At GRADUCon, network of alumni has words of wisdom, career advice for students

More than 400 UChicago graduate students, postdocs and recent alumni attended this year’s conference

Stay curious.

Focus on finding great peers.

Always negotiate your salary.

Consider a career pivot if you are frustrated.

Ask that weird question; people at UChicago are really good at that.

This was a sample of the advice that UChicago alumni had for attendees at GRADUCon, an annual career exploration conference that brings together a network of alumni employed in academia, industry, nonprofits and government.

More than 400 UChicago graduate students, postdocs and recent alumni attended this year’s conference in March, which featured 15 alumni panels organized around different career trajectories. Many panels returned by popular demand, such as careers in data science and careers in strategy consulting; there were also several new panels, including Humanists in Tech. 

GRADUCon gives attendees a chance to connect with each other about their work and career interests in a unique setting, shaping their career narratives and building confidence over the course of the day.

Monica Barry, AM’21, an alumna of the Master of Arts Program in Social Sciences and now the assistant director of Employer Relations at UChicagoGRAD, organized the Humanists in Tech panel. She started by reaching out to another UChicago master’s alum, Deborah Blumenthal, AM’11, to moderate.

Blumenthal, who manages marketing events at AllCampus, framed the panel as an entry point into the range of ways humanists bring value to tech employers.

“With the challenges in the job market, I think it's smart to think beyond the familiar and explore fields that aren't necessarily precisely related to the content of your studies. A lot of us humanists are out here doing things we never expected to be doing back when we were graduate students but engaging with our educational backgrounds nonetheless.”

Eugene Chan, AM’15, graduated from the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities in 2015 and works as a brand manager at Everspring, an edtech company. Speaking alongside fellow alums who also pivoted into tech after acquiring an advanced degree in a humanities field, Chan shared that “you are never too old or too far along your career to pivot to a different industry, and never too young or inexperienced to take on a new challenge.”

Although pivoting in your career doesn’t happen overnight, the panelists emphasized that humanists already possess skills that are of value to almost any employer in any sector.

According to Blumenthal, “Communication—particularly in writing—is valuable and doing it well is a genuine talent. The same goes for being a great researcher.”

One GRADUCon attendee, Rivky Mondal, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature, said she has learned “not to underestimate the portability of research skills I developed during graduate study. Don't underestimate the wider application of your ideas just because they've been living inside the dissertation box.”

Panelist Lauren Silvers, PhD’10, praised humanists for being able to digest large amounts of information and share it with stakeholders in a clear way, but she cautioned that “their first impression is made in mere seconds. Communicate the relevant pieces.”

Panelist Sara B.T. Thiel, who has a Ph.D. in theatre studies and gender and women’s studies from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 2017 and is now a senior associate editor at Built In, an online community for national startups and tech companies, relayed her personal mantra that applying for jobs is free—in other words, job searchers should consider a range of positions.

Sena Agawu, AM’16, a graduate of the Master of Arts Program in Social Sciences who now helps Salesforce hire and retain diverse candidates, advised attendees to “negotiate any offer you’re given, because an applicant never has more negotiating power than when they’ve received an offer and are considering whether to accept it or not.”

Silvers concurred and added: “When negotiating, think about more than salary and negotiate on total rewards. Signing bonus, stock options, vacation time, benefits and promotion terms are all up for negotiation up front.”

Panelist Sarah Welch-Larson, AM’16, a graduate of the MAPH program and now a lead digital strategy analyst at McMaster-Carr, noted how crucial and beneficial it can be to stay curious and network with people at your own career stage. Her recommendation: “Find like-minded people and nurture those relationships.”  

“Even if you choose to leave academia,” said Welch-Larson, “there will always be a part of you that is an academic. Nurture that curiosity and keep learning, even if it’s outside a formally structured environment.” Agawu agreed, saying, “Always take time to talk to others who are interested in similar topics.”

Another piece of advice heard across GRADUCon this year: Ask the oddball question. Whether you are conducting an informational interview or in the final stage of a hiring process, be your authentic self and ask questions that will help you learn about the personalities of your prospective colleagues and the company’s work culture.

Agawu suggested asking “Do you eat lunch every day?” because the answer can provide a sense of whether having a midday break is typical in that workplace.

On the Careers in UX Research panel, Jake Butts, a UX Research Associate at JPMorgan Chase who is expecting to graduate with his Ph.D. in psychology from UChicago this spring, encouraged interviewees to ask the hiring manager “What do you do for fun?”

Chan framed it this way: “Ask that weird question; people at UChicago are really good at that.”

Whether or not a job is right for you typically comes down to the people. It pays to be curious about the office culture. Dana Gilmore, PhD’18, a senior scientist at Chroma Medicine who earned a Ph.D. in immunology, shared that though the work is interesting, it was the sense of the people and the culture that clinched her decision to accept Chroma Medicine’s offer.

On another panel, focused on careers in media and publishing, television writer/producer Bob Daily, AM’86, quipped: “Be fun to work with! Let your personality come through in your job search.”