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November 21, 2013

University Senate Matters: Preparing grad students, postdocs for their future

Many organizations are calling for reforms in graduate and postdoctoral training to meet the needs of the nation’s workforce. One such report from the National Research Council was a major topic for Faculty Assembly last year (University Times, Senate Matters, Nov. 21, 2012).

Pitt already provides diverse resources such as collaborations, tools, workshops and programs to support the preparation of graduate students and postdocs for a variety of careers. But to be successful, we must utilize these resources more effectively. This requires a cultural change for both the faculty mentors and the trainees. We may be successful in preparing our trainees to become independent scholars, but we have not been as attentive in helping them develop their independence in career planning and development.

Based on my experiences working in academic professional development, I suggest that faculty mentors:

• Acknowledge the value of individuals pursuing career paths where they can realize their greatest potential. As academics, we often share the perspective that an academic career is the ideal career choice since it is what we do best, find most rewarding and feel is most important. Recognize that trainees need to have the same perspectives about their career choices and that their perspectives are just as valid as ours are.

• Recognize that the career landscape has changed and that nonacademic mentors and exposure to a variety of career options are helpful for those entering careers outside academia.

• Support identification and utilization of the most appropriate resources for each trainee.

• Encourage the creation of written career development plans for trainees that take into account their specific career goals.

• Encourage the establishment of new habits derived from career development activities. This can be as simple as asking during regular meetings about your trainee’s networking strategies or other professional development goals.

I recommend that graduate students and postdocs:

• Embrace responsibility for career planning and development.

• Use assessments to uncover their interests, skills and values.

• Stay open-minded to find “best-fit” career options matching interests, skills and values while acknowledging the realities of these options.

• Recognize career development needs, identify resources, analyze resources and integrate relevant knowledge or behaviors into professional habits.

• Invest in a written career development plan that supports your academic success but also prepares you to be adaptable to career opportunities.

• Establish accountability measures for career development efforts to help you stay on track. One such measure could be sharing professional development goals with classmates and updating each other weekly on your progress.

We also should seek perspectives outside academia to fuel innovative approaches to career planning and development. The private sector has found great success in using “professional coaching” to benefit the individual and the organization alike. Professional coaching also has succeeded in an academic undergraduate setting. According to researchers Eric Bettinger and Rachel Baker, individualized coaching yields increased retention and completion rates even after the coaching has ended. In addition, they said, such coaching is more cost-effective than previously studied interventions such as increased financial aid (

In an effort to explore these perspectives I became certified as a professional coach and applied those approaches to a graduate-level, credit-based career-planning course, “Planning for Scientific Career Success,” over two semesters. The feedback from students and their mentors confirms the importance of considering alternative approaches and the importance of supportive mentors.

Perhaps the most compelling rationale for broader career planning comes from a student in my course:

“Graduate school represented an opportunity to pursue the career I had dreamt of since childhood. I quickly realized that this career was not what I imagined and my motivation, productivity and ultimately grades suffered. The course gave me the resources to realize that my skills, values, interest and personality were better suited for business. Fortunately, my adviser was supportive of my change in career goals. Since the career course, my grades, motivation and productivity have increased drastically and I am getting more out of my education knowing that there is a field that fits me as a person. I firmly believe that without the career course, coupled with my mentor support, I would not be in this program today and would be lost in my career aspirations.”

Trainees, mentors, institutions and society all benefit when trainees are motivated by an authentic career vision and effectively utilize tools to harness their full potential.


Steven Wendell is the assistant director of the Office of Academic Career Development and a research assistant professor in the School of Dental Medicine. He also served on the executive board for the National Postdoctoral Association.

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