With over 3,000 registrations for 16 sessions, “I am not alone,” may be the most surprising sentiment that describes the feelings of thousands of attendees at the inaugural Canadian Career Symposium for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows this past November. As 2020 was largely marked by disruption, isolation and anxiety, several members of the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network brainstormed ways to turn the pandemic challenge into an opportunity. Armed only with the knowledge that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows could not afford to wait out the pandemic before beginning or returning to career preparation activities, the Career Symposium organizing committee worked together across institutions to plan a national conference with no budget or infrastructure. While we certainly learned many lessons about undertaking such a massive initiative, the participants had a steep, but positive, learning curve of their own. These are their key takeaways from the week of career talks.
“Know your worth”
Graduate studies can be a challenging time and students are often plagued with impostor syndrome. While post-academic career transitions have always involved uncertainties, COVID-19 is adding new layers and complexity to navigating this process. Participants at the symposium expressed relief that their “current emotions are OK and normal” and gained new appreciation for the competencies they attained through graduate training and scholarly work. As one student wrote in their conference evaluation, “I have an extremely sought-after skill set, so long as I don’t think of my PhD as a qualification in and of itself.”
This awareness of knowing one’s worth and skills gained opens up new opportunities. Instead of feeling paralyzed, students noted the possibility of different potential paths and the need to be proactive in charting their way forward. This does not mean they are unaware of the work that’s ahead of them, rather it reflects a new sense of ownership and hope that they will make an impact on the world.
“We are all unique and capable of making our own decisions”
Speakers at the symposium shared their industry knowledge and insights, but they also shared their personal stories, giving graduate students and postdocs real-life examples of people who chose academic pathways, those who left entirely to pursue different avenues and those who built professional careers at the crossroads of higher education. There is no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to careers, and graduate students and postdocs need the time, tools and space to find the strategy that suits them.
“How you tell your story is important”
A graduate degree does not guarantee you a job, nor does it disqualify you. Like any other tool, skill, qualification or experience, it is one single piece of the story that you are telling a potential employer. Attendees learned that it is important to take time to explore diverse careers, reflect on their skills, values and strengths and to frame their experience in a way that highlights the benefit of their graduate school experience for employers.
One of the key benefits of the conference was having graduate students and postdocs see that they are in the same situation as many others across the country. They were also able to ask questions of speakers from various disciplines about a range of topics. One of the top answers to these questions throughout the 16 sessions was “it depends.” This was so helpful for attendees to hear and to help in thinking about their ambitions, what they want in their careers and lives and in tailoring their own individualized story.
As we begin planning for the 2021-2022 academic year, and sorting through logistics for returning to campus, we need to keep student and postdoc voices in our minds. We also need to remember the value of collaboration across institutions. Even when we return to in-person interactions, we should continue to engage in online spaces for workshops and information sharing, both at our institutions and nationally, to increase accessibility for all. Our conference provided a platform to share resources and offer inspiring keynotes and workshops that would not have been possible at individual institutions, creating a sense of community not only for the students and postdocs, but also for university staff. The conference was a welcome reminder that we are not alone and that collaboration across universities benefits everyone.
The next virtual Canadian Career Symposium for Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Fellows will be held in October 2021. Members of the organizing committee include the authors, as well as chair Jacqui Brinkman, (UBC), Corinne Bosse (Athabasca), Colette Steer (Queen’s), Elise Saint-Jacques (Polytechnique), Emily Bell (McGill), Sarah Park (UBC) and Suyin Olguin (Queen’s).
Catherine Maybrey is the coordinator of postdoctoral affairs and research training at McMaster University and the owner of CM Coaching Services. Mabel Ho is director of professional development and student engagement at the faculty of graduate studies at Dalhousie University.