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The ongoing pandemic has highlighted for those of us working in academic programming both the challenges and opportunities for professional development. On the one hand, the pandemic has allowed us to reinforce for trainees that professional development is part of one’s larger work/life project and not only supplementary. It has thrown into sharp relief the value of sharing and discussing online tools and resources with trainees. On the other hand, shifting professional and career development programming to an online format has only reinvigorated long-standing barriers such as access, engagement and retention, especially for synchronous programming.

Below we’d like to describe our own experience adapting programming to an online environment, as well as to share a variety of resources available for online career and professional development.

Pivoting a Postdoc Research Symposium

North Carolina State University’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), along with our Postdoctoral Association, holds an annual postdoctoral research symposium in May each year. Given the inability to hold this event in person, we crafted postdoc research spotlights on the Graduate School’s ImPACKful blog to showcase postdocs and their research work.

We used a simple Google form to collect research summaries to highlight online. That allowed postdocs to build their professional and research brand, as they could share links to their Twitter, LinkedIn or personal websites. In addition, the spotlights required postdocs to speak about the impact of their work succinctly and in a way that was broadly understandable to the general public, allowing them to practice vital science communication skills. We plan to make such research spotlights a regular feature on our blog going forward.

We have also, like many other offices, held virtual career panels where postdocs can hear about other people’s transitions from postdoc to a variety of careers in academe, industry and the nonprofit world. The power of online platforms is the ability to invite panelists from anywhere to join virtually. That opens up our trainees to more networking opportunities and access to careers in geographic areas far from their current location.

Promoting Community Engagement

Building community is difficult in a remote world. However, OPA has created a Slack group for NC State’s postdocs to engage with one another. Slack has many powerful features for teams and groups and is an excellent platform to create a contained community where individuals are invited to join. That can be particularly important if people want to use it to share personal details or struggles and find support in a safe space of peers. The technology has some initial learning barriers. Thus, we have created a user guide to assist postdocs with engaging with Slack and learning about the various channel topics available to them (or how to add their own channel focused on a new topic).

A powerful feature of Slack is the number of applications you can associate with your group to facilitate interactions. A few Slack apps we have found to enhance community dialogue and connections include:

  • Anonymity Bot. This feature allows Slack group members to post anonymously, allowing more sensitive conversations to take place on the platform. In addition, it removes any concerns anyone posting may have that they will be viewed negatively for asking a question (i.e., as “uninformed”).
  • Donut App. This automated bot randomly pairs people in a virtual networking/chat Slack channel at regular intervals and facilitates a “coffee chat” between the two participants. It’s a great way to network with others. We at NC State started using Donut during National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2020. A small group of 18 postdocs are engaged with Donut, and we hope to grow participation by promoting it as a useful way to meet other postdocs, especially for those just starting their positions at the university.

One NC State postdoc has been using the Slack group to collaborate with another postdoc on campus. She noted that it has been “a great way to learn about and share events that are relevant to NC State postdocs. It's also a great way to build friendships and collaborations with other postdocs (through group and direct messages). I've been co-organizing an external event with another NC State postdoc, and Slack makes that so much easier.”

The Slack community is particularly helpful for postdocs not based on our main campus but stationed at various research centers across the state. In fact, we plan to continue to promote the platform and virtual resources to postdocs located off our main campus, including those based at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis, N.C., that is 140-plus miles from our main campus.

Now more than ever, having platforms to allow our trainees to engage with one another is crucial. Slack is one means of providing this to the communities we as career and professional development professionals serve.

Moving A2i Job Search Strategies Online

We are also moving career and professional development programming online and making it accessible to people who either can’t attend synchronous programs or are not affiliated with our university. Our Accelerate to Industry (A2i) program has been particularly effective in this regard.

Industry Job Search Strategies (JSS) is one of the five modules that make up Accelerate to IndustryTM -- a professional development program that helps students strengthen the transferable skills desired by industry. For instance, students enrolled in JSS work on designing compelling application materials, developing interviewing strategies, completing case-based business communication projects and learning how to receive and give feedback.

The other modules of A2i include company site visits, internships, team practicum offerings and Immersion Week (a weeklong professional development program). A2i offers JSS every semester including summer and Immersion Week once every summer. We schedule company site visits at least once a year. Our internships and team practicum offerings depend on matching our industry partners’ needs with student availability.

Developed by the Graduate School at North Carolina State University and supported by an Innovations in Graduate Education grant from the National Science Foundation, A2i seeks to fill a needed training gap by connecting the university and industry. In February, we held our inaugural Training Institute (a train-the-trainer event) for 10 academic partners, which include other universities in North Carolina and a variety of other states. Our goal for the institute was to teach our academic partners how to implement a sustainable model of A2i on their own campuses.

The challenges of moving A2i online were similar to other programs that were delivered in person prior to COVID. In addition, we had to support and help our academic partners implement A2i on their campuses, which now meant delivering the program virtually.

We opted to face those challenges by focusing on Industry Job Search Strategies, as we could easily adapt it to online delivery. In addition, an online JSS module had the geographic advantage of allowing us to offer the program to our academic partners’ students while simultaneously also providing our colleagues with the ability to join the workshop to see our module delivered live in real time.

To meet those goals, we built a community of practice using Zoom meetings, reaching out to our academic partners to shift the agenda of our follow-up virtual meetings that were scheduled to begin in March. The meetings instead became a space for sharing ideas and thinking through the challenge of implementing A2i in our new Zoomiverse. One of us, Joseph Aldinger, also contacted our industry partners; we needed to know what was happening with them in order to bring that information back to our academic partner meetings.

We also used YouTube Live. As we opened registration, we realized quickly the demand was such that we had to adjust. With over 800 trainees from across A2i’s academic partner institutions, we livestreamed JSS. Livestreaming to YouTube via Zoom allows you to create a digital asset you can share with trainees for asynchronous completion. Likewise, we found you can use YouTube’s Studio (cloud-based video-editing software) to edit and trim live presentations to make them more manageable and appealing for asynchronous audiences.

For instance, we trimmed the presentations to emphasize the content delivered by our industry experts and de-emphasize questions that the audience asked. That often allowed us to shorten an hourlong event to a manageable 30-minute video that trainees could watch asynchronously.

YouTube also allows trainees to access content without recourse to Zoom and to opt in to the training at a time that fits their schedule. Since starting the channel in May, we have had 2,300 views of our workshops and presentations with a watch time of 391 hours. On average, viewers watch 22 minutes of our content, and our videos' runtime ranges from 23 to 38 minutes.

These are challenging times for graduate students, postdocs and those who serve them. While transitioning to online has its challenges, it also offers a distinct opportunity to leverage online resources and technology to help trainees in their career and professional development, as well as build communities of support.

We have compiled a list of online resources here. By sharing best practices and platforms, we can all work toward empowering ourselves as practitioners and the trainees we serve.

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