The University of Iowa

Career Exploration & Planning

Iowa graduate students draw on their research training, subject matter knowledge, critical thinking skills, and communication savvy to build satisfying careers across sectors. Whether you’re just starting, mid-program, or about to graduate, it’s important to be proactive about your career preparation. We recommend working your advisor, experts in your chosen career field, and a graduate career adviser. These mentors will help you self-assess, consider options broadly, and prepare for your future career.

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Identity is a major component of career reflection! We encourage graduate students and postdocs to take a holistic view that is open to many possible activities that would be intellectually, emotionally, socially, and financially satisfying to you.

Skills, interests, and values are all important career considerations—the same job may be thrilling for one person but not a match for another. There are several free self-assessments that can be taken online. We also recommend StrengthsFinder, which requires a payment and registration.

Reading about different types of jobs can help you discover areas of interest. Resources such as ScienceCareers myIDP (STEM) and ImaginePhD (Humanities) describe careers such as:

  • Academic faculty jobs at large research institutions, liberal arts colleges, community colleges
  • Academic jobs as staff researchers, academic advisors, grant managers, technology transfer specialists, library staff, and writing or teaching center work.
  • Researchers in industry, start-up companies, government, clinical, or non-profit settings; writers and editors; consultants; museum and public education specialists; and many more!

Exploring interests by experience is also a good way to simultaneously develop generalizable skills useful across most settings and learn what activities you do (or do not) like. As you find more specific areas of interest, more specialized activities can be pursued.

  • Example generalizable activities (useful for both non-academic and academic jobs!): participate in professional organizations, work with others in service/team/committee projects, organize a symposia or panel, communicate your research to audiences outside your department, mentor, apply for grants, volunteer at museums
  • Example specialized activities: internship in industry, summer research with a collaborator lab, courses in patent law/business, graduate certificates and courses

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Learn / Search / Network

Informational interviewing is asking for a 15-30 minute conversation (by phone, by Skype, at work, over coffee, etc.) with someone to learn more about their type of job. This is a great way to get advice after you’ve done some initial reading on your own and have further questions about a particular career—what a typical day is like, what preparation they’d recommend for this type of job, and so on. Although you should treat these as conversations to get advice (not asking to be hired for a job!), the people you speak with can be great long-term contacts to stay in touch as part of your professional network.

  • Open Doors Series: video interviews with UI graduate alumni and other Ph.D.s in a range of academic and non-academic jobs (great for learning about careers and seeing example informational interview questions in a longer, ca. 35-50 minute format)

Job board websites can be useful at any stage in your program.  Early on, browsing sites can help demystify the process by learning about the types of jobs that exist and the typical requirements. When you are actively seeking jobs, job board websites are still useful but should never be the only strategy you use. Letting people in your professional network (friends, family, acquaintances, previous coworkers, informational interview contacts, the panelist you followed up with after the conference, etc.) know that you are on the job market can be an extremely valuable source of additional information and leads that you couldn’t get from job boards alone.

  • HireaHawk is the University of Iowa's main online recruiting system for internships, student employment, and full-time jobs; all students (undergraduate and graduate) and alumni gave free account access
  • Example job search websites: a compilation of example local, generalist, sector-specific, and field-specific job listings

Networking is critical for both career exploration and career searching, but also can be intimidating. Do not treat networking as contacting people only to ask for a job or when you need a tangible benefit. Instead, view networking as making and strengthening relationships with people you interact with already (teaching, research, prior workplaces, undergraduate research mentors, friends, family members, neighbors, community involvement, etc.) and new people that you meet by participating in new activities (attending conferences, informational interviews, LinkedIn communication, etc.).

Local job searches, whether specifically in the eastern Iowa area or any specific area, may require a tradeoff to be more flexible about the type of job if being in that geographic region is a high priority to you. Communicating with new and existing members of your professional network will be even more critical to learn about opportunities that may not be posted online. See resources for Iowa and Iowa City area job searches at our example job search site page.

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Job Application Materials

Most jobs in settings outside higher education (and many non-faculty Higher Ed jobs) require two main documents:

  • Resume: a 1 page or 2 page document describing the experiences and activities you’ve done that most directly relate to your ability to do the new job; be selective in your examples and make the connections very obvious (e.g., state “wrote literature reviews” if new job’s ad text lists literature reviews as a requirement); avoid long narrative—concise bullet points are best for rapid readability
  • Cover Letter: a 1 page summary of your main qualifications for the job (providing explanatory context where necessary if the connection between your past experience and the new job’s activities are not obvious); be as individualized as possible for your particular qualifications (e.g., “experienced conference speaker” instead of “great communication skills”) and the particular job—letters that sound generic give the impression that you aren’t very invested or interested in that particular job.

Faculty jobs at universities or colleges may require some or all of the following documents:

  • CV: a comprehensive listing of your academic accomplishments, typically with less descriptive text than on a resume; no length limit, but adjust the section order so that the information most important to your audience is earlier in the document
  • Cover Letter (or “Letter of Interest”): a 1 ½ to 2 page summary of your main qualifications for the job, such as your previous/current research, your planned future research at the new school, your previous teaching experience (and approach), the teaching you are prepared to do at the new school
  • Teaching Philosophy (or “Teaching Statement”): a 1-2 page summary of your teaching goals, examples of actions you take when teaching to meet your goals, and ways that you know your actions were effective (assessment)
  • Research Statement: a summary of both your past research and the future research you plan to do at the new school (which must be feasible for the setting—particularly critical for liberal arts colleges!); the length varies by discipline, but 2-3 pages is a reasonable starting point
  • Diversity Statement: a 1-2 page summary of demonstrated examples of your being able to engage with students/faculty/staff from a wide range of backgrounds, not just your own; content and approach can be relatively flexible, but example topics may include inclusive teaching/mentoring methods (e.g., adaptability to different levels of academic preparation, accessibility for students with disabilities, curriculum you would use), participation in local or national organizations, international experience, ways that you learn about other cultures and perspectives, understanding that identity is complex and that your own experiences can add value to an institution

Some positions, such as Government and Industry require a hybrid CV/Resume that reads like a shorter, tailored CV (typically 2-4 pages).

Academic postdoc position materials and job search approaches can vary.

  • If listed on a website as a formal job ad, typically prepare a CV and cover letter
  • If applying to a training program at an institution, you may need a CV, cover letter, summary of your past and future research interests, and/or personal statement about your career goals
  • If inquiring with a lab directly by e-mail, treat the e-mail text as a short but individually customized cover letter describing your background and reasons you’re interested in potentially working in that lab, attaching a CV; also consider offering to submit a 1-2 page summary of your research interests (past and future—be clear about the ways you could see your work fitting in with the new lab’s interests)

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Interviews / Negotiations

Interviews happen when prospective employers like your qualifications on paper but need to get more information about you—more context about your experiences and future goals, seeing you in action (teaching, talking about your research, doing a case project, etc.), whether you understand the job position as well as your materials imply, and if your personality is such that other people would enjoy working with you.

  • All Interviews: The format can be by phone, by Skype, or in person. Most questions will have the underlying intent of “can you do this job?” and “will we enjoy working with you?”. Even if a question is very open-ended (“tell us about yourself”), prepare to talk about yourself as it relates to your interest in and ability to do the job (“I’ve been researching biodegradable materials from a lab perspective and am interested in applying that knowledge to policy applications”), not a chronology (“I got my bachelor’s degree at school A, then my master’s degree at school B[...]”). Always have questions prepared to ask the interviewer at the end—what you ask reflects your interest in the job.
  • Tenure-Track Faculty Interviews: On-campus interviews are usually 1-2 days where everything you do and say is subject to evaluation—the job talk, the mealtime conversation, the student meetings, the ride to/from the airport. Be professional at all times, present yourself as an independent but collegial potential future colleague (neither arrogant nor meek), and be sure to have a clear vision of what your long-term research and teaching plans are (1 to 5 years out) to convince the search committee that you will know what you are doing if they hire you.
  • Non-Ac/Alt-Ac Job Interviews: If applying for a job that is very different from what you’ve previously been doing (topic, setting, etc.), be prepared to answer why you are interested in this new type of job—focus on the positive (“I’m passionate about science literacy and want to make a more direct impact”), never negatives (“there are no stable jobs in academia and I doubt anyone would ever read my papers anyway”). Do not ramble—be ready to discuss specific examples of your research (as it relates to the new job in topic or technical skills you’ve developed), communication, teamwork, and project management experience.

Negotiation is responding to a job offer with inquiries about whether the terms of the offer (starting salary, benefits, work resources, relocation costs) can be changed before you accept the offer. This can be a very intimidating idea, but negotiation is expected standard practice for both academic and non-academic jobs.

  • Respond in a way that reiterates your interest and frames your requests as inquiries—not demands. Provide some concise background or justification for the proposed revisions to show your reasoning (e.g., ways that the additional resources would help you do your new job better, salary comparisons within the same company.)
  • Don’t ask for too much—focus on 1 or 2 topics that are most important to you. Be willing to compromise if you are asking for a particularly large change (e.g., fewer vacation days in year 1 for a larger amount of relocation assistance).
  • Always be reasonable with respect to what an organization can realistically offer. For example, a small liberal arts school cannot afford to buy a multi-million dollar lab device for your own personal use, asking for a teaching sabbatical at a community college suggests that you aren’t interested in teaching as a career, and some organizations have fixed salary levels.

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I’m considering leaving my PhD program with(out) a Masters. Should I stay or leave?

It’s a personal decision with no universal right or wrong answer for all people—just what’s right or wrong for you in your life. Some things to consider:

  • What would it cost you to stay in terms of money, stress, energy, time? What would it cost you to leave—do you have saving and insurance benefits in place?
  • What sort of job options do you most want? There are a lot of job options available with a master’s or bachelor’s degree. However, PhD training is adaptable to many settings—you don’t have to quit your program only because you don’t want to be a professor.
  • Are the reasons you want to leave due to issues that are fixable by changing advisors, seeking an outside mentor, changing research groups, seeking other mediation, and/or changing other strategies? If due to changing interests, would you be able to incorporate the new interests into the other aspects of getting a PhD in a satisfying way?
  • Consider your reasons for pursuing the PhD—is it for extrinsic benefits (better job, prestige)? Is it to make a direct impact on the world? Is it inherently enjoyable? Would you be able to achieve those things without the PhD? Would the PhD (and the skills you develop) make those things happen more easily or more effectively?
  • Remember that 99% of the population doesn’t have a PhD—and many of them are still smart, involved, engaged citizens. If you opt to finish the degree, that will be a big accomplishment—but you’ll still be the same holistic person you were before, just with great extra skills and another 3 letters after your name.
  • Regardless of what you decide, you were accomplished and capable enough that you were accepted into graduate school—that in itself is an accomplishment and a sign of your skills. You are capable and resourceful and intelligent, and you can do good things in the world. 

Could I get back into academia after a non-academic job?

It depends on the type of academic job and what you are doing in the non-academic job. Research-emphasis faculty jobs will need you to demonstrate that you’ve been continuing to do research, publish, and run a research group to a degree that you’re competitive with other applicants who have done these things in an academic setting (easier for some types of non-academic jobs than others.) Teaching-emphasis faculty jobs will need you to demonstrate that you’re interested in and capable of teaching. If you already had a lot of teaching experience before the non-academic job, you could make a case for your additional career experience being useful to incorporate into teaching.

Will I still be able to pursue my intellectual interests without feeling constrained if I take a non-academic job?

Yes! Consider informational interviews with and/or reading biographies of people with PhDs working in non-academic jobs to learn about their experiences—many report still feeling intellectual stimulation and the thrill of discovery in their work. Many jobs outside of academe also have workplace cultures where there are clear, accepted work-life balance boundaries; having free time means that you have the freedom to read, learn, and investigate whatever topics you want. It won’t necessarily be feasible to do these things in the same way as if they were your full-time job; however, if you enjoy research and learning enough to want to do it as a hobby, you still can do so.

What are some strategies for writing an ‘Individual Development Plan’ or IDP?

  • Think “SMART” goals—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-limited. Instead of just “learn about careers”, set smaller goals like “do one informational interview per month” or “spend one hour each week looking at job ads for the following key terms: [X,Y,Z]”. (Note that these information-gathering activities can be part of your goals if you don’t yet know what sector(s) are most interesting to you!)
  • Be realistic about your interests and timelines. “Apply for 50 tenure-track faculty jobs the same semester I’m graduating” may not be feasible if you are also teaching that semester and may not be desirable if you’d be happiest working in another sector.
  • Have a sense of your advisor’s experience and perspectives on different careers—some may be knowledgeable and supportive, some may be supportive but less familiar with non-academic careers, and some may have negative attitudes about some sectors. It is all right to seek advice from multiple people, so it is up to you who you consult about which topics.
  • When considering skills you have developed and skills you need to develop, think about all 8 professional development competencies, not just research—most activities in graduate school can be useful in a range of settings, faculty jobs or otherwise.

How do I talk to my advisor about my career interests?

  • Most advisors see their role as assisting students with their career path—they will be supportive and open to conversations, though they may vary in how much specific knowledge they have about particular career sectors.
  • Some students are concerned about telling their advisors about career interest outside academe. We recommend this guide to prepare for the conversation in advance.
  • Advisors are people, too, and can have their own short-term and long-term concerns about their own lives. Try to anticipate advisor concerns in advance to develop a plan (to share at the meeting) about how you will continue to meet your current responsibilities (e.g., a short-term research project deadline, completing required coursework, graduating) while also adding in any career development activities that might take a large amount of time. Balance your responsibilities toward others and your responsibilities toward yourself.
  • Reading and thinking about a range of career options (including your values, skills, and interests) before a conversation can be helpful to be able to explain why you’re interested in particular areas. Starting the conversation with “I don’t want a research job” can sound like momentary frustration or being directionless; by contrast, “I really like the manuscript writing and editing process—I’d be interested in opportunities and careers building on that” shows that you know your strengths, focuses more on the positive, and helps give advisors more room to discuss your interests.
  • No one person can be an expert on everything. It is okay to seek advice from multiple people about many topics! If your advisor is a great mentor for research, teaching, presentations, public outreach, and academic jobs but doesn’t feel knowledgeable about industry jobs, it won’t diminish their mentorship in those other areas if you contact additional sources about industry-specific topics.

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