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Setting Grad Students Up for Success: How Faculty Can Support Students’ Career Exploration – Higher Ed Careers

Setting Grad Students Up for Success: How Faculty Can Support Students’ Career Exploration – Higher Ed Careers


Photo with concept drawing of career planning

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In this Higher Ed Careers interview, experts in the graduate career field share how faculty in both STEM and humanities can better support and mentor their graduate students as they explore careers both in and outside of academia.

Kelly Cherwin, HigherEdJobs: You all recently presented at the Graduate Career Consortium on the topic of “Meeting Faculty Where They Are to Get Them Where They Need to Be: Career Mentorship Training.” Please first explain the reasoning behind why your training session for faculty was developed.

Annie Maxfield, Director of Graduate Career & Professional Development: The training session was developed as part of the Association of American Universities PhD Education Initiative, as the culminating event from three years of collaborative work at UT Austin where a group of faculty, staff, and graduate students developed interventions to make graduate education more student-centered, and PhD careers visible, viable, and valued. The team of faculty, staff, and students ultimately recognized that mentorship is at the heart of how graduate students think about their futures, and because many faculty only have faculty careers, there is a lot of hesitation on their side to initiate conversations about careers outside of the academy. If we want to change the way the academy values careers beyond the tenure track, faculty and fellow graduate students are at the center of that change.

Cherwin: There seem to be some themes in why some faculty don’t feel they have the ability to invest energy into career mentoring. What are some common apprehensions faculty express, and how do you help them overcome them?

Maxfield: I think many feel like they are invested in career mentoring when it comes to pursuing academic careers. However, because they are experts in their fields and in their own careers, there is often a misconception that they don’t know enough about other kinds of careers to help. Advising about topics where faculty don’t have expertise is a very uncommon practice in the academy, where developing expertise and creating new knowledge is at the core of academia’s existence.

Additional barriers include time scarcity, which I believe often stems from the ambiguity of success and expectations for faculty seeking tenure and promotion. In general, most work environments have clear expectations for what success looks like for employees and how they can progress in their careers. With faculty, achieving tenure is an ambiguous mix of productivity, prestige, and impact, and the lack of clarity leads to putting energy into everything and not knowing when it’s “good enough” to stop or if you have achieved what you intended to. This feeling of always working is pervasive across the university, which is filled with people who are high achieving who also in many ways, celebrate “being busy.”

Also, mentoring isn’t a key component of securing tenure or promotion, so faculty in research institutions focus most of their energy on research. Becoming a great mentor takes time and energy, which is often unrewarded. There really aren’t any incentives for them to invest time into developing strong career mentoring skills institutionally, as most institutions still only consider academic outcomes for mentees in the tenure and promotion process.

Derek Attig, Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development, Graduate College at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: One other dynamic I see a lot is faculty feeling like they would need to build career support completely from scratch in their departments, which would be a huge undertaking for which they often don’t feel they have time. But many universities have graduate-focused career staff who can be collaborators and partners in that work. These staff’s expertise in career and professional development can combine with faculty expertise in their field and their students, opening up possibilities that wouldn’t be possible for either working alone. With that in mind, I always encourage faculty to think of career staff as more than just a referral resource (where you send students when they have questions you can’t answer) but instead as partners in the intellectual and practical project of improving students’ experience of graduate education.

Cherwin: The case studies seemed to indicate some ambivalence from both students and faculty to be honest about how they’re feeling. How can faculty and students foster more open, collaborative, and honest conversations related to careers?

Maxfield: When thinking about mentoring conversations, it’s imperative to understand the power dynamic in graduate mentoring relationships. Mentors are not only there to advise and support the development of the student, but they are also their employer and are the final signer on when the student completes their PhD. So, inherently mentors have a great deal of power in the situation and the responsibility should lie with them in initiating career conversations. If there isn’t clarity around how a faculty member supports students pursuing careers outside of academia, many students won’t initiate the conversation for fear that they might lose financial support or the support of their mentor for other opportunities.

I think there are also a lot of assumptions mentees make, when expectations and support aren’t clearly laid out. The culture of academic departments tends to normalize academic careers through language. We often hear “the job market” or the difference between academic and nonacademic careers. Faculty can make huge impact by de-centering academic work and talking about all work as equally valuable. After all, academia is one of many industries PhDs pursue including government, nonprofit, industry research, and business, to name a few. Someone doesn’t say, are you considering a non-business career — they simply ask what they are considering. This inclusive language document from CGS is a great resource.

Bill Lindstaedt, Consultant for STEM PhD Career Development and (Retired) Assistant Vice Chancellor for Career Advancement at UCSF: As mentioned, it seems many faculty may be uncertain about how to structure a conversation about their student’s future career and may be uncertain about how much information and support their student expects them to provide around careers. And therefore, it may seem better to avoid the conversation rather than expose misaligned expectations. But if the faculty member doesn’t signal that it’s ok to talk about careers, the student is unlikely to feel comfortable starting a conversation about their future. This is where an Individual Development Plan (IDP) might be useful. A faculty member could suggest that the student completes an annual IDP, offer an annual discussion about the student’s future plans, use the student’s IDP to provide structure for the conversation and simply ask how they can help. There are some excellent, interactive IDP-building sites out there, including the GCC-created Imagine PhD developed originally for humanists and social scientists, myIDP which was created primarily for life scientists, ChemIDP for chemists, and PHaSS-IDP for public health and social sciences students.

Cherwin: UT Austin provides a faculty guide with suggestions of some common best practices of how and when to provide support. Will you explain a little more about this guide?

Maxfield: The guide was developed as a direct response to listening to faculty who directly asked for a step-by-step guide for career development for PhDs. There seemed to be a number of clandestine career conversations happening within each of our pilot departments, which often seemed actionless. The guide was developed to help faculty integrate career development into the doctoral lifecycle in a more seamless way. The guide also integrates links to resources across campus and mirrors the PhD student timeline for career development.

Attig: What impressed me about the guide was the way it enables really timelysupport by faculty, with concrete actions faculty can take organized by a student’s stage in their program.

Cherwin: Your presentation stressed the importance of career development teams partnering with faculty to support them so they could better support their students. How do you define “success” in terms of your work with faculty and the training programs?

Maxfield: I have developed a model for measuring impact and success for career diversity. Our team at UT Austin uses this to measure incremental change with departments and faculty in measuring how they resource, support, celebrate, and institutionalize career diversity work. The maturity model has six stages: Denial, Awareness, Referral, Advocacy, Intellectual Partnership, and Transformation. Areas that we measure are ways departments integrate career development support and resources into the culture of the department through language, curriculum, outcomes, and program structure.

Areas that we measure and track at UT Austin include our engagement with the department, curriculum integration, and publicly available program outcomes.

Presentation pdf with the maturity model

Cherwin: You determined that it was beneficial to separate your training sessions into STEM related disciplines and Humanities. What are the distinctions in the trainings?

Attig: One basic reason we ran the trainings separately is that practices of research in STEM and humanities disciplines are actually quite different, which lead to significant differences in what graduate student mentoring looks like. STEM research tends to be more collaborative than in the humanities, for example, which often means STEM faculty have more day-to-day interactions. And graduate students in STEM fields are often funded on their faculty advisor’s grants, which means faculty in those fields often have to balance supervisory roles with other mentoring roles more than humanities faculty do.

While the trainings had pretty similar core messages, there were key differences in how we communicated those messages: the relative focus on data and language. Bill’s STEM-focused training used significant amounts of data to motivate the need for robust career mentoring, where mine did not. I had found in previous trainings that starting with big-picture, national data sometimes prompted humanities faculty to focus exclusively on large structural dynamics (e.g., funding) rather than considering those in relation to ground-level mentoring practices. And so while the humanities training was informed by data, it was used much more implicitly. By contrast, the humanities training really emphasized language (e.g., in discussing the glossary cards above), reflecting and activating how important language is in those disciplines. The STEM training, while attentive to terminology, was much less focused on language as a tool itself.

Cherwin: How can faculty best support grad students to explore career options?

Maxfield: I am going to lean into Derek’s training: faculty can lead with curiosity by asking questions and learning about these different careers alongside graduate students. They don’t need to be experts, they just need an awareness of how students can find help on their campuses and an openness and interest in learning alongside them. That might involve doing a Google search on a particular kind of career the student has mentioned or asking the student to tell them more about what they are interested in doing and what they know about different kinds of careers already. It requires both humility and curiosity — to admit what you don’t know, yet take an interest in it anyway — not for yourself, but in support of someone else.

Attig: Strong research mentoring in the humanities is, I think, characterized by curiosity and openness — to thinking with students as they move in new directions without a firm, preconceived destination in mind. In the humanities training, I tried to encourage faculty to bring those qualities from research mentoring to their career mentoring, as well — to have their curiosity sparked by the unknown rather than to feel unsettled by it.

Lindstaedt: Annie mentioned Derek’s recommendation that faculty can support their students by leading with curiosity. We also discussed how STEM faculty can demonstrate pride in the career outcomes of all their students by listing on their lab website the job title and employer of every former student who has moved on from the lab, and by maintaining the site so that the careers of lab alumni are kept up to date, it signals that the faculty member supports a variety of career outcomes. While it might take some work to track everyone who has left the lab, they might ask for a student volunteer from the lab to complete an annual update, thereby allowing a student to grow their own network.

Cherwin: For those who are unfamiliar with the Graduate Career Consortium, please explain a little about your community and your overall goals.

Attig: The Graduate Career Consortium is an international organization for those who work in graduate student and postdoctoral career development at universities and nonprofits. GCC is a community of incredibly smart and dedicated people who work in a variety of settings (graduate schools, career centers, medical schools, academic departments, scholarly societies, etc.) with a shared goal of improving graduate education and postdoctoral training. Our primary focus is on broadening the ways graduate students, postdocs, faculty, and the wider world think about career pathways for people with advanced degrees.

Our approximately 500 members use their expertise to build resources like ImaginePhD (a career exploration and planning tool for humanities and social sciences) and the GCC Inclusive Programming Guide. They write regularly for different outlets (like Carpe Careers), sharing their ideas, and they do important research and benchmarking on topics like graduate career outcomes.

We get together every summer for an annual conference focused on sharing ideas and building innovative new approaches to our work, but we also have professional development opportunities throughout the year.

Cherwin: Why do you enjoy working in the graduate career space?

Maxfield: The role of doctoral students and scholars is to create new knowledge, and it’s exciting to have a small hand in getting their talent and expertise into the world. This is also a space that is often overlooked and under-resourced by universities, so there are a lot of needs for advocacy and opportunities to innovate, all things I love to do. Finally, through the Graduate Career Consortium, I found an amazing intellectual community of collaborators and colleagues that has made this career more fulfilling than I could have ever imagined.

Attig: First, graduate students are incredibly interesting — they come from all over the world, are driven by intense curiosity, and become experts in a zillion fascinating things — and so it’s a lot of fun to get to talk to them all day. Second, graduate education is characterized by all sorts of implicit expectations and opaque processes. So, I find it really satisfying to get to help these brilliant people navigate those systems, feel belonging, and seek success in ways that align with their values and goals. Third, I believe in higher education but also think it has a ton of problems, from funding models to issues of equity and justice. I like that, in this career, I can help make change (in policy, curriculum, etc.) to address those problems and make graduate education better.

Lindstaedt: I love my work because our student and postdoc clients are so fascinating! They’re dynamos — brilliant folks aiming to make a positive impact in their worlds. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to play a role in their success as they leave their training positions and move into such a wide variety of fulfilling careers. And this work has been made even more rewarding because I’ve remained connected to the Graduate Career Consortium, a supportive community of committed professionals who are always willing to share expertise and work together toward the advancement of our field.


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