Moments and Milestones: The Power of Story in Your Career

by Sharon Fleshman

Recently, I went to a talk on professional development given by a professor.  The day was overcast with plenty of liquid sunshine, so I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of walking across campus to attend. But I’m glad that I did.   First off, lunch was provided (always a good thing).   More importantly, the professor opened by noting that he would share three stories from his life that have informed his career.  Something about that resonated with me.  He could have simply offered three principles, yet he framed his remarks so that the principles emerged out of his defining moments. I found that this was so much more memorable and formative for my own learning. 

As my colleague Tiffany Franklin suggests that you invest in professional development, let me also suggest that you do so as a collector of stories. As you reflect on your defining moments, you will recall pivotal life lessons and milestones that will help you remember what matters, learn from your successes and failures, and navigate your career going forward.

Are You Investing in Yourself?

Tiffany J. Franklin, Associate Director

Congratulations 2017 Graduates! As you celebrate your accomplishments at Penn and take your next steps into the world, whether it’s working full-time, graduate and professional school, volunteering, or travel, it’s a good idea to consider how you will continue to grow as a professional after Penn. For years, you’ve had structured syllabi for classes and countless resources to help you grow just steps from Locust Walk. Now, as you embark on your new life, it’s up to you to ensure your continued growth and to provide structure to the ambiguous endeavor known as professional development.

Why bother with professional development?

Before getting into the how of professional development, let’s talk about the why. Professional development is an investment in yourself. It’s making sure you continue to build skills and remain relevant as the world shifts around you. It’s about staying on top of your game so you can be an agent of change rather than a person reacting to change and trying to keep up.

As a student at Penn, you were all about the possibilities and pondering how you could make your mark on the world in numerous ways. No matter how many years pass since your commencement, never stop asking yourself that question. Keep learning so you can give your future self choices. Do things today that you will thank yourself for in a few years.

Where to begin…

  • Attend Conferences – These are great venues to meet other professionals in the field, learn best practices, gain insights into the future direction of an industry, and meet people in your field.
  • Read industry publications and general business news – Staying informed will help you perform your current job better and is helpful for networking situations, brainstorming, and future interviews.
  • Attend Networking functions Get to know people when you are not looking for a job. Building professional relationships now will make your life much easier for down the road when you are ready to switch positions and call upon some of these contacts.
  • Identify mentors both inside and outside your field. Find people with career paths you admire and see if they are willing to share advice about what has worked for them. Check out QuakerNet to find Penn alumni within every field imaginable. Conduct informational interviews to learn more.
  • Look for dream positions. What skills do you need for those? Where’s the gap between what you can do now and what you will need to do that job? How can you work on that in the meantime? Perhaps taking a course on coding through or a workshop/course at a local college to build your skills.
  • Pay attention to your hobbies and interests. Perhaps your hobbies are just that – distractions for fun that you never want to monetize. But, sometimes there’s more to it. There are stories of many entrepreneurs who turned a blog they started on the side into something that later became their primary source of income. This takes a lot of time and energy, but with commitment, it’s another possibility. Keep in mind that not every interest you pursue has to make sense or relate to your career. When Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class for fun, did he expect it would inform his design aesthetic for wildly successful products at the company he would build?


Keep in mind that Career Services is here for Penn Alumni and we can help you come up with a professional development plan tailored to you. As new grads, this is the best time to develop good habits (investing in a retirement plan, professional development) that will benefit you for years to come.

Congratulations on Graduation!!! Now, About Paying Rent…

Mylène Kerschner, Associate Director

Congratulations Class of 2017!!!! You have worked so, so hard for this and there is so much to celebrate! You’ve accomplished an amazing thing, and you should be proud. I hope you’re excited about your next steps. (Side note: if you’re still uncertain about those next steps, or need any guidance, Career Services is here! We are open all summer and are happy to meet with you to discuss your path!)

Now, I know at Penn it is especially tempting to compare your post-grad plans with those of your classmates. And of course, you know that your friends who went to Wall Street or to those well-known consulting firms are going to be bringing in big paychecks. By comparison, if you’re working in an industry with a different salary structure or if you’re living in a particularly expensive part of the world, you might have some anxiety about how to make ends meet out in the real world.

First of all, a reality check for those who might be feeling “less than” for not pursuing a career in finance or consulting. Your friends may be earning big bucks, but they are also putting in big hours. Maybe you’re bringing home less week to week, but maybe you’re also paid hourly, and your organization restricts how many hours you can be on the clock so they don’t have to pay out a ton of overtime. Or maybe the actual work you’d be performing in a finance or consulting role seems incredibly tedious to you, and instead you’ve found a role at a non-profit whose mission you’re passionate about with exciting projects and interesting colleagues. But of course on average, non-profits pay a little less than big corporations. Or maybe working entertainment is your dream, and you understand that you have to put in some time performing under-paid grunt work before you can become the next Shonda Rhimes (or go to a lot of auditions before you arrive as Penn’s next Elizabeth Banks)!

For many reasons, your first job out of college might not pay exactly what you were hoping it would. But that’s okay! I’m here to tell you: there is no shame in taking on a second job, especially if you can find one you enjoy. After I graduated from the University of Richmond and started working in Career Services, I still kept working a few shifts a week as a server at a country club. I knew the members, I had a great time with my coworkers, and I liked having a physical job that got me out from behind a desk. I didn’t really have to go to the gym because running around to check on my tables and carrying a ton of plates was a full-body workout. I enjoyed the work itself, it was nice getting a little bonus around the holidays, and let’s be honest: I had student loans to pay off. They weren’t crippling, but I had a monthly bill slated forever, before I’d even purchased a single thing. Those few shifts at the country club gave me some breathing room (and kept me from spending more money because I was busy with work!).

It doesn’t have to be waiting tables. Are you a morning person who likes hanging out at a coffee shop after you purchase your daily chai? Consider working there for a short shift in the mornings and perfecting your foam art.

Find it hard to resist the latest fashion trends? Retail could be a fun option (plus, employee discounts). Prefer something quieter? There’s always freelance work. It also doesn’t need to be something with regularly-scheduled hours. You can find temporary or part-time work through a staffing firm or a temp agency (Check out GoinGlobal’s US City Guides via our online subscriptions page for lists of temp agencies in a wide range of cities) And it may sound silly, but even babysitting can be an easy gig – especially if the kids go to sleep right after their parents head out. You can make money just providing peace of mind to a couple in need of a night out! There is zero shame in getting paid to do what you’d likely be doing at home anyway: scrolling through BuzzFeed’s list of 14 Times the Container Store Went Too Far…how did you even get to this page?

And! Aside from maybe the babysitting, the experiences you will gain in these roles will be incredible fodder for interviews as you advance in your professional life. Dealing with a difficult client? Meeting someone’s high expectations? Managing fifteen different things at a time and finding a way to prioritize? Check, check and check! Boy do you have stories to tell.

Now that last one, “managing fifteen different things at a time and finding a way to prioritize?” That probably sounds familiar to you. You graduated from Penn. You’re a hard worker. You juggled academics and volunteering and clubs and social activities here on campus. Likely, you could work two jobs after graduation and still have more free time than you did when you were living in University City! Except in this scenario, you’ll actually be getting paid for all that hard work!


Endings and Beginnings

Patricia Rose, Director

Cartoon courtesy Jon Youshaei, COL/WH ’13

Another academic year over: how did the time go so fast? For those of you who are not receiving your degrees on Monday, have a great summer. For those of you who are graduating, good luck on your next steps, whatever they may be. For some of you, next year may be an interlude, a chance to catch your intellectual breath, or to undertake a research project, or to do work where you can give back and make a difference. For others, the next step is not short term; it is a first “real” job or another degree program. You may be following your passion, or hoping to find your passion. Others may just be hoping this new job or new course of study won’t be too difficult; they are apprehensive.

In our experience, the shape of one’s career becomes clear only in retrospect. Something that you view as a fill-in-the-gap experience leads to a lifetime of involvement and passion. Something you are convinced will be your life’s work turns out to be not so very satisfying after all. Whatever the case will be for you, know that your Penn education has prepared you well for a world of challenges and change. Careers are iterative and develop not vertically like the proverbial ladder, but in a zig zag fashion. Please know that those of us in Career Services are here to help you, now and in the coming years as you strive to figure out the next step, and the one after that. We believe in you and what you are poised to accomplish. On behalf of everyone in the office, congratulations on your graduation!

How to Talk to Your Adviser about Alt-Ac

By Alison Howard

Alison Howard is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. As the Graduate Outreach Fellow at Career Services, she helps PhD students and post-docs explore non-faculty careers

Congratulations! You’ve decided to exit the ivory tower and begin your quest for non-faculty jobs. Or maybe you’re still committed to landing that coveted tenure-track position but are nonetheless interested in exploring expanded careers. For most students, discussing these life choices with their adviser is as appealing as a day in the Augean stables. But you needn’t wake up in a cold sweat each night, agonizing over “the talk.” We’ve compiled some essential information on when to broach the subject, how to prepare for the conversation, and how to turn your adviser into an ally when transitioning to a new career.

When to bring it up

This one is open to debate, but most professors agree that earlier is better. As Brenda Bethman and C. Strong Longstreet write, “If you are at the end of your degree, you probably do not want to surprise your adviser with what might seem an abrupt change of intent, or worse, that you are sneaking behind his or her back. Your adviser is an important reference, no matter for which position you will apply.” However, if you’re concerned that telling your adviser will lead to reduced support from your department or will negatively impact your funding, it’s okay to wait. If possible, try to enlist the help of former students from your department who’ve gone the alt-ac route in order to gauge how faculty members are likely to respond.

If you have a good relationship with your adviser, you can probably broach the subject as soon as you begin to contemplate non-faculty careers. At the latest, a conversation should happen by the time you’re applying for jobs (probably at the beginning of your final year of grad school). I made the mistake of simply avoiding my adviser in hopes of delaying “the talk” indefinitely, until he finally cornered me on a bus and asked about my job market plans. Needless to say, I wasn’t able to deliver a compelling justification of my career choices amidst the bumps and jolts of public transportation.

How to prepare for “the talk”

Don’t underestimate the emotional toll this kind of conversation can take. Think about what you need in order to mentally prepare. Maybe you need to meditate first, or dance around the living room, blaring pop anthems until you’re properly hyped. Maybe you need to role-play so you aren’t making things up in the heat of the moment. If you can find an ally on your committee or in your department, practicing with them is a great place to start. If not, ask a friend or fellow student (and your cat will do in a pinch). Whatever your particular strategy, it’s okay to take some time to prepare.

L. Maren Wood recommends making a list of your push/pull factors. The push factors are the reasons you’re leaving academia: the state of the academic job market, financial obligations, geographical limitations. Most advisers will understand that family, personal, and financial pressures can limit your career choices, so focus on those.

Pull factors are the reasons you’re attracted to another career. As Wood explains, “Pull factors are […] a chance for you to be positive about your graduate-school experience and highlight the possibilities awaiting you outside academe.” For example, you might communicate that, although you enjoy teaching, you’re interested in a career where you can reach a broader audience. Perhaps you’ve engaged in community-based research as part of your graduate work and would like to explore careers in community outreach or social services. Or you may prefer to do research full time, without the teaching and administrative responsibilities of a tenure-track position.

Finally, make sure you’ve spent some time researching your options. Do informational interviews, talk to alumni, and investigate companies or organizations you’re interested in—then come prepared to share what you’ve learned with your adviser. This conversation is your chance to demonstrate that you’re not running away from academia, but rather toward something else. The more concrete you can be about the opportunities you’ve discovered, the better.

Keep it positive!

There are countless reasons for wanting to explore alt-ac careers, and you should be honest with your adviser about your motivations. However, it’s best to focus on the positive potential of a new career, rather than complaining about research, teaching, colleagues, or the job market (even if those things really are terrible). Longstreet and Bethman recommend that you “frame your alt-ac career options as an organic extension of your talents and interests; this will make your conversation much more productive.”

One former PhD writes:

My leaving had everything to do with my realization that my ideal job involved both a different path and different set of tasks than the Ph.D. provided. While I valued my experiences and training, I realized I no longer wanted to do research. This made my leaving a lot easier for the faculty to process. Many of the people who questioned my leaving were not trying to undermine my decision, they simply wanted to make sure I had thought everything through. Many felt shocked and surprised by my decision, and felt obligated to ask about how I arrived at my choice. Several alluded to the fact that I was a successful graduate student, and seemed genuinely perplexed that someone who was not having problems would chose to leave. If you decide to quit don’t be shocked or upset if people ask why. Understand that questioning does not mean that you are being judged for your decision.

Don’t forget to consider your adviser’s emotions, too. As Doug Kalish explains, “You need to be careful not to represent your decision as a repudiation of their career choice. Be alert for signs that your adviser is feeling rejected or defensive, and go to lengths to assure them this decision is about you, not them.” Again, the goal is not to denigrate your PhD program—even if you had a negative experience.

Finally, don’t feel like you need to apologize for your decision. Jena Pitman-Leung acknowledges that you may feel guilty or like you’ve disappointed your adviser, but even if you get a less-than-supportive response, it’s important to stay positive. She recommends presenting the news as an exciting career transition, not as a backup plan. “The more self-reflection you do ahead of time and the more confident you are in your decision, the easier this will be.”

 The emotional aftermath

Think about what you need in order to recover afterwards, whether it be time alone, a good cry, or a drink with friends. No matter how well it goes, it’s going to be stressful, so allow yourself the time and space to cope.

Finally, Doug Kalish advises students to “seek out help if you need it. If, after having a conversation with your adviser, you feel that things haven’t gone well, then it’s best to find some support. If your department has a graduate or career counselor, enlist their help. Sympathetic faculty or alumni are also a good resource. Failing these options, most colleges have an ombudsperson on campus to handle situations like this.”

A happy ending?

Lest we end on a dismal note, it’s always possible that your adviser will not only be understanding but also helpful as you begin your alt-ac job search. Odds are, they know former students or colleagues who have successfully made the switch and would be happy to connect you with those contacts. Though some advisers are still painfully oblivious to the dire state of the academic job market, others are more realistic and are therefore invested in helping students land positions in a wide range of industries.

As Wood writes:

Instead of being hostile, it’s more likely that your advisers will encourage you to keep applying for teaching jobs because you are fabulous and talented. They may see your nonacademic quest as temporary. That’s a benign fantasy on their part, and a compliment. It means they value your academic work. Tolerate their academic fantasies about your future, so long as they are also supporting you in your nonacademic career explorations.

At the very least, you can rest easier knowing that countless PhDs have initiated this same conversation with their advisers—and survived to tell the tale.

If you’re interested in learning more about your career options, we encourage you to explore the Career Services website or make an appointment with a Career Services adviser by calling 215.898.7530. We can help you identify resources and opportunities to aid in your career exploration and job search.