Career conference provides advice for job seekers in uncertain times

Virtual GRADUCon discussions examine impact of COVID-19 on employment

Rather than canceling its annual career conference due to the coronavirus outbreak, UChicagoGRAD moved the event online, and many of its panelists used COVID-19 as a talking point for discussion.

The 11th annual GRADUCon for University of Chicago graduate students and postdocs, held April 3, had its biggest turnout yet with nearly 800 registrants. For those entering an uncertain job market, the all-day event provided helpful perspective.

“GRADUCon was a welcome burst of optimism and energy,” said Caleb Sponheim, a third-year PhD student in computational neuroscience.

Graduate student Jainam Mehta noted: “Personally, I think it’s especially important during these times of uncertainty, to work on career planning, learn about career options and start thinking ahead.”

In a keynote panel discussion moderated by Vice Provosts Daniel Abebe and Jason Merchant, Provost Ka Yee C. Lee praised the University community for coming together in a time of crisis. In her remarks to students, Provost Lee emphasized the importance of planning ahead, being true to yourself and leveraging the transferrable skills you gain as a graduate student.

“The most important part of your graduate training is that you are learning a lot about how to solve problems and how to tackle difficulty, and as projects fail you learn how to go around it,” Provost Lee said. “You learn how to be resilient. During your graduate program you learn how to think, how to be critical, how to be creative, and how to apply the skills that you learn from your failure or your previous success to move on to new areas.”

Laura Stef-Praun, PhD’10, offered advice on how to navigate the job search during these times.

“It’s going to take you time to figure out what job descriptions work for you,” she said during a panel on content creation and management. “Just give it a few hours a day. Live your life. Make a schedule. Set some time for the job application process every day.”

Nick Schade, a postdoctoral researcher in physics, applauded the frank discussions for potential jobseekers, especially a panel discussion on new faculty in STEM fields.

“The session brought up concerns about how an imminent recession might affect new faculty’s access to their startup funds—an issue I had not previously considered,” he said. “It was also very interesting to hear about how faculty recruiting has already been affected at various institutions by the pandemic.”

The event featured more than 70 alumni sharing their expertise across 16 career panels on topics such as non-academic careers, working in health care data science, green jobs and U.S. job searches for international students.

In addition to moving GRADUCon online, UChicagoGRAD has transitioned all advising services, programs and workshops to virtual formats to continue supporting graduate students and postdocs be successful at UChicago and beyond.

Briana Konnick, associate director of graduate career development at UChicagoGRAD and organizer for this year’s GRADUCon, noted the sudden shift online spurred collaboration and creative solutions.

“Our panelists and moderators were incredibly flexible in transitioning to an online format,” she said, “and I so appreciate their can-do attitude and commitment to bring their perspectives and advice to current students and postdocs.”