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Career Diversity Is a Process, Not an Identity

An Interview with Jennifer Teitle & Brady Krien

The core of graduate education — directing research, collaborating across networks, synthesizing new directions — is also at the heart of pursuing diverse career opportunities. How can these processes take root and grow within degree benchmarks and faculty advising relationships? Listen to Advisory Committee members Jennifer Teitle and Brady Krien of Iowa’s Graduate College in conversation with HPG’s Dominic Dongilli as they describe the habits of humanists who have broadened their opportunities to meet the needs of our complex world.

Listen & Read below:

Dominic: Academic careers are obviously not the same as they used to be 20 years ago. What do you see as some of the reasons for those changing career paths, and how might universities and departments respond to those broader systemic changes as they work to serve graduate students best in their programs?

Jennifer: Lenny Cassuto’s book The Graduate School Mess outlines the history behind today’s academic jobs struggles outlines so nicely, highlighting how Cold War investments in science and technology paved the way for investments in the humanities and social sciences. Cassuto talks about how there was a huge investment that came in the late Sixties, early Seventies. And that’s when we were needing far more faculty than we have ever needed before. The boomers were going to college. There is a great need, right? So we actually saw the funding bubble and the need happening during that period.

And then of course after that, we started to see some declines in state funding for state institutions, public institutions, like the University of Iowa. There’s also a significant decline in the population of students going to college. And Brady maybe will talk a little bit about some of that that’s coming down the pipe in the next few years, but of course that’s been happening already.

PhD students, they’re part of the research mission. PhDs are an amazing gift for faculty to have around and draw top faculty to an institution. They keep you inspired, they do work alongside you, they’re full of fresh ideas and interest and can help get the work done. If you’re talking about STEM, the work that you need for tenure might rely, in part, on those graduate students in your lab. For the humanities, it’s maybe a little more of a luxury, but graduate students bring a lot to faculty. Graduate students are a key part of the research and economic mission of the university. And faculty, well all of us, want grad students there, but of course they need to leave eventually.

So, we’re producing a lot of PhDs, far more than there are reasonably positions for, even if we hadn’t had the sort of economic decline that I described a moment ago, right? We’re producing so many, not because we’re thinking we’re excited to produce PhDs, but rather because it helps faculty, it helps the mission of the institution, the reputation of the institution. So we are graduating PhDs, but meanwhile state funding is declining, we have fewer students, and institutions have shifted to more non-TT labor, which is a related issue. All of these forces are coming together and making this a really difficult environment for PhDs who have always dreamed—or maybe once they got into graduate school decided to dream—of an academic job.

Brady: I would follow up with a book recommendation of my own. Len’s book is great. But looking forward, there’s a great book called Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education by Nathan D. Grawe. He models the impacts of demographic shifts on higher education over the next decade and beyond, focusing especially on the decline of the birth rate following the great recession in 2008. That starts to come in a serious way in 2026 to Universities, 18 years after 2008. Grawe looks at some of the changing demographic patterns and the impacts that they’re going to have on higher education. Some of the major sources of students—the really populous states that have really been a major feeder and driver of demand for higher education—they’re going to have classes that are significantly smaller and the demand is going to decrease.

And that creates significant problems for universities across the country, but especially universities here in the Midwest. This shift is going to change some of the dynamics of higher education and put pressure on some of those traditional tenure track jobs. But this also has the potential to create new kinds of opportunities for student support roles and student engagement roles that aren’t traditional faculty jobs, but are about supporting students, recruiting students, helping students who may come from backgrounds that haven’t traditionally had a great deal of access to higher education.

It’s not a one-for-one trade, but there are certainly some shifts coming that are actually going to be creating new kinds of opportunities, or expanding some existing opportunities, even as they foreclose others or limit some of those traditional tenure track jobs.

Dominic: Not to ignore the very real structural and material factors that have created this situation, but a part of what you’re talking about, Brady, is also facilitating this shift in perspective and broadening our views of what opportunities look like. That was something Amy Chen in your last Instagram live interview highlighted a part of her own developmental process — “letting go of her academic ego,” I think, was her phrasing. She might’ve been a little too harsh on herself. Perhaps it would be more apt to say “expanding the scope of her opportunities.” How do you advise graduate students and faculty to initiate that self-reflection process to change the limits of opportunities or think differently about the career options that PhD students have?

Brady: It’s a great question. One of the larger things that Amy was pointing to is academic culture, right? This includes the way work is valued and the way people are valued and appreciated in academic culture: publications, H-metrics, etc. Of course, this varies significantly from discipline to discipline, but academia has a fairly clear value structure that’s laid out in things like the requirements for a dissertation, promotion and tenure requirements. So, when you shift into a role that is about supporting others in those types of endeavors, that can be difficult, because that’s something that academic culture explicitly isn’t valuing in the same kinds of ways.

One of the things she was pointing to is the differences in culture, both between faculty and potentially staff roles and also between academia and industry, where there’s more emphasis on collaboration, on the success that one has as a team, rather than the things that one is producing individually. I think that’s one of the challenges, potentially, that academia has a very explicit culture and we’re all trained into that. So when you step outside of that, that can bring particular kinds of culture shock for graduate students, and challenges in adjusting to, understanding, and thinking about how your work has value, how it matters, even though it’s not necessarily going to be measured or seen in the way that academic work traditionally is.

Jennifer: I agree. I would always emphasize that getting a PhD is about, or has in the past been about, becoming an expert in a very narrow space. We defend our expertise, and we’re supposed to control it and hold it. And it’s singular. That doesn’t work in a lot of contemporary jobs that are about information economies, information sharing, and collaboration. There is, as Brady described, a deep tension. I wouldn’t say that the individual is not capable of making that shift, but it’s a painful shift, because what you’ve been taught to value and to recognize about yourself is something that you would then have to let go of a little bit, or see it shift, as Amy Chen described better than either one of us could.

Dominic: Thinking about this shift from singular expertise and singular responsibility to something more collaborative, how does that transfer over to graduate student advising and mentorship, itself? I know one of your big projects and efforts is to promote this idea of multiple mentorship, and the difference between an advisor and a mentor, and how we can structure these graduate student support systems to better foster this collaborative ethos of education.

Jennifer: There’s a lot of different definitions of mentoring. Mentoring is a sticky thing. I just sat on the mentoring committee for the University of Iowa, where we all got together, and there were folks from undergrad student success team talking about mentoring, and folks from the foundation, or the UI Center for Advancement, talking about mentoring. There were all these different perspectives. It was fascinating, because you come to it with, okay, well, this is what a mentor is to me. Then you hear everyone else’s ideas and you are reminded of how complicated this idea is across the university.

My frame is the graduate world, and our frame is much more extreme, much more hands-on than anyone else’s. For some, they may say , “We met a couple of times, they’re my mentor.” But speaking about it in a graduate student’s world and from a graduate student’s perspective, a mentor is often also your academic advisor—the two are considered the same.

They are your one and only and the individual that you’re working on with your thesis or your dissertation. They’re your guide for everything.

An advisor might be that guide, but sometimes you need more. Broadened career goals fit best with multiple career guides that can give you insight into different areas.

And mentors aren’t always who you’d expect. For example, mentors don’t need to be older, they don’t need to be more expert than you in every area. But they have something that they’re offering you, a facet of them that they can offer that’s a piece of something that you want to learn towards your career.  For example, the other day on Twitter, I think, I saw somebody say that everybody over 40 should have a mentor under 30. I can’t agree enough. I think of the people who teach me every day about a wide variety of things.

When we talk about multiple mentoring, what we’re asking students to do is to get a little more specific on what they would want from an individual mentor, to think deeply about what that mentor can offer. No mentor can offer everything. No one relationship can offer everything. What specifically could that mentor offer and how can you connect with them? And not only take advantage of that, but also feed back into it, right? To be a good mentee, because being a good mentee is something that you’re offering back. People love mentoring. It’s a wonderfully fulfilling activity. So when I talk about multiple mentors, it’s not that they all offer advice on your thesis—that sounds horrifying!— but that they might offer different things for your life and your ongoing career and professional journey.

Brady: I would echo a lot of that. Advisors may be mentors and you may have people who are mentors who aren’t your advisor or couldn’t ever advise you. Certainly, that’s been my experience. My advisor is a mentor and I’m incredibly fortunate to have a variety of other mentors as well. To echo that ‘it takes a village’ mentality, graduate students need a lot of support. It takes a lot to train someone to be an expert, to prepare them for the kinds of career opportunities they may want to pursue. Having multiple people working on that is important not only to provide the graduate student what they need, but also it can be deeply liberating and reassuring to the mentor as well that they’re not totally responsible. They’re not the one who’s solely responsible for guiding the success of this other person. That’s a lot of pressure. Knowing that there can be a team of people supporting a student, helping them navigate the complexity of graduate school—and of career options beyond graduate school—is  incredibly important for everyone involved. It leads to healthier relationships while still providing the supports that the graduate student needs, and also creating great relationships for mentors.

Dominic: For graduate students, what would you encourage them to do to reach out or to establish more purposeful, mentor-mentee relationships with people that they’ve identified as meaningful to their career development, especially if they’re outside of the university? What steps would you recommend or have seen be successful for graduate students that you’ve worked with?

Brady: Yes, it’s hard and a little bit nerve-wracking to reach out to someone and ask them for support or guidance, or even just to answer a question, cold, out of the blue, but it’s really important. People are actually very open to it often. Not every time—some emails will go unanswered and that’s the way that it works. But the worst that a person can say is no. Often I think it’s helpful to identify someone who has something meaningful to potentially contribute to your understanding of a career path, or a particular skill, and write them an email making that connection. So, not asking, ‘would you be my mentor,’ but starting with a conversation saying, ‘I’m really interested in this work you did on this,’ or ‘I’m really interested in this position that you have, this role at this university, it really aligns with some of the things that I’m interested in. I was wondering if you’d have some time to just chat over zoom, get virtual coffee, and tell me a little bit about your career experience and how you got into that role?’ And often just starting with that question, that brief conversation, can be enough. Because it’s something that builds over time. You may meet with them and figure out that they’re really not the best person to guide you or go forward, or it’s not a good fit, and that happens and that’s totally okay. You may meet them and really hit it off and end up chatting with them a bunch of times throughout the course of an average year, and getting great feedback and guidance, and maybe somewhere in between.

The key is to just take that first step to ask them for a small investment, a brief conversation, a chat, something that’s not going to take a ton of time and being very flexible in their schedule—and grounding it in a particular need or question or interest. ‘I’d really love to learn more about your career path.’ That’s the other key. People love to talk about themselves. They’re often way more willing to share their own experience, to talk about their own path than to give blanket advice, (although people do tend to really like giving advice as well). That can be a great way to start the conversation, and then you can just let it grow from there. It doesn’t necessarily take a ton of time or energy. It can be something that grows organically and that’s often the best way. You just need to take that first step and send that email or that LinkedIn message or that Twitter DM to make that connection. And I know you have this conversation with students all the time, Jen, including me several years ago, so I’m sure you have other things to add.

Jennifer: I think that’s perfect advice, and all the stuff that Brady said, doing the research, being light, I guess I would say— in Calvino’s sense, lightness—not overdoing your introduction, not worrying about it quite so much. You want to spell things correctly, but you don’t need to write them paragraphs and paragraphs, because it can feel just burdensome on the other end, right? So something light, and not asking for too much time at first till you can get to know them. And as Brady said, figure out if you might want to continue with this relationship, if it seems comfortable. I think it does become quite apparent.

And within yourself, I would recommend cultivating your own sense of fascination with other people, because I think this actually gets quite tamped down during graduate school. You’re very busy, you’re very focused. It’s as I said, we have a singular focus and maybe you never had, or maybe you forget sometimes, how to genuinely be interested in other people’s lives, careers, trajectories and all of that stuff. And I think authenticity is critical. You don’t have to fake it. You just have to work on cultivating having an actual interest in their career, not telling yourself, you know what, I guess I’ll learn what you do as my plan C, because some advisor told me I should, right? That makes for quite a boring interview, and I don’t think you’re going to get a mentor out of it.

You have to choose mentors that genuinely do make you excited. And to cultivate enthusiasm about somebody else, you have to do that research, think about them a little bit, think about what you like about how they do things. I think about the people I’ve wanted as mentors in my life that I’ve invited to coffee and try to keep up with, and they have very specific qualities that I would like to be like someday. This is not the topic of our conversation, but I do want to see how they tick, and how, when we’re talking, how they respond to things, because there are specific things I think about in myself that I would like to cultivate. And those things are fascinating in the people that I want to be my mentors. So that’s what I consider like a self practice, a practice of the self, to get yourself ready for doing that process. And having that outlook continuously, practicing that with yourself, can be useful for all kinds of networking, including informational interviews.

Dominic: We’ve talked about what graduate students can cultivate to pursue and design this experience, but now thinking about the role that faculty can play – no one can be everything for any one person, nor should they be expected to, but the student-faculty advisor relationship is built into degree progression and program. And I think faculty feel some tension because they know that they’re the designated, or recognized, advisor and they want to hold space for this more capacious exploration of careers and development, but they don’t necessarily know how to build that into the traditional ‘let’s meet halfway through the semester so we can approve you for registration and get you signed up for next semester’s classes’ set up. So, I was wondering if you had any advice or encouragement for faculty to hold space for these conversations, or encourage this train of thought for graduate students as they come in for this next round of registration meetings.

Jennifer: Faculty are the heart of graduate education. Faculty are the reason our graduate students are here. Faculty are the motivation, they’re everything behind graduate education. And most of them take that job very seriously. They know how much they matter to graduate students, and they take that weight in a really responsible way, which is why sometimes I think—as Brady was saying before—it can feel almost overwhelming when students say, ‘I want to explore this other career. I want to think about this other thing.’ The faculty member has this feeling of panic of, one, maybe I don’t know anything about that, two, maybe that’s actually a bad idea, three, you came here to work with me. Don’t you want what I have to offer? There’s so many feelings that would go through your head and do go through the heads of faculty members because they genuinely care.

Many years ago, I heard a wonderful keynote from Dr Sharon Marcus about her experience of listening to her own former PhD advisees. She was talking about how her beliefs changed after having deep conversations with her graduate students who had gone on to a variety of other careers other than tenure track faculty careers. She had had many do this over a long period of time, but hadn’t had deep conversations with them until something inspired her to do so. So she called them and she talked to them, asked them questions about their job, pushed through that barrier of maybe I shouldn’t ask, or I don’t really know what to ask or anything else. And she just listened.

If faculty wanted to do something tomorrow that would help them immediately think about careers more broadly, it would be to be in contact and ask if you can have a virtual coffee with some of your alums, or people from your program, and just really listen to them. This is something I do a lot. I’ve got some coming up. I’ve done them for years. It’s fascinating to watch the trajectory of graduates over a lifetime, right?

I’m not saying everyone should have coffees all the time, although that’d be great. That’d be my ideal life. But the listening piece, getting okay with learning alongside your student —if your student comes to you and says, ‘I’m interested in this’ and you think to yourself, ‘Okay, I don’t know a lot about that.’— being okay and comfortable with being a parallel learner, asking questions, asking good questions is the very best thing that you can do. Faculty are amazing at asking questions, right?

Also, being a connector and getting excited about being a connector. Connect your students to other students, connect your students to resources, figure out what the campus resources are, connect them up. We meet faculty who are extraordinary at this. They connect them all over the place. They know where all the things are and they know who’s been where, and they’re connecting everybody up. Become a connector. So as a faculty member, so talk to those alums, be comfortable with the parallel work of learning alongside your student, and get excited about connecting them to resources and be okay with obviously with not being the only resource.

Brady: And not only ask great questions of alumni, but ask questions of current students and ask them from the start. What kinds of careers are you interested in? Let them know that you’re open and excited about the possibility that they might pursue a really cool, amazing job outside of academia. Normalizing this, making it a part of career conversations from early in a student’s program, is one of the best ways to actually make this really productive. Let students know that they can come to you and be super excited about this awesome job that they found that isn’t maybe what you would have imagined for them, but might be a really cool opportunity. It might be a great fit for them. Letting students know that you’re excited about that, that you want to learn more about that, is great.

As Jen said, connect students to resources, including places like Grad Success or the Digital Studio or the libraries. There’s a ton of great resources on campus that faculty can point to. When this works best, in its best form, faculty send students out to connect with some of these resources, to connect with alumni or previous students, or more experienced students, and then they ask follow-up questions. They ask how the conversation went, they ask what students learned. Faculty get excited about the process of learning, as Jen said, alongside the student, and engage with that. Graduate students are smart. They’re super smart. When you ask them good questions, as faculty are so good at doing, it can prompt them to explore and provide students with the opportunities to think through their own pathways and their own next steps in ways that are incredibly generative and productive.

This is a significant portion of my job, actually, just asking really smart students questions to help them figure out what might be a good fit for them, where their next step is. Sometimes all it really takes is those conversations from the start that are responsive to where a student is at. So in their first year, it might be ‘what kinds of things are you interested in doing next?’ And then as students get further on, the questions start to become more concrete. ‘Are there jobs that you’re interested in pursuing? Are there particular places you want to be?’ These questions don’t necessarily need to be tied to the job or the role that a student wants to be in, but the things that they really want, whether they’re location-bound or they’re interested in a role that has great work-life balance. Faculty should be thoughtful about these factors and be interested in their students finding something that’s going to work well for them and is going to be a good fit for them, as well as a healthy, productive workspace as they move forward.

Jennifer: HPG has played such an amazing role in providing space for faculty to have these conversations like I have never seen before at Iowa to bring them together, to provide the space, to provide the provocations, to have this alongside alumni and students. It’s been this amazing coming together of a lot of different efforts over the years, and then HPG wrapped this all up and provided space for faculty to really think through these questions. And think through them in a way that is really ethical.

And keeps in mind that, as we go forward and we’re bringing in students and we want to value whole students and all the things that they bring with them for the future of graduate school, that not all students are comfortable moving everywhere. We work with students all the time that say openly to us that they’re not comfortable moving anywhere in the US. The US is not a country where every city is comfortable for every person all the time. There’s a lot of privilege tied into being able to say, ‘You know what? I can put my life on hold. I can put my finances on hold. I can move anywhere. I don’t have to take care of my community. My work is not tied to a particular community where I want to live.’ That’s a lot of privilege. That’s a lot that we’re tying up in this basket and saying, well, that’s an academic life and handing it to students.

To be able to say something different and to be able to appropriately welcome more graduate students who want to do exciting work and to create more excellence at our university, all the things that Iowa wants, it’s critical that we rethink how we advise students and how we understand their desires to live somewhere they want to live, do the work they want to do. That’s something that HPG also, I think, is tied into in a really direct way.

Dominic: What if we started thinking about career development and diversity as a circle where we’re continually revisiting questions and people and places? How that would expand our understanding of all that’s wrapped up into this process? We think about career diversity development a lot — at least I do — relative to the first three years of graduate student development up until comprehensive exams and prospectus proposal and dissertation. But career diversity is a constant question and exploration that never ends and is never solved. How can we continue to push these conversations for recent program graduates or post-doctoral fellows in order to foster this mentorship and advising development beyond the first three years?

Jennifer: From my perspective, wouldn’t it be amazing if our focus was in those first few years, understanding the process by which you do career development? Because in our world, doing career development is something that is a lifelong process. We understand how many times people are going to change jobs. We understand that, particularly folks with a degree like a PhD with a very potentially wide skillset, different kinds of understandings, critical thinking and all of these deep skills, they may have to dig back into that well and reform the skillsets into different ways for different opportunities across the course of a life, because they want to. They may have to, they may want to, right?

By the time you leave your PhD, you’ve got a lot there. You’ve done a lot of things, typically. Maybe you were Obermann engagement fellow, maybe you worked with CIRTL. You have all these different pieces of you. Learning the process early on of how to gather up those pieces and aim them towards a particular opportunity or a particular audience… And to think about sort of yourself a little bit flexibly… wouldn’t that be a dream? That’s the opposite of what we do. We narrow, narrow, narrow, narrow until you become this one thing. And if you can’t be that thing, then, isn’t life a tragedy. I’m so sorry for you if you couldn’t become that thing. It becomes this very sad thing which is the real tragedy. It becomes this broken-hearted narrative, as opposed to looking at all of the valuable things that this person has, and teaching them ways that they can form themselves for different opportunities and figure out what they can accomplish.

I mean, what a brilliant life to have accomplished lots of different kinds of goals and different kinds of projects. I’m not just being all like gig economies are great, because gig economies kind of suck too, right? But as we know, what the economy is looking like going forward, there’s also side opportunities and other small jobs alongside our other jobs, kind of like Amy. Here’s Amy doing her day job and writing her book and doing book talks, things like that. Seeing some potential in that and teaching people how to navigate that early could be something that also helps late-career graduate students. Practicing and normalizing flexibility. That all those paths would be exciting and interesting, and that you may pursue all of them at different points and you may move back and forth between them.

Brady: Maybe we can rethink the way that career development maps onto the graduate experience and how it aligns, or can align with, the way that we train graduate students. The first couple of years of grad school can be about exploring and understanding a discipline, exploring and understanding career options and career literacy, and thinking about developing and understanding the array of options. We can emphasize developing core skills in the same way that we are, as humanists, are often trained in a variety of different areas and get to explore different time periods or genres, or what have you, while at the same time, we’re developing critical analytical skills, writing skills, the same kinds of things.

And then during the next stage, as you start to move into a dissertation, it’s important to think about really developing an understanding of the kinds of career options that are going to be a good fit for you. There are two elements to this. One is an understanding of the makeup of the career pathway, what that particular career area looks like economically, geographically, that exterior knowledge. It’s also really important to think about the knowledge of self that aligns with that, so you can develop an understanding of how those kinds of pathways that you’re interested in exploring are really going to work for you. The ultimate goal is not, I have this one job and I found the job, it’s the dream job, and it’s the perfect thing for me but developing a deep understanding of how it is that your interests, your needs, your values align with the kinds of opportunities that might be a good fit for you.

So, developing some of those core career literacy skills during the first years of graduate school, and then making the latter half about digging into it deeply and potentially getting super excited about some kinds of career opportunities, chatting with people in different areas in the same way that you can get really excited about your dissertation topic are all great strategies. Some days it will be super frustrating, just like a dissertation is super frustrating some days, or you’ll feel a little bit lost, or you won’t know what to do next, and that’s part of the process. But there will also be those really good days where you get super excited, where you discover something new about yourself, you discover a job that you didn’t know existed, or that was even a possibility. It’s a process of learning about the kinds of pathways that are open to you and also learning about yourself and how it is that those will fit with you.

Jennifer: This is absolutely completely accurate, Brady. And sometimes with the learning about the pathways, it’s actually doing it, right? And this is something that HPG has made available through the internships, job shadowing, internships, GA positions. Sometimes you can learn by learning and reading, and we also know that you learn so very much by doing. And sometimes that can bring you back to more self-reflection and like, “This didn’t really fit.” I have my career because of trying one of those things. My career is because of an internship. I never would have thought that that was going to be the case. But honestly, I did a position and somebody who doesn’t know a lot about me who supervised me asked a lot of good questions and he kept asking the questions and the questions are what prompted me to understand how I fit.

So, it wasn’t that he was an expert in what I was doing. But he was an amazing mentor who just was full of questions. I tried an internship, and for that, I have a career trajectory that has changed a lot and continues to change, because I like to try new things, but you realize the power in having those experiences and how you can reflect during those experiences and how that changes you.

Dominic: Well, thank you so much, for all the things to think about further. It’s the best kind of conversation to have.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.