By Chinasa T. Okolo
Learning to navigate life as a graduate student can be daunting, but professional development workshops can help ease your transition to graduate studies, support your progress in your program, and help you navigate your future career.
As PhD students consider their career paths upon graduation, it is quite important to engage in programs that allow you to explore both academia and industry. For those potentially interested in academic roles, future faculty programs are a great way to learn about the application process, life as a professor, engage with current professors, and network with other graduate students and postdocs who could eventually become your peers.
Throughout my time in graduate school, I have attended a plethora of workshops that have supported me at every stage in my graduate journey and provided me with the skills to successfully manage relationships with my advisors, craft research projects, and seek out postdoctoral opportunities.
How to Find Professional Development Programs
While many universities provide internal workshops and courses to prepare their graduate students for academic roles, finding external programs can be difficult for those not familiar with this space. To help ease this process for graduate students in computer science and related engineering fields, I’ve curated a list of over 30 workshops that can be attended across all stages of your PhD program. Many of these workshops are also available for Master’s students and for students in the physical and biological sciences. For students that are unable to attend external workshops due to time, physical, or other constraints I highly suggest connecting with the career offices, postdoctoral studies offices, and faculty development centers at your respective institutions to find programs that you can participate in on campus.
For those interested in careers outside of academia, connecting with offices that specialize in this area (at Cornell University, our office is called Careers Beyond Academia) or entrepreneurship centers can be valuable. Fortunately, due to the COVID pandemic, many programs are also available virtually. There are national organizations devoted to faculty development such as the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) that provide online training modules, guest expert webinars, and two-week writing challenges to support students through their graduate school journeys.
Additionally, I find that finding relevant campus listservs and reading newsletters such as the Cornell’s Graduate School weekly newsletter keeps me informed of events across campus and at other universities. Professional development programs also vary in nature and can take the form of short courses or half-semester courses. At Cornell, examples of these courses include GRAD 9110 – Professional Career Foundations which helps students learn the best strategies for pursuing a successful job search and ALS 6015 – The Practice of Teaching in Higher Education which engages students in learning theory and how to apply such methodologies in teaching environments.
One great thing is that professional development programs are not limited to students who are already in graduate school. As the first person in my immediate family to pursue PhD studies, I knew that I would need quite a bit of support to help me navigate the graduate school admission process. In addition to workshops hosted at my undergraduate institution and writing assistance I received through my campus career center, I found that attending external conferences and workshops helped strengthen my graduate school applications which ultimately led me to Cornell.
The list I shared also includes a number of pre-doctoral programs and links to a much larger list by the McNair Scholars Program, a popular graduate school development program for underrepresented undergraduate students. As with the graduate school professional development programs, nearly all of these programs are fully funded and cover expenses for accepted applicants.
My Experiences Participating in Professional Development Programs
As a graduate student who has varied interests ranging from academia to industry to entrepreneurship, I found it necessary to try and explore as many career options as possible. As a PhD student, your objectives throughout your program include conducting research, publishing papers, and teaching, which often prepares you for a limited set of careers that happen to align mostly with those in academic settings. While all of these commitments can leave limited time to pursue external opportunities, I found the time that I used to participate in these opportunities valuable not only to my professional development but also to help shape how I approach my research and expanded my perception of what I could accomplish as a PhD student.
As I mentioned earlier, on-campus programs can be much more accessible to students who cannot travel for off-campus opportunities. I have personally benefited from such events and encourage graduate students to pursue similar opportunities at their respective campuses. I am fortunate to attend a large university that has funding to provide many forms of professional development to grad students and postdocs. At Cornell, events such as the Summer Success Symposium help new and continuing graduate students hear from inspiring speakers and connect with fellow students. I also participated in the Future Professors Institute, an event that invites campus administrators and external speakers to lead workshops, give talks, and speak on panels regarding topics that range from advancing inclusive research environments to preparing for tenure.
While the two events I mentioned previously were both one-day events, an academic year-long program that I participated in was the NextGen Professors Program which is a career development program aimed towards preparing Cornell graduate students and postdocs to pursue faculty careers at large research universities, undergraduate-focused institutions, or community colleges. The program consisted of monthly meetings, mentoring sessions with faculty members at external institutions, and aided participants in preparing their application materials and job interviews.
Participating in external programs has enabled me to extend the learnings I’ve gained through my participation in on-campus professional development programs at Cornell. Early in my PhD, I attended the CRA-W Grad Cohort Workshop for Women and CRA URMD Grad Cohort which were two-day programs that consisted of workshops on topics ranging from finding a research topic to pursuing summer internships, poster sessions, and panel talks. Attending these workshops was essential in helping me build a network of graduate peers and faculty mentors that I have stayed connected with throughout my time in graduate school and who I have seen at many conferences and workshops since then. As I’ve progressed to the later years of my PhD, I’ve begun to focus more closely on programs that provide tailored support in pursuing post-graduate career opportunities.
Future Faculty Programs
Over the past year, I’ve attended external future faculty programs at Georgia Tech, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and UC Berkeley. These programs all lasted from 3 to 4 days and involved workshops, panels, and lots of time for networking with professors and fellow graduate students. While you can find tons of information online about applying for faculty positions, I’ve found that in-person workshops help you get unique, nuanced perspectives from scholars who have gone through the process and the opportunity to ask questions to often very busy professors who allocated their time specifically for program participants.
The Georgia Tech FOCUS program was very influential in teaching me about different types of faculty at the institution like non-tenure research faculty roles that include research scientists and engineers and other non-tenure track faculty members like Academic Professionals who often jointly hold administration duties like deanships and Professors of the Practice who are internationally reputed academic, business, and government leaders.
While I prepared teaching, research, and diversity statements for nearly all of my applications to future faculty programs, attending NextProf NEXUS at UC Berkeley provided me a chance to get personalized feedback and revamp both of my research and teaching statements.
The WiscProf program also gave me a unique opportunity to present a practice job talk, an essential part of the interviewing process, to faculty members across two engineering departments. These programs also helped me realize that I would like to take some time conducting research projects in industry before pursuing a tenure-track role to give myself time to refine my research agenda and gain more experience guiding younger scholars in research projects.
In between the future faculty programs I attended, I was fortunate to participate in the Diversity Connect workshop at McKinsey, a program geared towards preparing underrepresented PhD, Law, and Medicine students for careers in management consulting. The application process for this experience was quite different from the future faculty programs as the focus was to understand my capacity for analyzing and presenting case studies.
After filling out a general form with my academic and professional details, I was instructed to complete a game-based assessment that involved optimizing a hypothetical ecosystem. The structure of the program itself was also quite different and on a much shorter timeline. Participants in the program flew in early on the first day of the workshop and listened to panels and split up in a group to start addressing a case study. We spent the rest of the day analyzing the problem and preparing for a group presentation that was held the following day.
After presenting and receiving feedback from other participant groups, we had the opportunity to network further and concluded the program. While short, I found my time at McKinsey helpful in understanding that being at a big firm doesn’t align with my interests but that I am interested in providing individual consulting services along with pursuing a research career in academia or industry.
My experiences in these programs were all different but each provided me with valuable information that has enhanced my search for postdoctoral opportunities. While future faculty and industry programs are structured with an intent to attract top-tier candidates, there is no expectation or pressure for you to pursue a role right away but they provide great preparation for when you do apply. Now that I am actively on the job market, the benefits of attending future faculty and industry programs have given me an opportunity to understand my strengths, address my weaknesses, and figure out what career path is right for me. I also got a head start on my application materials, which saved me a lot of time and made my application process much smoother. Overall, I can thoroughly say that I enjoyed participating in these programs and I hope that fellow graduate students can learn from my experiences. Don’t be afraid to pursue these life-changing opportunities!
Chinasa T. Okolo is a fifth-year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Computer Science at Cornell University. Before coming to Cornell, she graduated from Pomona College with a BA in Computer Science. Her research understands how frontline healthcare workers in rural India perceive and value artificial intelligence (AI) and examines how explainability can be best leveraged in AI-enabled technologies. She is the recipient of numerous fellowships and scholarships from the National GEM Consortium, Oracle Corporation, the North American Network Operators’ Group (NANOG), and Google.
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