Should I? Professional Development for PhD Students

Now for a little exercise.

You've entered a PhD program (in science, mass communication, political science - you name it). You are in your second year, and right on track with coursework and student-lead research projects. You've got a conference or two under your belt, 2-3 research paper ideas, and perhaps even a single research paper submitted to a scholarly journal (with your fingers crossed).

You are feeling good about your progress, but your professors think you could have your head more in the research-game, working on research papers jointly with other students, submitting to more conferences, spending summers fast-tracking your research paper ideas into publications for conference or academic journal submission. But perhaps you've got other plans. You've taken a summer internship outside of academia, and you've got your eyes set on a funding opportunity for professional development. Perhaps you are a science communicator, and you spend time outside of class (and perhaps away from the bench / research projects) blogging, writing for your university newspaper, participating in community outreach projects and researching and writing editorial articles for a science magazine.

Are you 'off-track' for a job in the Ivory Tower? Are your peers who are going to get jobs as academic research faculty spending more time on research papers and academic conferences? When it comes time to interview for research-based academic positions, will potential university employers look at your PhD record and see someone who is a bit 'all over the place' and not committed to rigorous research output?

It might be helpful to look at some statistics. According to the Social Science PhDs—Five+ Years Out survey by the Center for Innovation and Research in Graduate Education:

- 6 to 10 years post-PhD, 63% of social science PhDs surveyed were tenure-track or tenured professors, 19% held other kinds of jobs at colleges and universities, and 18% worked in business, government, and non-profit sectors.

- Respondents often felt their PhD program had neglected career preparation, socialization into the academic community, and writing and publishing.

- Reflecting the usefulness of doctoral study in the social sciences, respondents in all disciplines and job categories rated as “very important” in their current jobs: critical thinking, data analysis and synthesis, and writing and publishing.

- Respondents often viewed their programs as failing to train them well in research design and writing and publishing.

- Competencies not traditionally central in PhD programs were very important in many respondents’ jobs—including team work, communication skills, working in interdisciplinary contexts, and managing people.

Some of the main points that I take away from this are that there are many PhDs in non tenure-track positions (around 40% and perhaps even more, considering that the survey admits a bias toward surveying PhDs in academic positions), and that doing all the right things within your doctoral program doesn't necessarily equip you with all the skills need for either non-academic or academic careers.

But this still doesn't tell me if I am doing the right thing by taking time away from extra research projects / papers to dedicate to opportunities for professional development. I will go ahead and admit that I am extremely open to any opportunity that crosses my path. Personally. I'm in a graduate assistant position related to science writing for my university (science PR), I write for science magazines (science journalism), and I participate in outreach projects in science education. I'll be interning this summer at a science museum in North Carolina (science journalism, science education, and more). I have my eyes set on a fellowship in environmental journalism that provides funds for a year-long in-depth environmental reporting project. For my PhD, I conduct research projects in environmental communication / public opinion. I love my classes in political psychology, media effects, public opinion and data analysis (statistics). I'm a quantitative research methods fanatic. When I graduate, I think I'd be equally open to an academic research position as a position outside of academia that involves science communication as well as research.

I'd love to know what employers of social science PhDs, both inside and outside academia, look for. Mostly research experience? Lots of professional experience? Both?

I suppose the answer is, "it depends."

According to the Columbia University Center for Career Education, "the number of tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities continues to decrease, [while] careers outside of academia are an increasingly exciting and rewarding option for PhD graduates." From higher ed. administration, to consulting, to nonprofits, to academic and non-academic publishing, to professional research and government positions, to start-ups and independent work, there are tons of alternative career options of PhDs.

But if you are a PhD student who spends a lot of time on professional development, are you sacrificing a career as an academic research faculty member, or making in harder for yourself to get there? On the other side, if you focus predominantly on extra conference papers and research papers, what are you sacrificing in terms of transferable skills and professional experience?

I'm not sure what the answer is. It will certainly taking looking over job postings to see what employers (both inside and outside of academia) look for. But for some reason, I just can't seem to turn down the many opportunities I have for professional development and science communication experience in a variety of fields/functions.

Am I too much "all over the place?" I suppose time will tell. I sure hope I can find and qualify for the job I want when I graduate, whether it is science communication outside of academia or science comm research in a university position.

As a PhD student, how much time should you spend taking professional development opportunities vs. cranking out extra conference research papers and publications? What about doing what makes you happy in the meantime? Should we even be looking at these as trade-offs?

Feedback welcome!!!!