GradUCon and Beyond

Institutions want to help their graduate students find meaningful work. Here's how the University of Chicago is doing it.

April 7, 2017
 
University of Chicago
Past GradUCon at the University of Chicago

Some 500 graduate students and postdocs, along with faculty members, alumni and leaders from nonprofits, government and business will gather at the University of Chicago’s International House today for its annual GradUCon. Like Comic-Con and other fan conventions, Chicago’s event is meant for those who love academics -- but not necessarily those who want to be academics.

Why? Like every offering from the campus’s UChicagoGRAD career support office, GradUCon purposely eschews the typical inside/outside academe binary: it will feature talks on everything from big data in the tech industry and careers in think tanks and museums to working at a liberal arts college and being a first-year faculty member.

In the past, said Brooke Noonan, executive director of UChicagoGRAD, “many Ph.D.s tended to seek out the academic career path as a no-brainer, but of course in the last eight to 10 years, we’ve really seen a shift in the job market. We want to make sure that the pursuit of getting a Ph.D. remains worthwhile, and to make sure that there’s a fulfilling professional life at the other end of this path.”

UChicagoGRAD debuted two years ago with that goal in mind and just a few staff members. The idea was to have a single office apart from the university’s 11 independent graduate divisions and professional schools, to focus on the “flexible” career-readiness skills that students wouldn’t necessarily be getting from their discipline-specific advisers. Those include written communication for a variety of contexts, video and in-person interviewing, grant writing, talking concisely but passionately about one’s research, and other forms of public speaking. Adaptability is also key.

In addition to GradUCon, UChicagoGRAD offers a major job fair every year, a sort of matchmaking service between graduate students and paid internships, outreach to employers, workshops, advising, and other events.

“It turns out the skills needed to prepare for a successful careers in the academy are not so different from the those pertaining to careers in other sectors,” namely industry, nonprofits and government, Noonan said.

‘A Swiss Army Knife of Skills’

Much of the work is about helping students realize they already have what they need for a variety of career paths, she added. “One of my favorite phrases, from a student we work with, is, ‘I’m like a Swiss army knife of skills -- I just need to know which of the tools to bring out at the right time.’” In another example, an employer from a national lab involved with UChicagoGRAD said a Ph.D. he’d recently interviewed claimed she didn’t have any management experience -- but she’d been running a lab.

Stephen Gray, who received his Ph.D. in psychology from Chicago last year, said interacting with career counselors and mock interviewers through UChicagoGRAD helped him land his current job as a consumer insights analyst at Facebook. Staff members helped him learn about the positions available to him as a cognitive experimental psychologist, create a résumé that highlighted skills that didn’t immediately strike him as marketable -- such as computer programming, statistics and experimental design -- and negotiate an eventual offer.

“I found their assistance invaluable in learning how to speak about my strengths and put them into the context of solving a particular company’s problems, and I definitely would not have my current position without their guidance,” Gray said via email.

Regarding internships, the office started small, thinking it would be able to offer about a dozen paid positions to students with the help of some seed money. UChicagoGRAD had suggestions and connections -- including federal jobs through David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama and now director of the campus Institute of Politics -- but students were encouraged to seek out their own opportunities, as well. The only requirement, in part to appease faculty members concerned about students losing valuable summer research time, was that the internship had to somehow advance an applicant’s research.

Some 70 applications streamed in, and, to the office’s delight, placements were arranged for nearly all students, from the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris to the Black Youth Project in Chicago. This summer approximately 100 students will be interning to advance their studies and professional prospects. Some organizations pay interns, while other students are funded through the university, grants or donations. Of course, having 100 summer internships is hardly surprising for an undergraduate institution or a STEM master's program. But for Ph.D. students, the number is notable.

UChicagoGRAD maintains a robust directory of fellowships, and students are encouraged to first visit the office for help seeking out and writing an application for one -- what Noonan called a “gateway drug” to other services.

Making It Work

Centralization was an immediate boon in that many students felt comfortable self-referring to seek out career advice that wasn’t strictly academic. But staff members knew it might be a challenge in terms of recruiting additional students from so many separate divisions and professional schools.

So Noonan said the office worked hard to engage academic deans, in the hope that they would then promote its “credibility” to faculty members -- who would then refer students. In exchange, the deans demanded data as to the office’s efforts and effectiveness, as even at a well-off institution such as Chicago, redundant programs aren’t acceptable in today’s budget climate. But the hard work has paid off. The office is responsible for more than 9,000 master’s and Ph.D. students on campus, plus postdocs, and last year it logged 7,400 “touch points,” with an average of 2.5 engagements or visits per student or postdoc.

The office has seen buy-in from faculty members, too -- especially newer faculty members who understand firsthand the realities of today’s job market, Noonan said. But even longer-serving faculty members -- who across academe stereotypically seek to “recreate” themselves (and their career paths) in the next generation of scholars -- have been supportive, and even grateful.

“What we’ve heard from senior faculty is that they just don't know how to go about helping graduate students find jobs at a consulting firm,” for example, she said. “Sometimes if they disengage [from graduate students seeking non-faculty jobs], it’s not for shame or disappointment, it’s a lack of expertise in that field.”

UChicagoGRAD falls under the purview of Sian Beilock, executive vice provost and Stella M. Rowley Professor of psychology. She, too, said she cared about the success of her graduate students who sought careers outside academe but could previously tell them little more than “Good luck.”

The new office “sets up students to succeed no matter where they go,” Beilock said. “They learn written and oral communication and other skills, and how to advocate for themselves successfully as academics, or in industry, nonprofits or government.”

Gray, the alum, agreed, saying he knew within a few years of academic life that he wanted something different. But his academic advisers “didn’t know how to help me, having spent their whole lives in the ivory tower.”

In addition to faculty members and students, UChicagoGRAD also works to educate employers, “letting them know that we have an incredible talent pipeline,” Noonan said. “We’re going after sectors that may or may not historically have looked at Ph.D.s, one organization at a time, to demonstrate the power of research in problem solving and asking the right questions.”

Beilock said she’s been interested in hearing what employers have to say at some of the office’s events, including that interviews in industry often start the way they do in academe: talk about your research. “Can you explain in an exciting and fluent manner what you’re doing?” she recalled.

Staying Creative and ‘Nimble’

One of Beilock’s favorite office programs to date is something called "Expose Yourself!" Through "lab crawls" and pop-up lectures about how one's research relates to a given work at the Art Institute of Chicago, students are encouraged to talk about their research to those outside their fields -- including the general public.

Always open to new ideas, especially those from students, UChicagoGRAD is offering similar opportunities this spring at local cultural centers, retirement facilities and community colleges, said Kaitlyn Tucker, a Ph.D. candidate in Slavic languages and literatures and a student liaison to the project. “The hope is that giving students the opportunity to present their research to a variety of audiences will help them prepare for job talks, as well as improve their communication skills more broadly.”

Asked if the office has had to work hard to convince some students to consider jobs outside academe, Beilock said alumni -- who are a big part of UChicagoGRAD -- are the most credible agents. “One of the best way to talk to students about that is to show them examples of successful peers who have been able to use their research skills in a variety of ways.”

Emily Lynn Osborn, an associate professor of history at Chicago, said she appreciates how the office “opens doors” to students who don’t plan on pursuing tenure-track jobs, or don’t find one, or who simply want to challenge themselves “and explore how their skills and expertise as a historian might translate into different contexts and different kinds of work.”

Whatever students plan on doing, Osborn said, the office helps her help them in that it offers workshops on topics such as the “nitty-gritty” of writing curricula vitae, and one-on-one professional counseling. Students who take advantage of those services come back to the department with a “firm foundation,” she said, and “we can then really focus on matters that are content specific, that pertain specifically to field and discipline.”

UChicagoGRAD has grown quickly but intentionally, to a team including career advisers, fellowship advisers, two executive directors, a director of diversity and development, part-time staff members who help with writing and editing requests, and more. It employs some graduate students, as peer consulting is a popular option.

“We’ve grown organically,” said Noonan. “Our nimbleness -- or agility -- has been our secret weapon.”

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