GRADUCon 2016 expands career horizons within and beyond academia

Sarojini Rao, a fifth-year doctoral student in economics, knows her interest in public policy research sets her apart from most of her departmental colleagues who tend to head either into academia or finance. She’s currently debating between pursuing an academic career or venturing into entrepreneurship to solve problems in health care billing.

For Rao, GRADUCon 2016 offered valuable information no matter which direction she ultimately takes. An initiative of UChicagoGRAD, the annual GRADUCon helps guide graduate students and postdocs toward potential careers based on their fields and the knowledge and skills they’ve acquired during their education. The conference also provides panel discussions with faculty, staff and alumni, as well as one-on-one interviews and networking opportunities.

Rao toured the Chicago Innovation Exchange startup incubator, learned more about the state of the field in data science and user-experience research, and talked with experts in health sciences. “The moderator had all the attendees introduce themselves and included plenty of time for questions from the floor,” she said. “The conversation was very genuine and included personal insights from the panelists that resonated with me.”

Now in its seventh year, GRADUCon 2016 drew 350 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows for a day of professional education and networking expressly tailored to young researchers. The event facilitated 225 one-on-one conversations between students, postdocs and alumni, doubling the total from last year. This year, GRADUCon also dovetailed with a faculty recruitment event led by members of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers (LADO) Consortium. The consortium’s work is intended to enhance diversity in liberal arts colleges.

One of the event attendees, Marcelle Medford, a sociologist expecting to complete her dissertation this year, has so far spent her entire academic life at the University of Chicago. That’s about to change. Medford is one of four UChicago graduate students who have been awarded two-year postdoctoral fellowships through the Creating Connections Consortium, a select group of research universities and liberal arts colleges, including UChicago, supporting diversity in higher education by finding new ways to hire and support graduate students from underrepresented populations. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation supports these fellowships.

Thanks to her postdoc, Medford will be moving on to Connecticut College. At first, the idea of making the change from a research university to a liberal arts college seemed daunting. “An academic life revolving around teaching terrified me,” she said. “I had never experienced it.” But contact with members of the Liberal Arts Diversity Officers Consortium reassured her that she could grow as a teacher and still conduct research. Meeting her soon-to-be colleagues at Connecticut College via Skype also encouraged her. “It was the mix of colleagues that drew me,” she said, including a department chair who shares Medford’s research interest in race and immigration.

Supporting—and being supported—in promoting diversity for undergraduates was also a draw. “No one should be going through college without a broad experience of intellectual conversation with people from many different backgrounds,” Medford said.

Nearly 70 graduate students and postdocs attended LADO events on April 7 as a “pre-GRADUCon conference,” and many attended an April 8 GRADUCon session on teaching in liberal arts colleges. For Nadxieli Toledo Bustamante, a doctoral student in Comparative Human Development originally from Mexico, the panel served as a welcome introduction to the culture of liberal arts colleges in the United States. “I prefer teaching,” she said. “I know an R1 is not in my future, but that’s the only kind of university I know in the states. It was nice to hear teaching-oriented people talk about their careers.”

Researchers considering industry careers in science also picked up useful tips from UChicago alumni serving as panelists. To demonstrate versatility when applying for an industry position, “your CV would show you’re not just a scientist, you’re a thinker on many different levels. Ideally, it would show leadership in other organizations,” said Stephanie Klenotich, PhD’12. Recognizing the challenge of balancing organizational leadership with the demands of bench science, she added, “You can’t do everything, but you can do what you’re passionate about and you can make time for it.”

The same theme arose in a different context during the panel on careers in nonprofits. Ben Helphand, MA’01, who now leads a nonprofit focused on community gardening called NeighborSpace, also emphasized the importance of demonstrating leadership. “You can put ‘self-motivated’ in a cover letter, but you have to show there’s weight behind it. Maybe you can even show it in your coursework. Did you have the opportunity to choose a project? Did you make a jump from paper to policy?”

Helphand also encouraged the audience to communicate their work beyond the academy by writing a relevant article once or twice a year. “Those clips, and people I met at speaking engagements, that really opened doors,” he said. “They saw I could write, I could speak in front of a group.”

Attendees from different disciplines and at all stages of their graduate careers praised the conference for giving them valuable career advice, whatever path they may take. “It's sometimes tough to look up from my day-to-day work and think about the direction of my career, and events like this give me the time and motivation to do just that,” said postdoctoral physics researcher Yuval Yifat.

“In just a few years, this event has grown from a relatively small collection of panel discussions into a multiple-venue conference that puts hundreds of people into discussion with one another,” said A-J Aronstein, director of Graduate Career Development and Employer Relations at UChicagoGRAD. This was Aronstein’s fourth time leading the planning committee for GRADUCon. “To plan this event involves the work of many individuals dedicated to advancing the success of students and postdocs,” he said. “We’re grateful for their energy, and also for the time and insights of generous UChicago alumni and employers.”

GRADUCon is one of the many initiatives supported by UChicagoGRAD, a University-wide office committed to ensuring that students and postdocs have the skills they need to become the next generation of leaders in academia, industry, nonprofits and government. The University has invested heavily in graduate support through a number of resources and initiatives. The Chicago Center for Teaching has expanded training and support for teaching across the university and provides workshops, seminars and professional development for graduate students and faculty members. The Writing Program offers writing support tailored to the distinct needs of graduate students and postdocs, and GRADtalk helps students and postdocs improve their presentation skills. The newly expanded English Language Institute offers rigorous English language instruction for international students and postdoctoral scholars. The University has prioritized career development opportunities for graduate students and postdocs through innovative events and programs such as GRADFair and GRADUCon, connecting students with alumni and future employers.