Career Exploration

DiscoverPD is an innovative new online tool for UW-Madison graduate students to advance their academic and professional goals.  You'll start by reviewing the nine areas (or "facets") of professional development, complete a Self-Assessment, and get a customized report of your areas of strength and weakness. This report comes with recommendations to help you strengthen your ability within each area.

Reflecting on your work-related values, interests, and skills can maximize your chances of a fulfilling career journey. There are a multitude of self-assessment tools available. A great place to start is Career Locker (through My UW), which has many self-assessment tools. Try these: Career Skills Assessment, Work Values, Inventory, and Interest Quick Occupation Look-up. CareerLocker also offers electronic portfolio, résumé, and cover letter builders, as well as occupation information.

O*Net contains information on hundreds of occupations. The free database is continually updated by surveying a broad range of workers from each occupation. O*Net’s Career Exploration Tools are a set of assessment instruments for workers and students looking to find or change careers.

Informational interviewing should be an integral part of your networking and job-hunting. The focus isn’t on employment but on information gathering. You initiate the interview, ask the questions, and gain insight into an occupation, industry, or employer. Follow the steps described in the PDF created by the College of Letters and Sciences Career Services Office, Informational Interviews and Meetings: A Networking Tool, before getting started. Additionally, Tooling up: The informational Interviewgives great perspective, and the Informational Interviewing Tutorial will guide you as well.

As a graduate student, your network includes your advisor, mentors, professors, postdocs, researchers, and coworkers, as well as family and friends, connections from your undergraduate institution, people you’ve met through internships or practica, those you interact with through volunteer or community involvement, and more. As you begin to explore careers, these are the connections to draw upon. Furthermore, when you attend seminars, professional meetings, or conferences, be sure to bring business cards, introduce yourself to others, and follow up to maintain these relationships after the event. You can also expand your network through online social and professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, and as a Badger, you can also network through the Wisconsin Alumni Association.

Internships are a great way to get a taste of what it would be like to work in the particular industry you may be considering. When you’re searching for an internship, often a great place to start is your school or college career office. However, if you don’t find what you need there, use the guide below create your own internship.

How to start

  • Follow Steven Covey’s advice from the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and “Begin with the end in mind.” Write down what you hope to learn from the internship. Decide what type of work you would like to do and where.
  • Identify the skills that you can offer an organization. Use this information to develop a first-class résumé that reflects your skills and experiences.

Next, develop a list of prospective organizations and contacts

  • Consider organizations that have hired interns in the past, where alumni work, that are in a field you want to explore, or are in a location you want to work. Your goal is to identify organizations that are likely to have short-term projects and positions where your expertise could be applied.
  • Spread the word that you are looking for an internship. Talk to friends, relatives, acquaintances, alumni, professors, and other professional contacts.  Ask people for the names of prospective organizations and individuals to contact.

Contact the organization

  • Email a cover letter and résumé. The cover letter should describe a project or position that you believe from your research would benefit the organization. Include how your skills and experiences apply, your availability, and whether you require a stipend/salary. The résumé should also be tailored to support the proposal. Making the pitch by telephone can be an equally effective strategy.
  • Contact the person most likely to be able to make a decision (e.g., the owner in a small business, the executive director of a non-profit, or the head of the department in a larger organization).
  • Follow-up within a week with a phone call or email to express your interest. It is common practice to reinforce your interest in the internship in this way.

Other considerations

  • Organizations may not be able to pay you for your internship. One option is to work part-time while you intern. Many people decide it is worthwhile to invest in an unpaid internship in order to develop new contacts, develop new skills, or to test the waters in a new field.
  • Develop a written agreement between you and your supervisor/mentor that specifies your responsibilities and how you will be evaluated.
  • Remember to be persistent, flexible, and patient.

These tips are based on information from the following sources: 

University of California, Berkeley Career Center: Developing Your Own Internship

Arkansas Tech University Norman Career Services: How to Create Your Own Internship

Versatile PhD

A web-based resource for exploring non-academic careers, the Versatile PhD features bios, first-hand stories, CVs, resumes, and cover letters from PhD holders with successful careers outside of the professoriate. More »

Self-Directed Career Exploration

For graduate students not served by a career office at UW-Madison, we recommend a proactive approach. More »

Career Services for Graduate Students

Read a summary of the types of career support that various schools and colleges offer their students. More »

Professional Development Events at UW–Madison

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