Virtual Support for Earthbound Grad Students

Alfreda S. James highlights the benefits of a new online curriculum that guides students in designing their careers.

May 2, 2022
 
 
An Asian woman with dark hair works on a laptop.
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My desktop PC includes a bookmark to my university’s counseling center and several other placeholders. Virtual bookmarks get me through tough conversations with students about physical illness, depression and dissatisfaction with graduate education.

When a first-year Ph.D. student tells me she’s ready to drop out because she doesn’t know anyone in her department, I hit my bookmark linking her to Stony Brook University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, where options for help range from meditation drop-ins to virtual appointments. Or I might share a link to Paris Grey’s “Four Tips to Ward Off Imposter Syndrome” from Nature.

And when sixth-year Ph.D. students from the humanities appear in my Zoom platform appointments and tell me no one has ever focused on their specific career challenges, I share my screen and walk through the assessments and job-family resources from ImaginePhD.

But the tool that I’ve used most frequently over this past academic year has been a virtual curriculum that those of us in the Career Center at Stony Brook have developed. It is based on concepts from my now dog-eared book by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life, and exercises from the Designing Your Life Workbook.

Yes, this graduate student career coach still flips pages and takes notes in pen/pencil! But don’t misinterpret tactile learning with nostalgia. Career professionals are not stuck in 1984—or even 2018. We are innovators and future-of-work leaders with increasing relevance to graduate education.

The mix of virtual bookmarks and texts at my workstation are evidence of connections between career services and Stony Brook’s mission to:

  • Conduct research at the highest international standards that advance knowledge and have immediate or long-term practical significance;
  • lead the economic growth, technology and culture of the neighboring communities and region; and
  • celebrate diversity while positioning the university in the global community.

Career professionals’ pursuit of innovation aligns with the essential purposes of a university: student success and the larger goal of improving the condition of humankind. Even the most secular institutions seek to elevate and improve. After all, no university has a shield with a Latin motto of nullum profectum (no progress).

Career education is part of a bigger scaffold that supports progressive action through experimentation and research, a.k.a. graduate education. SBU’s Career Center has spent over a decade developing bridges between student development principles, experiential education practices, graduate education and students who aim to execute big ideas. Standing at the intersection of educational theory, students’ ambitions and workforce demands for graduates with refined critical thinking skills requires dexterity and a taste for agile management. Our efforts are relevant and constantly evolving.

Our Career Center’s pivot to a life-design curriculum is the most recent piece of a series of collaborations with faculty. Our standard practices of inviting faculty to meet employers—facilitating discussions between the makers of innovation (faculty) and the adopters of innovation (business)—and later preparing the SBU-trained talent (students) has made the center a credible partner in the university’s mission.

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Data from various sources pointed to a demand for career services that more directly address graduate students’ needs. Our career management system, Handshake, showed increasing numbers of advanced-degree students were attending our events. Employer surveys also revealed some deficits in grad students’ communication skills. Finally, the students themselves identified their top needs in career development and planning through a campuswide survey.

And since Stony Brook’s Career Center sits within the division of student affairs, we are specifically charged to “research … the biggest challenges” students face. For the Ph.D. student, pursuing professional options outside the academy is a significant challenge; for the master’s degree candidate, the challenge is managing a three-semester shift from student to professional.

Our success at connecting graduate students to meaningful internships and employment has been well received by the faculty. In turn, the academics have started to rethink a traditional divide between the value of career services and SBU’s educational mission. Getting faculty support has marked a shift from a previously held career-agnostic approach where grad students floundered their way to career options without such support.

A new virtual course, Career and Life Design for Graduate Students, is a by-product of the Career Center’s place as a nexus between a faculty partner in the College of Engineering and Sciences, student demand, and employer need. It is also the foundational element of a larger initiative to support graduate women in STEM degree programs, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The Career Center has made a specific effort to recruit women in STEM through a series of virtual meet-ups to promote career design.

The course has attracted 20 graduate students since we launched it in fall 2021. They include first-year master’s in social work students, second-year students in gender studies and an advanced physics Ph.D. in optics. Despite very different academic interests, students collectively responded well to tasks such as designing career alternatives, informational interviewing with professionals and rethinking assumptions about where to take their advanced skills.

This virtual course guides students through a series of modules based on Burnett and Evans’s work, supplemented by specific tasks like developing a LinkedIn account, or, for humanities graduate students in the course, learning how to develop professional contacts outside their field of study but representative of their values.

Each synchronous session features open-ended questions from the instructor to generate conversation and gain different student perspectives. The practice of dividing the 75-minute class period between direct instruction and in-class activities has spurred students to complete module-related themes each week. With video cameras off, students have identified and later reported personal values. Dedicated time off camera has also given international graduate students freedom to write deliberate responses without being concerned about verbal presentation. More than half of the students in the course are F-1 visa holders.

For the fall semester, we measured the effectiveness of course modules and instructional practices in pre- and postevaluations. Students reported gains in several areas of career readiness, especially in developing professional networks, understanding relationships between individual skills and professional career options, and articulating their skills to potential employers.

Early data also implies that course lowers barriers for SBU’s population of diverse graduate students who might lack the social capital of informal professional connections. Close to half of the students in the course are first-generation students. But after a semester, those students leave my virtual desktop with professional contacts and an evolving sense of how to systematically pursue careers both directly related as well as unrelated to their academic programs.

As of this writing, students are just days away from evaluating the course for this spring’s semester. Will some minor tweaks I have made to the course have improved its effectiveness from the fall to spring term? I’ll see what the students say and make any further needed adjustments. Like other researchers, we career center professionals constantly adapt as assessment and evaluation results suggest.

Bio

Alfreda S. James is assistant director for graduate students and postdocs at Stony Brook University’s Career Center and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development. The author would like to thank the National Science Foundation for the support of this work.

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