Filling in the Gaps in Grad Student Career Readiness

Universities offer support for attending conferences or visiting archives, but it’s harder for trainees to find funding for professional development opportunities that lie outside academic research, write Baron Haber, Shawn Warner and Arica Lubin.

December 5, 2022
Four figures climbing up an escalating set of pillars to reach a red flag at the top.
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I was in the fourth year of my Ph.D. program when I realized I could say no to my adviser, remembers Shawn, one of the co-authors of this piece. It was a turning point in my evolution as a scholar. I finally felt like I was taking control of my professional path.

I also knew a wise faculty mentor who was fond of saying that she knew her Ph.D. trainees were ready to graduate when they started pushing back on her research requests, recalls Arica, another co-author. The mentor argued that when they became independent, cantankerous and hard to control, they were ready to launch out of their training and on to the next phase.

These milestones often mark a trainee’s scholarly readiness, but what about career readiness? It takes time and resources to self-reflect, build skills, network and connect with mentors that can help a trainee step into their chosen career path. The continuum for career readiness is, in fact, quite similar to that for scholarly readiness and typically happens in three phases: discovery, development and launch.

A chart showing the stages of scholarly and career readiness.

On the career-readiness side, many resources exist for the beginning and end of the continuum, but few for the middle. Yet that is where institutional interventions can have the most impact—where trainees can be empowered to take ownership of their career path and chart a course that is aligned with their interests, skills and values. Moreover, when an academic institution offers trainees support in that development phase, it sets the standard for how it implements long-term career preparation and development. In this article, we present a program that aims to do just that.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, three main units on the campus support professional development programming for graduate student and postdoc trainees: the Graduate Student Resource Center, Career Services, and the Center for Science & Engineering Partnerships. As leaders in those units for many years, we noticed a gap in the individualized support we were able to provide our trainees during the growth phase of their career readiness continuum. So in 2018, we launched the Individualized Professional Skills program to empower trainees to take greater agency in their career preparation by enabling them to identify the highest-impact opportunities that would support their long-term goals. Through the program, we also sought to build general awareness around extramural opportunities by leveraging the power of peer-to-peer networking. The ultimate aim was to normalize individualized career preparation as an integral and necessary part of doctoral training, alongside the standard practices of research, teaching and service.

Most universities offer funding to support graduate students and postdocs in research-related activities such as attending conferences, going to field sites or visiting labs and archives that are all a part of conducting or presenting research (though this support can vary widely across disciplines). However, it can be much harder for trainees to find funding to pursue professional development opportunities that lie outside the traditional boundaries of academic research—things like attending industry trade shows, skill development workshops or certificate programs, or any other professionalization opportunities that could be instrumental in their personal career exploration or preparation. The IPS program fills in this funding gap by providing minigrants of up to $1,000 for student-identified opportunities that would positively impact their professional growth.

The place of the IPS program in a trainee’s career readiness continuum can be concretely seen in the case of one of our former students. Tanya Das, a graduate student in the electrical and computer engineering department, regularly took advantage of the career and professional development programming on our campus. In one of her advising appointments, she realized that she wanted to attend the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting to further her career interests in science policy. We scraped together enough funding to support her trip. Her experience at the meeting catalyzed a series of connections and next steps, which led to an AAAS Congressional Policy fellowship and finally to her current position as the associate director of energy innovation at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Witnessing the compounding impact that this initial opportunity afforded Tanya—and then several other graduate students we subsequently funded for other opportunities—convinced us that we needed to build the institutional infrastructure to support more students like her. We needed a mechanism for all trainees to be able to receive this kind of potentially transformative support.

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Since its inception four years ago, the IPS program has been able to give out over $95,000 to nearly 250 grad students and postdocs at the university. From the awardee’s perspective, participation in the IPS program involves three stages: 1) creating an individual development plan (IDP) and reviewing with a mentor, 2) participating in their chosen career development experience, and 3) presenting about their experience to their peers and revising their IDP in light of their experience. Additionally, we compile summaries from all of our awardees into a publicly available online database.

Our awardees have noted a wide range of positive outcomes from their IPS-funded experiences, from increasing awareness and developing transferable skills to obtaining interviews and internship opportunities. We have also seen our awardees make valuable professional connections that have resulted in employment opportunities as well as opportunities for novel types of collaboration. We believe the impact of the IPS program comes not only through the funding it provides but also its integration of goal-setting, self-reflection, peer-to-peer networking and resource sharing.

But keeping the lights on at the IPS program has been a labor of love, both administratively and financially. Our three-person team provides pretty much all of the end-to-end programmatic support for the program, including fundraising, promoting the program, reviewing applications, disbursing funds, tracking follow-up, scheduling student presentations, publishing informational videos from awardees and maintaining our online database. We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way about how to shepherd a program through many changes in institutional support, budget constraints and the career development landscape. We share some of those lessons here in the hopes that it will help others who may wish to explore something akin to IPS on their own campus.

  • Plan ahead and stay flexible. We have gone through many iterations of the IPS program, and each one has looked different than what we anticipated it to be. While you can plan for some uncertainties, such as shifts in funding and student engagement, you can’t plan for many others, such as global pandemics. We have found it vital for the program director team to meet on a regular monthly basis to ensure we stay prepared for whatever the next challenge may be.
  • Know that persistence pays off. Usually. As career development professionals, most of us are used to being the squeaky wheels on our campus to advocate for our trainees. Launching a program like IPS required a lot of squeaking. But we have also had to be discerning and learn to cut our losses in certain areas where we just weren’t making inroads, particularly with funding requests. With our limited capacities, we had to learn to be strategic.
  • Maximize the resources at your disposal, particularly your own skill set. Much of the success of our program launch for IPS was due to our ability to capitalize on and synergize existing resources on our campus—both in terms of person power and available pots of funding. Most of us are quite adept at managing programs under resource constraints. Use that scrappy maverick mind-set to your advantage.
  • Be creative and strategic, especially with funding. Starting a program like IPS is an opportunity to be creative and solve problems in novel ways. We have had to wade through a sea of nos to get to the few yeses that have allowed us to keep the program afloat for as long as we have. Learn how to package and pitch your initiative in a variety of ways so that you can get buy-in from different constituencies, whether that be deans and department heads or faculty members and funding agencies.

As mentors, advisers and administrators, we need to be forward-looking in the support we provide our trainees so that they can make informed career decisions. There are already a variety of motivating factors that you can draw on, whether it be requests from trainees, national initiatives and reports like the ones Adriana Bankston mentioned in her recent “Carpe Careers” post, or your personal experience. We must keep pushing for our institutions to create new funding sources or to open up existing ones traditionally reserved for scholarly work in order to support opportunities that benefit our trainees’ holistic professional and career development.

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The blue and white logo of the Graduate Career Consortium.Baron Haber is assistant director and Shawn Warner is director of graduate student professional development at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where they manage the Graduate Student Resource Center, which runs more than 100 events for graduate students and postdocs each year. Arica Lubin is an associate director at the Center for Science and Engineering Partnerships and co-directs the Professional Development Series program for graduate students and postdocs at the university. They are all members of the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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