UT grad program offers look at life outside ivory towers:
Students learn about nonacademic opportunities

Dallas Morning News

by Kendall Anderson / The Dallas Morning News

To get a job as a college English professor, Michael Erard needs his doctorate and a whole lot of luck, in a job market in which tenure track positions are rare and doctorate holders are not.

So Mr. Erard has moved to Plan B: get a job in private industry. But how does he explain to corporate America that his seven years in graduate school are valuable to them?

The answer, as Mr. Erard recently learned, is that his writing and research skills could get him a job teaching writing inside a corporation.

But it took a special program - University of Texas at Austin's Graduate Professional Development Program - to help him see that.

The nationally recognized program teaches graduate students how to be better communicators, identify their strengths and helps to match them with the nonacademic world that's become more and more their reality.

Some schools, from the University of Minnesota to North Carolina State, have called or visited UT's program in the last year, and several are copying it.

"Ph.D.s have a whole lot of talents that are useful, not just to academics but to other people - I want students to have the professional development training to see that and be prepared for all the roles they can play," said Dr. Joy Lynn Reed, an instructor and coordinator of the program.

Mr. Erard's consulting class has helped him identify how his years of research, presentations, writing instruction and his desire to learn new things can help the corporate world. He's considering becoming a writing teacher for the private sector and spent last weekend talking with a senior manager at Microsoft.

"One problem with being an academic is you don't have a lot of contact with the business world. The class has been this really interesting cultural contact zone," said Mr. Erard. "I can now identify specific skills that I have, and I can articulate the kind of diverse career that I want to have."

Helping graduate students improve their speaking and writing skills isn't a new idea - many universities offer such classes.

But the UT program goes beyond that, as one of the most comprehensive in the nation, students and teachers said. The program's 14 different courses in subjects such as consulting, ethics, teaching and communications are housed in the School of Graduate Studies at UT-Austin.

Julie Teetsov said the program has taught her how to explain complicated scientific information to different audiences. As a doctoral student in analytical chemistry, Ms. Teetsov probably will find a job that requires her to explain esoteric information to nonscientists.

And thanks to the communications class she took as part of the program, she has gotten good enough at such explanations to win a speaking award at a professional conference.

"I think sometimes academics fit into the stereotype that's given to them, which is that you're narrow-minded, esoteric and insular. These courses allow students to see they don't have to be that way," said Dr. Richard A. Cherwitz, program director and associate dean of graduate studies.

Dr. Margaret King, associate vice chancellor at North Carolina State, is watching UT closely as a model for a similar program.

She said such departments are needed because many professors do not have the ability to help students adapt to a job market that is information-driven, highly technological and increasingly based outside of academic institutions.

"Programs such as UT-Austin's will be more common in the future," Dr. King said. Many professors, like her, have no experience outside of research-oriented universities, "and so it's often hard for us to prepare students, through traditional academic training, to be anything but clones of ourselves."

Some faculty members and students have expressed concern that such classes take the place of more substantive courses within a student's field of study.

"What we hear sometimes from students is the tendency of their faculty to say 'I'd rather see you working the archives or in the lab,' " Dr. Cherwitz said. "That's something I find problematic. We've tried to show people in departments what we're doing, hoping if they see what we are doing from the inside that it will fight the perceptions."

But many students seem to think they're doing something right. More than 1,200 students recently sought enrollment in the program, which had space for 625, officials said. Eighty-three of the university's academic departments, from pharmacy to history to musical arts, are represented in the student body.

The mix of students from different disciplines is another strength, students and teachers say.

The program started when Dr. Cherwitz, in charge of rhetoric in UT's communications department, saw an unmet need. Professors were calling to ask whether their graduate students who needed help communicating could sneak into his undergraduate public speaking course.

"The program just made sense," Dr. Cherwitz said.

Dr. Reed left a tenure track position for a nontenured job in the program. Her specialty is educational psychology and learning cognition, and students lavish praise on her.

The woman who is known for grading papers on airplanes and e-mailing students with suggestions at 3 a.m. said her passion comes from a desire to teach students that holders of doctorates can benefit the world outside the ivory tower.

Does that mean all Ph.D.s need to set their sights on corporate America?

Mr. Erard said no. Sure, he would love his coming job hunt to land him a tenure-track position - it would seem natural for someone who couldn't leave college after four years because he had "too many unanswered questions."

But as an "intellectual entrepreneur," he is open to alternatives.

"The ideal job is any institutional space - it could be a university, a corporation or a freakin' monastery," he said.

And, he said, he's no longer intimidated at the idea of telling potential employers that he went to graduate school for the pure love of learning.

"It's a challenge to try and make an argument for why . . . knowledge matters more than money," said Mr. Erard, whose educational loans total the value of the average executive's sport utility vehicle.

That kind of thinking, his instructors said, is exactly why businesses need Mr. Erard more than he needs them.