PhD Pathways Mini Conference

May 11, 2016 by Sherri Klassen

A Sociology PhD can lead down many pathways. While PhD programs and the academic culture that supports them have traditionally focused on training students for careers as tenure-track faculty members, the Sociology Department at the University of Toronto is starting to think more broadly about its students’ futures. This shift involves intentionally recognizing the successes of our alumni who find careers outside of the traditional tenure stream, encouraging discussion around diverse career opportunities, and supporting professional development opportunities that help graduate students take advantage of opportunities ‘beyond academia’.

As part of this effort, the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto was pleased to host a student-led two-day mini-conference event entitled Beyond Academia: Alternative PhD Pathways. This event explored the increasingly diverse fields and occupations in which Sociology PhDs are employed and consisted of two main events: a Parallel Planning Workshop and an Alumni Panel.

When PhD students begin to plan for their post-graduation careers, they may want to engage in “parallel planning” – anticipating the skills and strategies needed for success in a career as a professor and/or for a career outside of the professoriate. Our Parallel Planning Workshop focused on identifying and translating skills accrued during the PhD, as well as uncovering the fields and occupations in which social science PhDs work and recognizing accompanying job search strategies appropriate for different fields. Led by Jonathan Turner from the University of Toronto Career Centre, the workshop highlighted concrete steps for graduate students and provided information about the resources available at the University of Toronto. Concrete steps and strategies include, for example, developing advanced and transferable research, communication, and teaching skills through general U of T resources such as the Graduate Professional Skills Program and the Teaching Assistant Training Program, and leveraging specific Career Centre Resources such as the Flexible Futures for Graduate Students Workshop to learn how to build a professional network and conduct non-academic or alternative-academic career exploration while completing the PhD.

About a week after the Parallel Planning workshop, five alumni from the University of Toronto joined us and presented about their experiences transitioning to the alternative-academic and non-academic workforce.  The panelists represented Sociology PhDs working in a variety of sectors – non-profit, government, public, and private:

  • Xingshan Cao, PhD 2006, Biostatistician at Sunnybrook Health Services Centre
  • Jeanette Chua, ABD 2012, Project Manager at Trillium Gift of Life
  • Loretta Ho, PhD 2012, Manager of Student Programs at the Royal Conservatory of Music
  • Karen Myers, PhD 2009, Research Director at Social Research and Demonstration Corporation).
  • Sarah Reid, PhD 2013, Human Capital Consultant at Deloitte

With Allison Meads, a current graduate student, moderating, the panelists discussed their experiences navigating the job market and their insights regarding the pursuit of non-academic or alternative-academic work. Panelists shared their expertise on a variety of topics, including recognizing and reframing marketable skills (i.e. research design and methodology, grant-writing, and conference presentation), how to identify pertinent (and fulfilling) post-academic work opportunities, and how to develop one’s network and resume to best take advantage of such opportunities. Panelists suggested, for example, that graduate students’ in-depth experience with crafting literature reviews can be reframed as a capacity for conducting ‘jurisdictional scans’, reviews of best practices and developments in a sector that are employed by many institutions to evaluate and draft policies. PhD students at the session were reassured that the skills they are learning are, in fact, relevant for employment outside of the Ivory Tower. As one panelist, Xingshan Cao, pointed out: “I’ve never had to do something as a Biostatistician that was more complicated than what I learned in Blair Wheaton’s mandatory graduate stats class in this department – trust me, you can handle this!”.

A lot of people contributed to making this event a success. Thanks go out to the graduate student working group who coordinated it: Kerri Scheer, Anelyse Weiler, Chris Tatham, Andrew Nevin, Andreea Mogosanu, Meghan Dawe, Paul Nelson, Diana Miller, Christian Rangel, and Matt Parbst. This event was financially supported by the School of Graduate Studies Innovation in Graduate Professional Development Fund and the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. The working group is indebted to Kat Kolar, Merin Oleschuk, and Allison Meads for their work on the SGS Fund application, Dr. Melissa Milkie for her encouragement on the application and guidance throughout the planning process, Research Coordinator Sherri Klassen for assistance in identifying prospective panelists, the Interim Business Officer Grace Ramirez and GSSA Secretary-Treasurer Yuki Tanaka for assistance in coordinating and distributing funds, and the Graduate Sociology Students’ Association (GSSA) for collaboration and support.

Thanks also to all of the graduate students and faculty members who attended the workshop and/or panel and offered feedback. These collegial contributions ensured the success of the event and signal that the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto is serious about training and supporting graduate students for the wide array of opportunities that await them after graduation.


Kerri Scheer, PhD Student