer would be able to get a software development position with little preparation. He would not, however, be able to get a Google software development position without a lot of additional preparation – hence this practical down-to-Earth time investment guideline.

4. Apply for positions in the fall of the academic year that you are planning to graduate. For many career tracks (academia, management consulting), fall is by far the highest hiring season; outside of this season, options are few. For other career tracks, companies generally hire in both the fall and the spring. However, many companies with specific programs for new graduates still hire for these programs exclusively in the fall. By the fall, you need to be fully prepared to interview – if you follow steps 1-3, you will be!


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