Finding meaningful, steady employment after graduating from any degree is hard. Doing so after completing a PhD is, arguably, harder. At age 30, I did not want to begin again. I certainly did not want to be an intern. I wasn’t lost: I had found my “passion” and I knew who I was. I simply wasn’t willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to pursue academia. In short, I wanted to settle down and start a family in the city where my partner and I had built our life together.
This wasn’t something I spontaneously realized upon graduating. I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be especially mobile and that this would severely limit my academic job options. That awareness led me to take on numerous part-time jobs during my PhD in an effort to earn some money and build my skillset and network.
I was stunned when the best that network and skillset could offer me was an internship.
Here’s the thing: some human resources departments have no idea what to do with a PhD. The only way for me to get a job was through connections and, in this case, my best connection convinced HR that a PhD graduate could be categorized as a spectacularly awesome student/new grad and thus a great last-minute addition to their company’s prestigious and competitive internship program. I was “lucky” to be an intern. At first, that was a really difficult pill for me to swallow, but here’s the thing: I actually was lucky.
If you make the most of it, an internship can be a fantastic opportunity. Yes, it is the lowest rung on the ladder, but it is by definition short-term (so you can keep reminding yourself that this isn’t your life forever) and a learning experience. That second part is key. I took my internship as an opportunity to learn. I had never worked in a giant company before, and had never done any digital media or publishing work before. I also found my day-to-day tasks to be insufficient to keep me busy. So, I scoured the company directory for people with interesting job titles and sent out emails introducing myself and asking if we could meet to talk about their position and if there were any small projects I could take on for them. Nearly everyone said yes. My goal was to build my network and learn about different business roles (many of which I never even knew existed) that I could potentially pursue in the future. I kept a notebook with the names, titles, and contact information of everyone I spoke to and added everybody on LinkedIn.
Then, one day, I started to experience morning sickness. Or should I say, all day sickness.
As my belly began to expand, these networking meetings became more and more frantic. I really, really wanted to nail down a “real job” before people found out I was pregnant.
Unfortunately, academia is not the only industry that eats its young.
During the recruitment process for my internship, the program leaders kept stressing that many interns end up staying with the company. And, it’s true that in my year several did. But, we weren’t offered stable jobs. Instead, our hourly rate was upped by a couple of dollars and our contracts extended a few months at a time. When I received that offer I was visibly pregnant and didn’t have many other options, and so I stayed with the company until close to my due date.
Honestly, I felt hopeless and trapped, and I worried it had all been a waste. But no learning and relationship building experience is ever truly a waste of time. It turned out that one of my colleagues had spoken to his wife over dinner about my skills and hard work. She was a senior at a consulting firm. She reached out, we met, and now I am working with her. Not as an intern, not as a junior, but as a full-fledged management consultant.
Beginning again as an intern at 30 (and pregnant!) was hard and, to be honest, kind of embarrassing. But, until more non-academic employers understand the meaning and value of a PhD, many more of us will likely have to start at the bottom as I did. Much of the discussion surrounding non-academic career paths focuses on universities preparing graduate students for work outside of academia. In my experience, graduate students are ready for non-academic work – it’s the non-academic job market that isn’t ready for us. I believe that universities need to do more to partner and communicate with industry leaders to educate them about the value PhD graduates can bring to their organizations. Until that happens, I’m sure I won’t be the last intern with a PhD.
Elissa Gurman is a PhD graduate from the department of English at the University of Toronto, as well as a consultant at MacPhie management consulting.