UChicagoGRAD offers robust set of services, support to graduate students

Marielle Sainvilus

Linsey Sainte-Claire is a doctoral student in French and francophone literature. Now in her sixth year of study at the University of Chicago, she has been moving her dissertation to the finish line and launching her academic job hunt with help from a new office, UChicagoGRAD.

Before applying for an internal fellowship to support her dissertation writing, she worked with UChicagoGRAD’s fellowship resources team, including Jessica Smith. Sainte-Claire was advised to be thoughtful of her audience when writing and to ask friends and others outside of her field to read her work.

“It was really great advice,” said Sainte-Claire. “The people on the committee are not necessarily people in my field, so I need to be clear and make sure they know the value of my research.” Sainte-Claire won the internal fellowship she sought and is looking forward to completing her dissertation in time to graduate in June 2016. “It’s definitely a struggle, but I’m excited to finish it. I’m ready to teach and do more research.”

Developing Leaders Across Professional Spectrum

Helping leaders in academia, government, business and nonprofit organizations understand the value graduate students offer is key to the mission of UChicagoGRAD, which officially launched in May. The new office’s goal is to complement the education students are receiving in their disciplines with a menu of services and supports for graduate students at all levels: master’s, doctoral and postdoctoral.

“Graduate students are central to the scholarship, research and educational mission of the University, and represent the next generation of leaders across many professional sectors,” Provost Eric D. Isaacs said. "Graduate students have been central to the University since the start. William Rainey Harper, the University’s first President, aimed for the University to offer graduate programs ‘in many departments of knowledge, and which should do a great service to mankind.’ ”

A new cohort of graduate students, who will benefit from UChicagoGRAD’s specialized support, were welcomed to campus Tuesday, Sept. 22, at a special Convocation in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. President Robert J. Zimmer made the opening remarks, and Sian Beilock, vice provost for academic initiatives and professor in psychology, introduced students to UChicagoGRAD and invited them to take advantage of its programs and support.  

“It might sound odd to be talking about finishing your program when you’re just starting, but having conversations now with your advisor, your peers and with the consultants at UChicagoGRAD can help ensure that you’re on the right track from Day 1.”

Ka Yee Lee, professor of chemistry, and Antoine C. Jones, doctoral student in sociology, also spoke to the new students. An informational fair in Ida Noyes Hall followed the Convocation as well as a lunch on the Midway Plaisance.

Best Practices and Novel Approaches

UChicagoGRAD services range from the expected—career advising, fellowship guidance, and tailored support for students raising families or conducting research abroad—to the unexpected, such as creating a workgroup to consider how big data macroanalytics can inform humanities research, or hosting an Art Institute event, at which graduate students discuss their research with the public in five-minute talks while standing before a relevant artwork.

Sainte-Claire appreciates UChicagoGRAD’s commitment to engaging programming. She jumped into workshops on course design, creating a teaching portfolio and a recent four-day boot camp on navigating the academic job market. “We brought our own CVs to see how we could improve them. We had actual interview questions we could practice answering,” she said. “I really liked that it was not just them talking, but us putting it into practice.”

Beilock, who oversees UChicagoGRAD, knows that hands-on experiences are a priority, and she deeply understands the challenges today’s graduate students face. She knows aspiring doctoral candidates must look professional during Skype interviews with potential postdoctoral advisors and navigate fast-changing job markets in academia and beyond. “UChicago graduate students have an impact on scholarship and education here, just as the University’s scholarship and education has an effect on graduate students. We want to support students during their time on campus and as they go off to pursue future endeavors,” she said.

Inside and Outside of Academia

Already, Tim Fessenden credits the new office with making a difference in his career focus. “Once UChicagoGRAD got together, we started getting very regular, very organized information about career services,” said the sixth-year doctoral student in cancer biology. Just seeing those emails spurred Fessenden to start thinking about his career more seriously, which led him to investigate UChicagoGRAD’s consulting service. “I was able to get really fantastic one-on-one counseling,” Fessenden said.

His counselor, Michael Tessel, completed post-doctoral research in cancer biology before moving into career advising and helped Fessenden transform his CV into an industry-appropriate resume. Though Fessenden now thinks he’ll pursue postdoctoral research, he’s holding on to that resume for the future, just in case. “Any kind of employer outside of academia will be interested in those very different skills and techniques.”

Joanna Wroblewska, a PhD student in immunology, said UChicagoGRAD events and services were essential to landing a job offer with Boston Consulting Group, where she plans to work after she completes her degree in June 2016. “If it wasn't for UChicagoGRAD, I may not have even known that consulting exists. I attended a UChicagoGRAD consulting boot camp a year before I would apply to BCG, and it was my first introduction to cases, crafting a resume and the lifestyle of a consultant.”

Wroblewska said she secured UChicagoGRAD funding to form a graduate consulting group on campus to build on skills. “The core members of this group all went on to receive interviews from top consulting firms,” she said. “All of the services, support and encouragement helped me navigate the exciting journey that ended with an offer from BCG.”

Through top-notch coaching in writing, oral communication and career planning, UChicagoGRAD is preparing graduate students for their next steps, wherever they might lead. “We’re providing students with the skills they need to be successful everywhere,” said Beilock. “To a great extent, those skills are the same whether they enter academia or not.”