Annual grad student career event GradUCon draws record number of attendees

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A record number of students braved sub-zero temperatures to attend this year’s GradUCon event at Ida Noyes Hall, where they learned about career options in their fields and got practical help in pursuing their interests.

Nearly 270 graduate and postdoctoral students, 55 alumni and eight faculty members filled Ida Noyes for the daylong career and professionalization event geared specifically to graduate students. Now in its fifth year, the university-wide conference on Jan. 24 offered panel discussions, workshops and opportunities to network for those interested in both teaching and non-teaching career paths.

“It’s so important to provide students access to resources and information about the entire range of careers that our alumni pursue,” said A-J Aronstein, assistant director for Master‘s Program Engagement in the Office of Graduate Student Affairs. “There are happy and incredibly interesting graduate alumni doing work in a diversity of fields.” Aronstein added that many graduate-level alumni go on to teach in top universities around the world, while others pursue non-academic professions. GradUCon was organized to help current graduate students and postdocs on both career tracks to prepare for increasingly competitive job markets.

The organizers behind the event have continually expanded its offerings in response to increasing demand over the course of its five-year history. More than half of registrants were PhD students, up from 30 percent two years ago. Participants not only had the option to attend a morning resume workshop, but they now also could choose to join a mock-interview session instead. Registrants were given personalized business cards to swap not only with alumni and panelists, but also with their fellow students—and future colleagues.

The day featured panels on topics such as the digital humanities, research jobs in the sciences, careers in art museums, K-12 education and community colleges. There also was a new panel devoted to working abroad, which was put together as a direct result of student feedback from last year’s event.

Michelle Kristula-Green, AB’77, AM’81, the global head of People and Culture at Leo Burnett Worldwide, was delighted to join the working abroad panel and offer students advice and, in one case, a personal contact. “I spent quite a bit of time talking with a student whose plan is to move to Japan. My husband still works in Tokyo, so I want to connect the two of them.”

Tim Barzyk, PhD’06, a research physical scientist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was a panelist discussing research jobs in the sciences. “From my panel, I appreciated the various viewpoints on pursuing a job in academia versus the private or industrial sector versus the federal government, and I didn’t have those perspectives when I was a student,” said Barzyk. “There are nuances of what it means to be a researcher in all those different areas,” Barzyk’s advice: “Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one track, keep your options open.”

One alumna flew from New York just for this event. Ellen Grafton, MAPH’11, now an assistant managing editor in the children’s division of Simon & Schuster, remembered how integral her own GradUCon experience was while she was a graduate student. “I decided about halfway through my program I didn’t want to go on further with academia, so this was helpful for me to recalibrate toward the professional world.”

Grafton was particularly impressed with the digital humanities panel, where she heard Melissa Gilliam, professor of obstetrics/gynecology and pediatrics at the University of Chicago Medicine and associate dean for diversity in the Biological Sciences Division, speak with fellow panelist Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor in English. The two co-founded the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab, which works with the youth community by creating interactive games that engage them and help improve their social and health outcomes.

Chris Mills, a history student in the MAPSS program, was encouraged by the careers in art museums panel, where he learned that he doesn’t necessarily have to get a formal degree in museum education to be a good candidate. “Really, it’s a lot of independent work. You have to go to museums yourself and get a foothold in the community and establish a reputation for yourself,” said Mills, who now feels much more optimistic about his future.

“I feel more hopeful for sure about my career prospects. When you’re a grad student it often feels like it’s never going to end, or there are no jobs in the market. But this really said if you just put in the work and don’t give up, you’ll find a job,” he said. “Before I felt kind of disenchanted and burned-out, but after this I’m definitely more hopeful.”

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GradUCon guests
GradUCon participants
GradUCon panelists
GradUCon guests

Graduate students, faculty and alumni gather in Ida Noyes Hall at the 5th annual GradUCon conference on Friday, Jan. 24.

Photo by Megan E. Doherty
GradUCon participants

The annual GradUCon event offers a full day of panels, workshops and networking for grad students considering alternatives to the traditional academic job track.

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