Teaching Career Diversity through Informational Interviews
“But I don’t like talking to living people! Can’t I just research careers online?” More than a few appalled reactions met my announcement that we would use informational interviews with historians working in different settings as the primary information-gathering technique in my class. Three years ago, as a newly installed director of graduate studies, I was tasked with revamping the professionalization class for the graduate program in the Department of History at the University of Washington. In response to changing student needs, we had decided to remake what was originally a loosely structured series of workshops into a required class that would focus more explicitly on preparing graduate students for multiple career paths.
I decided to ask our graduate students, faculty, and recent alumni what they felt a professionalization class that focuses on Career Diversity should accomplish. Several excellent suggestions poured in, regrettably too many to fit into the short 10-week quarter. Graduate students who had recently entered the academic job market expressed regret that they had not thought about these issues earlier. Others, still doing course work, reminded me of the staggering work load they already shouldered, and how they did not want to add to it.
Faculty were very comfortable offering advice about academic careers, but felt underqualified to advise anyone about other career paths. Alumni who had successfully navigated fulfilling careers in nonacademic fields were clear that simply “shadowing” professionals, having unpaid internships, or repurposing academic CVs had not helped them reach their current positions. To be serious contenders for their jobs, they had to demonstrate mastery over skills and acquire some job experience prior to finishing their degrees. They recommended intentional planning in the early stages of the PhD program, followed by some paid part-time work either over summers or during the final stages of the degree.
Faculty were comfortable offering advice about academic careers, but felt underqualified to advise anyone about other career paths.
Dismayed by what seemed to be conflicting advice, I sat down to draft my syllabus. As I wrote, it dawned on me that my conversations with multiple groups of historians were precisely what students in the new professionalization class needed to hear. I had to reimagine professionalization as a process where graduate students engaged in conversations with mentors in a wide variety of fields early in their careers. With advice, the students could set individualized goals for themselves.
These kinds of “mini-mentoring” opportunities had value, but I needed to make it explicit to the students in my class. I had to find a way to make conversations with mentors serve not just the students’ long-term needs of career preparation, but also the short-term concerns they agonized over—preparing grant applications, coping with the social isolation of graduate research, seeking funding for the summer, or participating in conferences and professional networks early in their careers while combatting imposter syndrome.
Colleagues in other programs confirmed that these kinds of anxieties were common in their programs as well. Some graduate students were exceptionally good at navigating these on their own, while others were uncertain about where to start, and reluctant to ask for help. Our career center had recently launched workshops on informational interviews, primarily for undergraduates, but I could see how this format could be flexible enough to serve multiple needs. In fact, when querying peers about how to write grant proposals or try a new digital platform, most students were already informally using techniques used in informational interviews. With some additional tweaks, such conversational interactions could help them reach beyond their intimate circles to ask other historians and professionals about careers, grants, skill-training, and finding mentors in nonacademic jobs.
This was how informational interviews became the core of the new professionalization class. Every student who takes the class is asked to interview three history PhDs in different careers; only one can be an academic. To cast their net wide, I offer to introduce them to a now-growing list of former students, colleagues, and professionals around the country who have volunteered to serve as mentors. I also encourage students to sign up with AHA Career Contacts. During the quarter, the class also role plays networking at conferences and other professional gatherings. They brainstorm how to adapt informational interviews for successful peer mentoring and addressing concerns like work-life balance, improving communication with committees, or finding more efficient ways to prepare for oral exams or finish dissertations. Throughout the quarter, students in the class report back what they have learned from these interviews and informal conversations.
Informational interviews can offer genuine moments of connection with possible mentors.
In class we discuss the pros and cons of different career options from the perspective of individual students, while discussing what concrete forms of skills training, part-time job experience, or references might be necessary to pursue a particular career. Many of these conversations identify portable skills that match with multiple career options. At the end of the quarter, graduate students write a formal report on three interviews and identify two different careers they would like to continue exploring in the coming years. They also workshop academic CVs and professional resumes oriented to these specific goals. These are matched with a written plan of how they will use their remaining time in the program to be credible applicants for BOTH academic and nonacademic career tracks, seeking paid internships or part-time work in the near future. Every year at the end of the class, students have reported in surveys that they feel better prepared for a multi-track job search and that they are more aware of the many career options they have than they were in the past.
Three years of teaching this class has clarified which approaches work well with this program design, and which do not. From the very first year it was clear that as an instructor I had to emphasize that we as a group would not devalue any of the career options that participants in the class wished to explore. Many graduate students also viewed “networking” negatively. Actual conversations with our generous volunteers, however, reinforced the ways in which such conversations can offer genuine moments of connection with possible mentors. Some informants made very helpful and concrete suggestions regarding what the next steps in exploring a career should be and also offered to introduce students to other professionals.
Interviews also brought home the sobering perspective of how many professions, including academia, function on short-term contracts, and how having multiple skills and wide networks of support were key to transitioning successfully from one track to another. I will likely only know the true success of this class in the decades of come, but in the short term the considerably greater numbers of our graduate students successfully finding grants, new mentors, paid jobs, and internships is a hopeful sign for the future. While this strategy is not a magic bullet—job outcomes for history PhDs will continue to change with bigger global trends in the labor market—it teaches a strategy for how to become resilient, find new mentors, and achieve diverse goals.
Purnima Dhavan is an associate professor of history in the Department of History at the University of Washington, Seattle. Her areas of specialization include early modern South Asia, history of Islam, and environmental history.
Her syllabus for “Orientation to a Career in History” is available here.
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