GradFUTURES Forum Emphasizes Equity and Innovation in Professional Development

Written by
Shelby Lohr, GS (HIS)
May 16, 2023

Hundreds of graduate students share and learn from one another and industry mentors across six days of sessions highlighting the impact of student-centered and equity-oriented approaches.

From March 27-April 1, Princeton’s professional development team hosted the fourth-annual GradFUTURES Forum. This six-day conference offered 27 unique sessions, including skill-based workshops, alumni panels, and networking receptions. The sessions catered to graduate students, and all events were free and open to the broader graduate education community. Most sessions included a hybrid component, which attracted learners from around the globe.  

Sessions hewed to the forum’s core theme: “Ways to Advance Innovation, Equity, and Inclusion via Professional Development.”  Eva Kubu, Associate Dean for Professional Development, described how “Graduate student professional development is a catalyst for creating equitable access to pathways within and beyond the academy, and GradFUTURES is focused in equal measure on skills development, exploration, and social capital creation.” 

For the headlining keynote, Dr. Ruha Benjamin joined Graduate School Dean, Dr. Rodney Priestley, to explore the message of Benjamin’s new book, Viral Justice. In the talk, Benjamin heeded graduate students to “embrace the role of the amateur” and to step beyond the steeped-in routines of professional life in order to create “something more lively.” Along the way, Benjamin described her vision for professional development. She believes in enabling students to explore a career that captures their interest and imagination. From there, students can work to change that industry from the inside-out.

While reflecting on the discussion at a post-event reception, graduate student Avery Agels pointed out that he’s “still trying to figure out how much freedom” exists “to take risks and ‘be an amateur,’ as Benjamin talked about in the in the talk.” He added that “it was nice to see two professors who are in positions of power at the university talking about this in an open way.” 

Another graduate student, Brooke Johnson, described how “we tend to think of professional development as making us into better workers.” However, Johnson underscored that the “talk really challenged” her “to think about how we use our interests, our passions, and our skills to actually help the world become more hospitable.”

The GradFUTURES Forum also co-hosted a Princeton Public Lectures talk and fireside conversation with Reshma Saujani, a New York Times bestselling author, and the founder of Girls Who Code. Saujani, who devoted over a decade toward female inclusion and computer science, described how her unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Congress inspired her to develop her nonprofit, Girls Who Code. It was through her experience of failure that Saujani learned bravery. She encouraged attendees to reject perfectionism, since a perfectionistic impulse can persuade women to “give up before even trying.” She included examples of students writing good code but deleting it after believing it contained flaws. Instead, she encouraged attendees to “practice imperfection.” 

Eva Kubu and Reshma Saujani

Dean Eva Kubu interviewed Reshma Saujani regarding the leaky pipeline in STEM fields, work-life balance, the broken first rung of the ladder, and recent studies about the impact of COVID on women in the workforce—and whether women can “have it all.” Photo: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

One graduate student, Seraya Jones, appreciated how Saujani “gave a lot of herself” through the speech “to humanize the act of being brave.” Graduate student Cecilia Ramsey described how the post-event reception offered space to reflect on the message of Saujani’s talk and to “process what we heard.” Among the conversation topics discussed by groups at the reception, “what bravery looks like in an unequal system” and “everything ranging from typos to women's equality.” 

Where Equity Meets Innovation: Networks

The Forum commenced with a discussion of equity and innovation in professional development. Guest speakers for the kickoff event included Lenny Cassuto, author of The New Ph.D., and Julia Freeland Fisher, author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks. Fisher described the “invisible currency” of professional networks, particularly how individuals closed out of networks experience limited job prospects. Fisher maintained that students often succeed best through affinity-based mentors who connect them with relevant professional advisors. 

To consider the role of mentorship in building networks and student success, the GradFUTURES Forum included an alumni mentorship panel and reception. Speakers for the session included active mentors in the GradFUTURES mentorship program (powered by Mentor Collective), which offers one-on-one mentorship to 150-200 students each year. The program relies on Princeton’s extensive graduate alumni network. In the session, panelists stressed how mentors should advocate for their mentees and, where possible, work to connect them to relevant professional opportunities. At the same time, the discussion detailed how mentorship can operate in a community fashion; students should envision mentors as a connector and conduit to other relationships and opportunities. 

Mika Provata-Carlone *02 (COM), Andrea Morris *99 (MOL), Joe Tylka *19 (MAE), and Raghuveer Vinukollu *11 (CEE)

Graduate Alumni Mentors Mika Provata-Carlone *02 (COM) (on screen), Andrea Morris *99 (MOL), Joe Tylka *19 (MAE), and Raghuveer Vinukollu *11 (CEE) share their insights regarding inclusive mentorship. The panel was moderated by assistant Dean Sonali Majumdar. Photo: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

Discussions of networking and building authentic relationships pervaded panel discussions, more broadly. In the panel From English PhD to Ithaka S+R, for example, Collette Johnson advocated for forging connections to alumni and other professionals in your field via LinkedIn and engaging in informational interviews. She added that LinkedIn connections’ posts can guide students to opportunities they might not otherwise hear about.

Equitable Access to Opportunities: Fellowships & Internships

To further encourage positive graduate student outcomes, Cassuto described some potential graduate program interventions. For instance, graduate schools could consider academic work and professional development as co-curricular rather than distinct. Universities could offer graduate-specific student career fairs, provide mock interviews for jobs outside of academia, and increase the expectation for mentors to introduce students to useful contacts. He also advocated for experiential programs that help graduate students build professional skills and networks.

In the spirit of Cassuto’s advice, the GradFUTURES Forum hosted its inaugural Graduate Internships and Fellowships Fair. Over 40 campus and external partners promoted a wide range of opportunities and resources tailored for graduate students at the event. Among the partners were the Modern Languages Association, BioNJ, Foundation Venture Capital Group, All Tech is Human, and the Center for Digital Humanities. The fair also included free professional headshots and LinkedIn profile critiques. 

Partners tabling at the 2023 GradFUTURES Forum

More than 100 graduate students met with over 40 GradFUTURES partners –both on campus and off campus partners—to learn about opportunities, resources, and programs tailored to meet their needs. Photo: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

Current graduate student fellows tabled alongside their host organization at the fair. One student, Lydia Tripiccione, described her Social Impact Fellowship with the Modern Languages Association. Initially, she expected her project to appear on the MLA website as a PDF. However, her mentor at the MLA submitted her work to a volume-in-development covering languages beyond English within the United States. Now, Trippiccione noted, “We are awaiting peer review with that collected volume with Springer.” Trippiccione added that “the fellowship experience was really, really cool.” 

Other fellowship participants spoke about the merits of their professional development experience. Vanessa Cota took part in Princeton’s Community College Teaching Fellowship program and recently accepted a faculty position at Tacoma Community College near Seattle. Cota related how the fellowship experience made a direct impact. Leading a college course proved “invaluable in preparing” for the interview process. Cota believes that the Community College Teaching Fellowship “made [her] very, very competitive.” 

Graduate-Student Centered Sessions: Sharpening Skills & Exploring Pathways

Beyond headlining events, the GradFUTURES forum included an array of specialized sessions to provide attendees with industry-specific knowledge and advice. Students learned how to fund their startup, successfully apply for competitive grants, deliver an effective science speech, and secure a job in User Experience research. Panelists often detailed their pathway from obtaining a PhD to working in industry.

Regardless of discipline, graduate students understand the importance of building strong skills in communication. Graduate student Edmund Downie described how the usefulness of the GradFUTURES Forum’s communications sessions. He related that “hearing practical tips on how to communicate is easily overlooked as an academic,” and that the GradFUTURES Forum created an “environment where that’s actually considered important,” and devoted “multiple days of work” toward developing those skills.

Amy Aines, a communications strategist, led a session on Giving a Great Talk: How to Engage Listeners When You are the Only Expert in the Room. Following the presentation, she underscored the necessity of cultivating skillsets in public speaking and creativity. Aines noted that “When you're a graduate student, you feel overwhelmed by all the things on your ‘I have to do this’ list. However, if you really want to prepare for your future, the skills imparted through these workshops are essential.” Aines stressed that “the people who make a bigger impact are the ones who learned those vital [communication] skills, which in the past were considered ‘soft.’” She added that these skills are “not soft; they're essential.” This point was further illuminated during the fireside chat with Ali Nouri *06 (MOL), Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy, and Roger Aines, Energy Program Chief Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, who discussed the importance of communicating science to decision makers and the public through the lens of climate and energy, particularly in an age of rampant misinformation.

Shannon Hoffman, GS CBE, Ali Nouri *06 (MOL), Roger Aines

Graduate student Shannon Hoffman, GS CBE (in the background) moderated a discussion with  Ali Nouri *06 (MOL), Assistant Secretary at the Department of Energy, and Roger Aines, Energy Program Chief Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, who discussed the importance of communicating science to decision makers and the public. Photo: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

The forum included an array of additional career panels, including a panel on PhDs teaching at private and independent schools and a session detailing work in education consulting. Graduate student Mustafa Bashijrasikh described why he feels drawn to the GradFUTURES events. He described how the professional development team creates a “very fine balance between private sector and social enterprise, which is very much at the core of the group.” Bashijrasikh added that “Even if you come from social sciences,” there a lot of number of resources for students “to turn that into a more enterprising opportunity.” 

Through six days of candid discussions and targeted workshops, the GradFUTURES Forum supported students’ pursuits of diverse career options. Graduate students who attended the fair and other Forum sessions forged so many new connections and received lots of valuable advice and resources. This included books such as Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision-Makers; Viral Justice; The New PhD; Pay Up: The Future of Women & Work; Branding That Means Business; Who You Know; The Grant-Writing Guide; Linked: Conquer LinkedIn; and The Reimagined PhD, among other resources. 

Recognizing Contributions of a Supportive Campus Ecosystem

The third year of the Clio Hall Awards recognized the impact of a campus-wide ecosystem of support and “significant contributions to the professional development of Princeton graduate students.” An array of campus partners nominated by faculty, staff, and graduate students at Princeton received awards. See a full list of 2023 Clio Hall Award honorees.

Clio Hall Award 2023

All Clio Hall Award honorees received an engraved miniature replica of Clio Hall courtesy of the Council for Science & Technology. Photo: Sameer A. Khan / Fotobuddy

Laura Murray, Clio Hall awardee and the Assistant Director of Programs at the McGraw Center, believes that the award “shines a bright light on the work that not just I, but colleagues and graduate students, are doing to support each other's learning, thriving, and development.” Murray facilitates the development of programming at the McGraw Center, which is devoted to cultivating student peer support. 

Andrew Finn, a student Clio honoree and former Graduate Student Government President, reflected that his work with GradFUTURES is “not only for my department, but also for the entire campus community, particularly for graduate students.” Finn, who recently began work at Northeastern as the Assistant Director of Graduate Student Programming, added that graduate students remain “the population I’m really passionate about and dedicated to,” and work with graduate students will remain “part of my career going forward.”  

Associate Dean Kubu thanked all partners and graduate student attendees—and noted that the videos from most of the sessions would be available and accessible to all in the weeks after the Forum. To check out the content, please visit the GradFUTURES Forum 2023 Recordings page.