How to balance being a graduate student while preparing for the non-academic job market

Somewhere around the third/fourth year on my PhD journey I admitted to myself an uncomfortable truth: I didn’t want to pursue a traditional academic career. I just didn’t like the daily grind of a university professor. There, I said it. But making the mental transition from aspiring historian who only understands (and perhaps values) her work according to potential publication in academic journals to that of a publicly engaged scholar whose intellectual work could be respected beyond the walls of academe took some major attitude adjusting. Finally, I’ve arrived – dignity and confidence intact. Although I’ve decided to follow my instinct to pursue a career in the non-academic marketplace, I do want to finish the PhD. I love history, intellectual conversation, and researching the incredibly complex lives of the African American feminist transnationalists upon whose shoulders I stand.

So I jumped into the deep end of becoming familiar with the non-academic world by taking advantage of two professionally-enriching opportunities.

In 2013, I participated in the Obermann Graduate Institute on Engagement in the Academy at the University of Iowa as an Obermann Graduate Fellow. The one-week interdisciplinary institute taught me how to think more creatively about my academic interest by means of publicly engaged collaborative projects.

In summer 2015, I participated in the Humanities Without Walls Pre-Doctoral Workshop in Chicago. Through a series of workshops, I met organizers, leaders, and representatives from career sectors within and outside of the academy who shared their respective expertise in how to “get my foot in the door” as a humanities PhD. Together, these programs not only challenged me to open up to multiple career paths, but then provided the tools and support to move forward with my new found motivation.

With all this new and exciting knowledge, it hit me:

How do I balance being a graduate student while preparing for the non-academic job market?

Though initially overwhelmed by this question, I’ve created a set of practices that allow me to network and stay informed about certain career fields and prospective employers while making progress on my dissertation. I tend to do this at night when I’ve finished my writing / research goals for the day and I’m “relaxing” watching TV*. The best part is that it doesn’t take as much mental energy and attention as my dissertation needs, but it’s a routine that will ultimately benefit me in the end.


  1. Create bookmark folders in your internet browser for “go to” sites
  • In my folder, “The Professional,” I add sites that are informative about the job market and resume writing and interviewing, and include a regularly updated database for recent job openings (i.e. Versatile PhD, Inside Higher Ed, Research Lilli Group, Chronicle of Higher Ed, NAFSA, etc.).
  • In another folder, “Prospective Employers,” I add sites of organizations and institutions in which I actually want to be employed if given the opportunity (i.e. The Clinton Foundation, International Institute for Education, United Nations, ACLS Public Fellows, etc.). I re-visit them from time-to-time just to see what kinds of positions become available. If the “perfect” position for me opens up, who knows, perhaps I’ll throw my hat in the ring J and apply.


  1. Save job postings!

This one may sound weird, but I make an effort to save pdf copies of job openings in which I would like to apply. Why? While it’s unlikely that the same job opening will be available two years from now, similar jobs will come up in the future. Having actual job descriptions serve as reminders of what my prospective employers want in a candidate. And when certain opportunities come up for me to acquire such skills, I know it’ll make me a stronger candidate because I’ve seen the skill listed as required / desirable. Sometimes companies include profiles of employees, so I check those out too.

I simply create a folder on my desktop, “Noaquia’s J-O-Bs,”and save them there.


  1. Volunteer Work

I know, we academics can be reluctant to view volunteer work as an opportunity for ourselves. Well, you should. There’s nothing wrong with thinking strategically in how you serve (from time to time). Here’s my example. I’m currently in D.C. on a research fellowship at the German Historical Institute ( and I cannot take on paid work during my tenure. I’m interested in pursuing a career in International Education Administration, so I’m volunteering for the American Council for International Education as a scholarship application reader for study abroad programs sponsored through the U.S. State Department. This opportunity will allow me to do something good for others, network, and, hopefully, set up some informational interviews – an exercise that was heavily stressed during the HWW Workshop for landing non-academic jobs. By volunteering, I can keep my commitment hours manageable for my schedule, and I’ll get to see if this indeed is the kind of work I should pursue in the near future. Volunteering in your desired field will show employers that you’re interested in and capable of working outside of the ivory tower.


  1. Learning to Say ‘No’

Being more confident in my post-graduate career plans and goals have made it easier for me to say no and/or decrease my involvement in academic activities that, ultimately, will not help me land a job in the field of international education. While I’ve committed to presenting at a couple major conferences and workshops this academic year (to help me progress in my dissertation and stay competitive for grants), I’ve also given myself permission to not attend or present next year. For me, there’s no sense in filling my year on the job market with commitments that are counterproductive to my success in landing a non-academic job.

So we don’t have to feel stuck or even clueless. As you can see, this has been a process for me. But taking ownership of my post-graduate life has and continues to be empowering. Let’s use what we do know and approach those at our university and elsewhere that can help us prepare for the next chapter in our professional lives.


* You probably are doing some, all, or more than what I described above. The point here is to be more intentional about creating an organized accessible network of resources tailored just for you to put into full use when you are ready to apply for jobs. And for those with family obligations and/or full-time jobs outside of the university, perhaps carving out some time over holiday breaks is a more reasonable alternative.

Noaquia Callahan is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Iowa. She studied sociology and German at California State University of Long Beach and the University of Munich. Her research interests include African American and modern European history, women’s history, transnational feminist organizing, and race and empire. When Noaquia is not working on her dissertation, she can be found in one of Iowa City’s second-hand stores looking for rare jazz vinyl records, at a coffee shop, watching NBA games, and boxing at Title Boxing Club.


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