Cover Story

As a psychology graduate student at Columbia University's Teachers College, Jill Denner, PhD, knew she didn't want to follow in her professors' footsteps. But she had no idea how to explore alternative career paths.

"It wasn't like I told my professors I didn't want to go into academia and they said 'Oh, how awful!'" she remembers. "It's just that there wasn't any discussion about what students would do after graduation."

A postdoctoral position at the University of California­Santa Cruz gave her the opportunity to do applied research with community-based organizations. But in 1998, as her postdoc grew to a close, she still did not know what kind of position would enable her to do applied research. Conversations with other recent grads led her to start cold-calling local organizations she thought might hire psychologists.

Fortunately, researchers at a nonprofit health-education organization called ETR Associates in Santa Cruz recognized the skills she gained in her academic training. Today Denner is a senior research associate conducting applied research on health behaviors at ETR.

Denner's job-hunting experience isn't unique. "Students interested in nontraditional careers whisper about it in the hallways or talk about it over beer during social hours," says Denner. "They're too ashamed to talk to their advisors."

The problem isn't unique to psychology programs, either. Almost half of the 6,529 science and engineering graduate students and recent PhDs who responded to a 1999 PhDs.org survey reported that their departments and universities failed to provide effective guidance to those seeking nontraditional careers. Sixty-three percent said their departments didn't tell them where recent graduates ended up. And 36 percent concluded that their departments weren't doing a good job preparing them for nontraditional careers.

Redefining success

As marketplace changes have made private practice less appealing and academic jobs harder to come by, an increasing number of psychology students have become interested in nontraditional careers. Many graduate programs are struggling to catch up.

In many cases, faculty aren't hostile to the idea of nontraditional careers. They simply aren't sure how to support students' interest.

"I don't think it's a question of professors not knowing about or not valuing other roles," says Cynthia Belar, PhD, executive director for education at APA. "It's more that faculty often feel they can best train people to do what they themselves are doing."

A lack of information isn't the only problem, however. Pressures within the academic environment itself may subtly push professors toward viewing their students as would-be clones of themselves. The problem is especially acute in big research universities, says Nancy K. Dess, PhD, a senior scientist in APA's Science Directorate.

Universities' incentive structures penalize faculty members whose students don't go on to be researchers, says Dess. One source of esteem for faculty members is how well their students do after graduation, she explains. That influences the way faculty members mentor their students and even what information they provide.

"At the top of the pecking order would be students who go on to tenure-track positions at Yale or the like," says Dess. "Although faculty members may view a well-paid position at a prestigious company or government agency as ranking above working at a community college, they still see academe as the noble profession."

Faculty members hoping for tenure or promotion may face additional difficulties. Tenure and promotion committees say they value teaching and the mentorship that goes along with it, says Dess, but what they value above all is research. Researchers may also need students focused on academic careers just to help them get the research done that they need for professional advancement.

Departments--and students themselves--need to face the fact that a very small percentage of graduates will go on to tenure-track positions, says Dess. At the bare minimum, programs should give students data about where graduates end up. Even better would be mentoring efforts that offer students information about alternatives. Ideally, she says, programs would redefine success so that alternative careers aren't viewed as something graduates settle for if they're not good enough for Harvard.

Students in practice-oriented programs face the same problems, says Carol Williams, associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS).

"Students are getting the message that they can no longer count on just hanging their shingle out and providing traditional psychotherapy," she says. "They know they need to do something different, but they don't know how to do something different."

A model program

Williams points to the department of educational and counseling psychology at the University of Missouri at Columbia as an example of a program that's doing things right. In fact, the department's openness to nontraditional careers is part of what prompted APAGS to grant the department its Department of the Year Award last summer.

At the most basic level, the department offers a series of professional development seminars that often includes speakers with nontraditional careers. Recent presenters have included psychologists working in the legislative arena and in the state's division of family services.

Collaborations with other departments or schools at the university also help students explore alternatives. According to professor and chair Dennis M. Kivlighan Jr., PhD, the department encourages students to think broadly when it comes to identifying specialty areas. As a result, one student with an eye on a career in the state department of mental health is pursuing a masters of public administration as well as a PhD in psychology. Other students have taken courses at the university's business school, law school and even journalism school.

The fact that faculty members themselves are exploring nontraditional options also sends a strong message to students, says Kivlighan. One faculty member is currently on leave conducting research on the media, for example.

"If we've done a good job at anything, it's been listening to our students," says Kivlighan. "We help them go about finding courses, programs or people who can help them get where they want to go."

Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading

  •  Bloom, D.F., Karp, J.D. & Cohen, N. (1998). The PhD Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences. Oxford University Press.

  •  Kreeger, K.Y. (1999). Guide to Nontraditional Careers in Science. Hemisphere Publications.

  • Sternberg, R.J. (1997). Career Paths in Psychology: Where Your Degree Can Take You. APA Books.