Top 10 career planning tips for grad students (or anyone!)

I recently spoke at a seminar about career planning for grad students. For Masters, PhD and other graduate students, planning for post-graduation is challenging. There’s lots of talk about being on the academic job market, but not so much about doing anything else. So I’m going to elaborate here on my Twitter thread, with 10 tips for a non-academic job search.

This is based on my own experience as a career coach, mentor for people seeking promotion, and a hiring manager who’s sat on numerous panels and sifted hundreds, if not thousands, of job applications.

Initial career planning and exploration

1. Do a skills mapping exercise and talk it through.

There are lots of different sorts of career mapping exercises out there. They can help you visualise your skills and experience and think creatively about where they can take you. You should absolutely do one of these. It’s one of the most useful tools for anyone career planning at any stage.

But, don’t just write it down! There is something very generative about talking with someone who can keep quiet in a conversation and let you think. This is what coaches are trained to do. New insights and unexpected feelings and intuitions crop up in every coaching conversation. So find someone who can do that for you. It might be your supervisor, or your best friend. All they have to do is ask you non-judgmental questions, be quiet while you think, and avoid giving you suggestions for an hour. You’d be surprised how much clearer you are about how you really feel about some skills, experiences and opportunities after a conversation, versus just writing out a skills or career map for yourself.

2. When mapping where your skills and interest might take you, think about how many different avenues you really need.

Graduate study develops a number of important skills that are valuable in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong. But it can be hard to see how to translate them into a career context. Sometimes that leads people to panic. They start thinking they have to pick up any opportunity that claims to develop “employability skills”, often unpaid.

But the truth is, not all skills are valuable to all people. It’s important to build a clear sense of yourself, your interests and priorities, and stick to it. Don’t be swayed by just any opportunity that offers you yet another avenue to explore. If you take and every opportunity, you may split your focus and find you’re ultimately not quite qualified for any of the roles that interest you.

Academia can encourage a perspective of wanting to be a “purple squirrel”. That’s someone who’s a perfect fit for an implausible set of job requirements. Don’t fall for that trap. Focus on becoming truly skilled and knowledgeable in areas that match your long-term career goals. (Newsletter on this coming soon, so sign up now if you want to learn more!)

3. Keep a master list of accomplishments, skills and experience. NOT in CV/resume form.

Two tips in one here. Sorry, not sorry!

Standard job application advice for any career will tell you that customising your application is vital to stand out. Everything you mention needs to be relevant and show how you meet the employer’s criteria and can exceed their expectations. But how do you achieve that? With this combo-tip.

In interviews, resumes and cover letters, you’ll give examples from your studies and career history to show you have the right skills, competences and experience. You should be keeping a master list of all your accomplishments, skills and experience now that will act as a searchable list of things you could include. But don’t keep that list in your CV/resume template.

Why not? Wouldn’t that be great for time saving?

Nope. When you write something down as though it were on your final draft, it switches your brain into editing mode. It makes it harder to leave out the things that are less relevant to the specific job you’re applying for. You can (1) waste a lot of time in editing, and (2) still not present a clear picture to an employer of why you’re a great fit for their role. So keep a spreadsheet, or a list in your note-taking application of choice, instead.

4. Talk to friends from a wide range of sectors.

You probably know more people in a wider range of sectors than you think. And people are almost always happy to share their experience of their industry and employer. So get out there and talk to them. Don’t be shy about telling people you’re thinking broadly about career opportunities. Listen closely whenever your friends and family talk about theirs. Tell them you’re exploring options and ask them to tell you more about their career path, industry, role, etc. Most people like talking about themselves, and they can give a candid insight into the skills and job-search strategies common to their areas.

One thing in particular that they can help you with is to sense-check what skills look like in different contexts. For example, project management in academia is usually quitedifferent to project management in, say, the tech industry. What are the odds that your academic work involves Agile accreditation and leading those projects day-to-day? Fairly slim (but good for you and your university if it does!).

5. Find people on LinkedIn with the jobs you think you want.

This is vital if you don’t know anyone in an industry or sector that interests you, but it’s good advice even if you do. They say that your network is your net worth, so look to grow yours in the areas you’re interested in. Don’t wait until you have a job in the sector, or the right job title! LinkedIn is low stakes, even though it can feel embarrassing to put yourself out there.

Search for people by role title. Advanced searches let you look for people who went to your university, studied your subject, if that’s important to you. Message them and see whether they’re willing to spend half an hour talking to you, or exchange a few messages and share some insight into the industry and the start of the career ladder. Don’t be shy about going to people who have been in the sector for several years; they’re the people with the best insights.

Marketing yourself to employers

6. Only bring onto your resume things the employer’s interested in.

Your resume is not a place to list all of things you’re proud of. (This is why you’re keeping that master list of skills, accomplishments and experiences.) This can be a real stumbling block in career planning for grad students, as academic CVs require long lists of talks, papers, and publications.

Read my job description and write to it, in both your CV and your covering letter! Make it very easy for me to skim your materials and say, “Yes,” they can do this job. I’m not actually reading your application in detail when I first see it. I’m scanning to see my job ad’s words reflected back at me. If I can see you describing someone who can do the role, then I’ll read the detail to start seeing you.

7. It’s very difficult to generate enthusiasm that’s false.

I’ve lost count of how many interviews I’ve conducted where the person on the other side of the table could be applying for anything.

“Why do you want this position?” is, surprisingly, a killer question. Most people haven’t bothered to formulate a precise answer to it. They’ve looked at a job ad, though, “I could probably do that,” and applied. That’s how the job market is. I don’t think that everyone should have to perform unrealistic hyper-enthusiasm to get a job. We all need to eat and live, and for 99.9% of us that means having to have a job. Sometimes any job.

But as a hiring manager, I want to feel you might stick around for a while and find at least some elements of the job fulfilling. And, if you don’t really want a job like this, or with us, we can almost always tell. So that career mapping work you did earlier actually affects how you have conversations with prospective employers beyond your preparedness to speak about the sector and organisation.

Also, think about how you’ll talk about your academic work and roles in non-academic contexts. If you’re more energised and excited talking about your teaching or research than the job you’re interviewing for, it’s likely to count against you. If you get feedback like that, stop and think. Consider some coaching or mentoring to figure out exactly what’s going on.

8. Learn interview techniques and processes.

If you’ve not interviewed widely recently, or you’ve only interviewed for positions within universities, you might be caught unawares by the interview process. There is a skill to being an effective communicator in an interview. It’s not the same as being an effective communicator elsewhere. Research likely questions, and learn how to use standard techniques. For example, in your master list of skills and experiences, write things down in the common competence-based answer format STAR. Jot down the Situation, the Task you had, your Action, and your Result. Use condensed versions for your CV and covering letter, and keep top-of-mind those longer versions come interview day.

9. Take advice from entirely outside the academic environment.

Even if the bulk of your experience is within a university context, that doesn’t mean the advice you take has to come from there!

You should behave like anyone else in the world who’s changing careers and seek out all advice for career-changers. So, check out advice sites like AskAManger (especially on covering letters and resumes). Ask your friends with interesting jobs whether you can read their letters and CVs. Find people on LinkedIn who have jobs you’d like and read about their journeys.

10. LinkedIn again!

LinkedIn isn’t very nice to look at, or interesting to use day-to-day. But it bears repeating: it is built for career building. It’s an important part of any job search, even if it’s just making sure your profile looks presentable and is coherent with whatever you tell a prospective employer. Because they’ll check! Make sure the picture of yourself you present to employers matches your online presence.

You might also be interested in this post about helping grad students planning for post-PhD.

Originally published at on March 15, 2021.

EDI consultant and project manager; Transformational and career development coach; Writer of many things; Runner. In no particular order.