First GRADFair attracts several hundred graduate students and postdocs

Marielle Sainvilus

UChicagoGRAD’s first-ever career fair dedicated to graduate students and postdocs drew about 500 attendees from more than 70 UChicago programs and departments. GRADFair, held Nov. 6 at Harper Court, also brought together at a pre-fair lunch members of the faculty, alumni community, the senior staff and employers to discuss a variety of graduate career options and support.

Representatives of 56 organizations came to Hyde Park to recruit and participate in the conversation. From the Art Institute to the U.S. Department of State, and from Fortune 500 companies to startups and nonprofits, the employers reflected a range of potential careers.

The representatives also hosted tables at GRADFair, inviting candidates to ask questions and share perspectives on graduate training. Some of the recruiters had experience hiring UChicago graduate students while others were new partners.

Among them was Inventables, a maker of digital fabrication machines. Michael Tessel, associate director of graduate career development and employer relations for UChicagoGRAD, invited the Chicago-based company after reading it had received $5 million in Series B funding. Tessel, who also chaired the GRADFair planning committee, said, “We figured they would be in a growth mode.” Indeed, the 13-year-old company, with about 30 employees, plans to double its payroll within a year, according to its Director of Human Resources Josh Estrada.

“The interest in GRADFair from UChicago students and postdocs shows that people are exploring a variety of career paths, said Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Sian Beilock. “Likewise, the fact that we had so many different organizations recruiting at this event demonstrates that employers from nonprofit, industry and government are equally interested in individuals with advanced degrees.”

At the lunch that preceded the three-hour fair, Provost Eric Isaacs delivered remarks that encouraged an exchange of ideas among employers, faculty, staff and alumni about career development for advanced degree holders.

“GRADFair was focused on fostering conversations and establishing relationships among many stakeholders,” said A-J Aronstein, director of graduate career development and employer relations for UChicagoGRAD. “We aimed to bring rigor to a multi-sided debate about the role of career preparation in the context of graduate education.”

Several of the resulting conversations produced clear insights about what employers seek.

Beilock said she learned how one hiring organization evaluates a graduate student or postdoc’s capacity to communicate the value of their research to diverse audiences. “I sat next to an employer who said the first thing they do is ask PhD students to give a five-minute synopsis of their work. If the presentation is confusing or it’s unclear why the work is important, it says a lot about that individual’s ability to clearly explain complicated information, and to read their audience and get folks excited about a topic.”

A total of 275 students and postdocs submitted resumes for employers to review before the event, resulting in many one-on-one meetings with firm representatives. Students also met with alumni in formal interviews and informational chats. Vinodhkumar Gunasekaran, a master’s student in analytics, met with Prashant Shukla, product manager at Metromile. “He gave me an overview of Metromile and put me in touch with the company’s recruiter,” Gunasekaran said. “I’ll definitely follow up.”

UChicagoGRAD also held several events prior to GRADFair to offer advice about how to approach employers and position their research. “They suggested that we be open to rebranding ourselves,” said Martin Scheeler, a PhD student in physics. “While research, management and consulting are traditional cornerstones, what about teaching, technology or a start-up?”

Em Hall, marketing director at One Hope United, reinforced that idea by asking attendees to consider working in an area they had never thought of before. “We’re looking for all kinds of employees,” she said, “those who are bilingual, interested in data analysis, can teach, know how to measure things, and can figure out how to measure things that have not been measured before.”

Across the hall, a recruiter from the American Institutes for Research asked the crowd gathered in front of her table if they possessed a set of skills her organization required. “Are you a good writer? Do you know how to analyze a survey? Do you know how a focus group works?” She suggested that individuals might fail to realize how valuable these skills—hallmarks of a graduate education—can be in the workplace.

Teach For America emphasized that although many people think its job opportunities are aimed at undergraduates, more than one-third of its teachers are professionals and/or have advanced degrees.

Graduate school is good at “teaching deep knowledge and information,” said Zhuoya Xie, a master’s student in the physical sciences. “We came here today to learn how to market and sell ourselves.”