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Ph.D. Connections: A Career Conference

The Challenge

Ph.D.s have long pursued diverse careers. Rackham career outcomes data shows that five years after graduation, about a third of Rackham Ph.D. graduates are in tenure-track positions, while significant percentages also pursue careers in business, government, higher education, and nonprofits. Recent graduating cohorts (2013 graduates and later) show continuing downtrends in graduates who end up in tenure-track positions, and during the same period, the number of Ph.D.s in careers beyond the professoriate has grown across the disciplines.

How can we best support our doctoral students in exploring diverse careers? Many Ph.D. students rarely have the opportunity to connect with Ph.D.s working in diverse fields. Our goal was to design a multidisciplinary, campus-wide event to connect doctoral students to Ph.D. professionals working in a wide range of fields that employ Ph.D.s.

Our Approach

In 2017, Rackham Graduate School, the University Career Center, and the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at Michigan Medicine collaborated on a one-day career conference designed to support doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in their exploration of career paths beyond the professoriate.

Our conference planning group sought to design an event that would:

  • increase participants’ knowledge about the breadth of career opportunities available to Ph.D.s
  • increase participants’ knowledge of the critical skills and competencies in career fields of interest
  • provide exposure to Ph.D. professionals who have gained entry into different fields
  • increase participants’ hopefulness about their career prospects
  • increase participants’ confidence moving forward in their next steps in their career
  • tangibly illustrate to participants that U-M supports their career planning process

Thus far, Rackham has hosted two conferences in April 2018 and 2019. Ph.D. students and postdoctoral fellow participants learned about non-faculty career opportunities through interactive sessions (i.e., simulations and case studies), panel presentations and workshops focused on career exploration and job search preparation. Participants attended career sector-based sessions that were held throughout the day. Each session included Ph.D. alumni from diverse disciplinary and social identity backgrounds. Industries represented included:

  • academic administration
  • biotech and pharma
  • consulting
  • data science
  • entrepreneurship
  • finance
  • government
  • healthcare
  • nonprofit
  • technology

Students also took part in workshops designed to assist them in their job search process. Topics included:

  • strategies for talking to your advisor about your career
  • identifying and communicating your skills
  • job negotiation strategies
  • designing possible career paths and preparing for informational interviews

Throughout the day, there was informal networking time for participants to make connections with the over 30 Ph.D. professionals participating in conference events.

What We’ve Learned


  • Pre/post program evaluation data shows progress on all learning objectives
  • Ph.D. alumni feel valued and are excited to share their career experiences with current graduate students and postdoctoral fellows
  • Engaging faculty leaders on the planning committee has helped establish career diversity allies in departments and programs


  • The number of Ph.D. alumni in southeast Michigan who work in the full range of employment fields is limited, and there are significant costs associated with bringing in large numbers of diverse alumni from across the country
  • Recruiting students to participate is a challenge because many departments and programs remain unaware of this event.

Next Steps

Ph.D. Connections is scheduled to take place again in April 2020. The planning committee welcomes suggestions from departments on industries to represent and names of guests who may be interested in serving as presenters.


Rackham Graduate School


Laura Schram, Director of Graduate Student Professional and Academic Development


To learn more visit the Rackham Career Development page.