Every time I get a new research student, I ask them what they want to do after they graduate. I want to help them achieve their goals. Invariably, it goes like this.

Me: What do you want to do after you graduate?

Student: I don't know.

Me: Make an appointment with career services. They are experts in helping you make career plans. The earlier you plan, the greater your chance of success.

One month passes.

Me: Did you go to career services?

Student: No

I have never worked outside academia. How can I improve on this process which has been failing miserably?

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    These are adults - it's their responsibility to care for their career; you are a mentor, but not their daddy or mummy. You can give them the advice once or twice; but, if they do not use it, do not repeat it until they ask you on their own, once the question has bobbed up into their awareness. Responsibility is a "matched contributions" game. Commented May 28, 2017 at 8:51
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    Are these PhD students? AFAICT most physics students pursuing a PhD want to do research, and they also realize that success at that goal has a fairly low probability due to the mismatch between the number of degrees awarded and the number of permanent positions available. They haven't done any research yet, and they have no way of knowing how they will stack up against the competition. I don't see what would be accomplished be hectoring them about making plans at a stage where they don't yet have the information they would need to know what their options will be.
    – user1482
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 20:27
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I have many of my students achieve quite successful careers. Quite a few make a point of letting me know how far they got and tend to keep in touch; that includes all levels of degrees. I would take that as a signal that they consider me a good mentor. But I believe that one needs to respect the students' own boundaries and not impose one's own values on them. Overeagerness in mentoring beyond the student's ambition or readiness is likely to be counterproductive. Commented May 29, 2017 at 0:42
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    Student: I don't know. -- For a new student, this is the best possible answer. How could they possibly know what they want to do after they graduate before they have done any research? It's the students that think they have their lives planned out decades in advance that I worry about.
    – JeffE
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 14:42
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    Let me just add one comment from the perspective of a student whose supervisor did not care at all what I did after graduating: thank you for thinking about this.
    – cheersmate
    Commented May 28, 2021 at 7:32

3 Answers 3


You do not mention if your research students are graduate or undergraduate students.

First consider the extent to which career services at your university may or may not be helpful for your students. For instance, it may be helpful for resume and cover letter writing or interview strategies. However, it is designed for the whole student body and many not be helpful in pointing students in a specific discipline into a career path. So, they may not value career services as a resource for learning about future careers.

Second, it may be that your students have a narrow definition of what types of jobs there are in your field or what type of work is involved with different types of jobs. Your students may be open to learning more, but are unsure what questions to ask or where to research job opportunities. This may also be why students are more likely to look into job opportunities later in their education, than early in their education. They know more later about the field.

One suggestion to improve the process is to organize a seminar that includes faculty in your department and local professionals in your field to talk about careers in your field. Students will find this more inspiring and can learn more. You can make this a regular event (annual, each semester) and rotate the panelists so that students can see a variety of job opportunities and perspectives. I've seen this done in several disciplines and students seem to appreciate it. Also, since the panelists are basically discussing their own experiences, there is minimal prep for the people who volunteer.

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    The last paragraph is excellent. Commented May 28, 2017 at 15:21
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    The first two points aren't very relevant to my question. The third point would be a good suggestion to my department head. I can't assess the helpfulness of career services if students won't try them. Students seem to have no definition at all of what jobs are available. Commented May 29, 2017 at 0:13
  • The third point has been done at my university, so here a short warning: Make sure that you know beforehand what they will be talking about. We had a seminar called "mathematicians in industry", the students were all hoping to finally here someone telling them what all these things they learn are good for, but what they got was pure propaganda for the company and the jobs they offer. The only connection to math was that the speaker happened to hold a math degree...
    – Dirk
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 8:26
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    @Bemte- One way to avoid this is to have an online registration for students that includes a question about what they want to learn from the event. Then you can give talking points to the speakers ahead of time. Commented May 29, 2017 at 14:41

When I grade students' homeworks, and see that they consistently are missing answers to problems and thus making a low homework average, I will often suggest to them in written feedback or email that they attend office hours, study, and/or work practice exercises prior to the midterm. Some of them take that advice, but others don't and end up with a C average (or worse) on the exams and the class overall.

I think you're finding a similar situation here. You give students some advice on how to improve their careers, and they don't follow the advice.

It's our job to provide students with learning opportunities and environment, and advice, but ultimately the student has to take some actions of their own to succeed. Although it's tempting to take responsibility for our students' success, we can't make the choices for them.

Think back to when you were a student. What career support did you expect from your professors and advisors? If you're meeting those expectations, then you're doing your job here.

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    This does not answer the question. The last paragraph is terrible advice. Commented May 29, 2021 at 0:26

I think this is a conversation that should evolve over time. For a new PhD student in the US, who might be beginning a 5 year program, "what do you want to do after you graduate" is a big question and they may not know yet. I think it's worth asking, because some students may know and of course the earlier they know, the earlier you can give them concrete advice. It might be useful for you to give them your perspective on the pros and cons of different, common options -- of course you can emphasize this is just your perspective and they should seek out other opinions as well, and you aren't telling them what to do or judging them on their decisions. But I think just providing a framework and emphasizing this is an important thing to be thinking about early on -- even if the student doesn't know exactly what they want to do -- is already being supportive.

But there are still intermediate steps that can seem more attainable and real and still are useful even if they don't know what they want to do after graduation right away. For example: "you should be thinking about giving a good presentation and networking at your first conference. What are ways you can prepare for that?" Or, later on, "you should start thinking about who might be able to write you letters, and what are some ways you could get other faculty to know your work." These smaller-scale career-development conversations can naturally become larger ones over time, by building trust and establishing a language.

And I think it is worth revisiting the question of long-term career goals with the student regularly, say every 6 months to a year even for students who had a clear answer on day 1, since plans may change (actually, in general, "career development" discussions can even be more frequent depending on your relationship with your students, although these might be about smaller scale issues than "after graduation" talks). As a student approaches graduation, they will start to have to grapple with whether to continue as a postdoc or pursue industry opportunities. They will also have more information about how they like academia and their field, and what their skills are. Students approaching graduation may not feel comfortable telling their advisor they are thinking of leaving academia; if you want to be supportive, then making it clear that you want to support them regardless of their decision can be extremely valuable. Showing them to career services is certainly one track, but if you have colleagues who have changed fields, then putting your students in contact with these colleagues is also very valuable, since it is very hard to get good information about non-academic jobs from within academia. And, on the other side, for students that want to pursue a postdoc and tenure-track position, there are many steps that are valuable to take before writing job applications that students might not think about; starting a conversation 6 months before job application season starts might help prevent common pitfalls.

Of course it is also on the student to act on advice and take responsibility, but I think my overall feeling is that if you want to be a supportive advisor, having these kinds of conversations regularly, and trying to be as non-judgmental as possible and letting the student find their path in their own time, are good ways to help guide a student develop their own career.

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