Students laugh during a group discussion

Graduate School reimagines professional development for students

Princeton graduate students and campus partners — including representatives of the Office of the Dean of Research, Humanities Council, Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Davis International Center, Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, and Princeton Entrepreneurship Council — attended several “think tanks” this summer to brainstorm new ways of approaching professional development at the Graduate School. The discussions led to the introduction of GradFUTURES, which will encompass all programs and initiatives aimed at preparing students for professional life after earning their degree.

This summer, the Graduate School embarked on a strategic planning process involving meetings with students and various University stakeholders to assess current professional development programs and resources across campus and to glean ideas that will make professional development an integral part of every graduate student’s experience at Princeton.

“A graduate degree from Princeton can lay the foundation for one to make incredible contributions across a dazzling array of possibilities,” said Sarah-Jane Leslie, dean of the Graduate School and Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy. “Ensuring that graduate students feel fully prepared and supported in exploring the entire spectrum of career possibilities during their time at Princeton is a top priority for the Graduate School.”

Those discussions have led to the introduction of GradFUTURES, a campus-wide collaborative initiative which will integrate and expand professional development programs aimed at preparing students for life after earning a terminal master’s degree or Ph.D.

A students speaks in front of a group

Graduate students participated in design-thinking activities and took the lead in presenting the results of their small-group discussions. Catherine Ahn, an architecture student working toward her master's degree, explains her group’s reflections on how best to engage alumni in professional development.

“This unique initiative leverages the collective expertise of Princeton’s faculty, staff and alumni along with the broader University community,” said Eva Kubu, who was appointed July 1 to the newly created position of associate dean and director of graduate student professional development. “The foundation of GradFUTURES is a holistic and integrative learning model which enables graduate students to build the skills and competencies, clarity of purpose, and multifaceted relationships they need to become leaders within the academic, public and private sectors.” (Below: Read first-person accounts of how some Princeton Ph.D.s have applied their skills to diverse careers.)

Kubu and her team convened three “think tanks” during August to share the vision for professional development and open up the discussion about what it could and should look like across Princeton's departments and academic units.

Attendees included current students, representatives from administrative and academic offices, and campus partners such as the Office of the Dean for ResearchHumanities CouncilKeller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, Davis International Center, Corporate Engagement and Foundation Relations, Center for Career Development, McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Center for Digital Humanities, Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, Alumni Affairs, and John H. Pace ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, among others.

Participants separated into small groups for design-thinking activities to brainstorm new ideas and solutions while anticipating potential challenges of campus-wide implementation.

Jonathan Aguirre, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and an Energy and Climate Scholar for the Princeton Environmental Institute, said he especially appreciated the think tanks because they prioritized student voices.

“Students were welcome to share their experiences and express ideas on how to integrate professional development into their departments,” he said. “I think everyone in the room shared the same goal, which was to optimize the graduate student experience for current and future cohorts.”

Sarah Schwarz, associate director of the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, who also joined the think tank, said she has been delighted to see the Graduate School’s increased emphasis on professional development.

“The changing academic job market presents special challenges, and our students need support from all corners of campus to navigate the way forward in the academy and beyond,” she said. “In recent years, the McGraw Center has embarked on new partnerships and developed new programs to address these changing needs, and we are excited to continue to grow these efforts with the support and partnership of the Graduate School.”


A student gesticulates and speaks with a handwritten chart in the background

Jonathan Aguirre, a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and an Energy and Climate Scholar for the Princeton Environmental Institute, said he appreciated the “think tanks” because they prioritized student voices.

Princeton Writes is among the many campus partners that have a role in preparing graduate students for some aspect of life after graduation. Director John Weeren said he is excited about the possibilities offered by a more comprehensive program of professional development.

“The exploratory process needs to happen sooner than later to give people a greater scope and the tools, both practical and human-centered, that they would need to make the most of their talents and the education they receive at Princeton,” he said.

To continue the discussion about and development of GradFUTURES, the Graduate School will meet with directors of graduate studies in its 42 doctoral departments and programs. It also will convene a Graduate Student Professional Development Working Group that will include many of those individuals who participated over the summer, and that will expand to involve alumni and industry partners, Kubu said.

“One of the major themes that emerged this summer was the importance of providing graduate students with more alumni, staff and industry mentors in addition to their faculty advisers,” Kubu said. “I’d like the working group to help explore existing mentorship models and plan pilots for next summer.”

Kubu and her team have consulted with labor market research firm Burning Glass Technologies to identify the skills and competencies in demand across all disciplines and industries. The core competencies include research and data analysis; leadership and collaboration; written and verbal communication; teaching and mentoring; career management; and personal well-being and effectiveness.

In addition to workshops and learning cohorts, GradFUTURES will launch an industry fellowship program for graduate students to explore ways they might incorporate their graduate training within diverse career fields. The Graduate School recently hosted its first Industry Exploration Day for 50 students at Bristol-Myers Squibb and plans to schedule additional sessions with other industry partners in the region.

“I cannot articulate how much the people in different offices of the Graduate School have helped me,” said Aguirre, who is applying to faculty and postdoc positions while also exploring careers outside academia. “I especially appreciated the welcoming and diverse community of people. Though there are many skills I’ve developed, I have learned how my research can make an impact beyond academia.”

“I think every graduate student should make an effort to build relationships with the Graduate School team,” he added. “It’s one of those resources that you do not know about when applying to Princeton, but are very, very happy it exists once you are here.”

Elizaveta Mankovskaia, a sixth-year Ph.D. student in Slavic languages and literature, said she has been impressed with the Graduate School’s ongoing efforts to augment professional development and already has taken advantage of ImaginePhD, a career exploration and planning website that allows Ph.D. students and postdoctoral scholars in the humanities and social sciences to assess their skills and interests and evaluate potential career paths. “This tool helped me realize there’s a lot you can do with humanities training,” she said.

In addition to tools like ImaginePhD, GradFUTURES will build on initiatives such as the University Administrative Fellows (UAF) program, which gives students an opportunity to work in an administrative capacity in departments and programs throughout the University; GradSpeak, where students across disciplines can practice public speaking; and the Professional Development Learning Cohort (PDLC), which provides co-curricular learning opportunities on specific topics that are geared to broadening graduate student professional and career development.

“The UAF program definitely gave me the opportunity to contribute to the University and thereby learn from it in diverse and rich ways that I think has helped me to grow my organizational and professional skills during my Ph.D. in a way that added to those gained from research,” said Lian Zhu, who graduated this year with a Ph.D. in chemical and biological engineering.

Karen Scott, who recently earned an M.P.A. from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said the PDLC cohort she attended focusing on American higher education helped her to understand how her professional experience would be relevant to an academic setting.

“Exchanging ideas with Ph.D. students from across disciplines and discussing the state of academia was a highlight of my time at Princeton,” she said. “This experience motivated me to apply for multidisciplinary Ph.D. programs, where I can continue engaging in these conversations and ideas as a researcher.”

Scott is now pursuing a Ph.D. at the Institute for Work and Employment Research at MIT. As a new graduate alumna, she'll be participating in this year's GradFUTURES Learning Cohort on American higher education to share insights from her new vantage point.

James M. Van Wyck contributed to this story


Princeton Ph.D.s bring skills to careers beyond academia

Princeton Ph.D. alumni are working in every sector of the economy. “While many of our graduate alumni go on to have careers in academia, an almost equal number go on to make spectacular contributions across the entire spectrum of career possibilities,” said Leslie. Learn about their experiences in their own words:

Woman leans on a doorway

Ann Marie Russell

Ann Marie Russell

Associate Provost for Data and Analytics
University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Ph.D. 2012 in Psychology and Social Policy

My work consists of conducting research in support of university or institutional goals, or conducting what is called “institutional research.”

The most valuable and — quite frankly — profitable skill set I acquired in graduate school is easily data management and analysis. Not just statistical analysis, but a general comfort and facility with making sense of large sets of data. This is the direction that society is heading in and I would encourage all graduate students to try to get some exposure to it. If you don’t consider yourself to be a math or a numbers person, you’re in good company because neither do I — or most people — I have found. But, I absolutely adore analyzing data because it’s about investigating relationships between variables or factors. It’s a quantitative way of getting at qualitative questions of interest.

My inspiration for pursuing this work was actually primarily driven by my experiences at Princeton. I had entered the psychology and social policy Ph.D. program with the intention of conducting research that would make a direct impact on issues of social justice. However, over the course of my time there I fell out of love with basic research and the academic track as a mechanism to this end. Perhaps it’s my working-class roots, but I really felt a need to do work that had more immediate and tangible results than I felt basic research could ever produce. But then, like many graduate students, once I’d turned away from pursuing an academic career, I didn’t know where to turn next.

When I was in graduate school, it felt like we had two choices: an academic career or failure. The thought of voluntarily pursuing a non-academic career felt sacrilegious. Now I laugh about that culture and mentality. There are many paths to success and fulfillment, and academia is far from the only course to those outcomes. And I have to tell you that not only am I happier than I ever would have been on the academic track, I also don’t have an iota of regret about leaving it. It was the right decision for me, and it’s important that you choose the right path for you.

Having said that, I think it’s important to say that most people struggle with feeling lost and overwhelmed in graduate school. It pushes you to your limits and is simply the nature of the beast. What got me through it was finding allies — graduate students from marginalized backgrounds in other programs, as well as individual faculty and administrators who truly understood and affirmed what I was experiencing. They were my lifeline — they kept my head above water and gave me the energy and the strength I needed to persevere.

Graduate school is just the beginning of your story. All of the students who I saw struggling to make it in graduate school have gone on to have successful careers both outside and inside academia. Did you hear me? All. Once you’ve gotten that credential in your hand, it only gets better.

Jiayue (Jenny) He

Jiayue (Jenny) He

Jiayue (Jenny) He

Founder and CEO of construction company Ergeon
Sacramento, California
Ph.D. 2008 in Electrical Engineering

As a founder-CEO, I am responsible for building a great team culture and ensuring our company survives all the ups and downs. My father became an entrepreneur during my teenage years; I am inspired by his optimism for commercializing new technology and his persistence through the tougher times. At Princeton, I also had the good fortune to see Professor Kai Li (the Paul M. Wythes ’55 P’86 and Marcia R. Wythes P’86 Professor in Computer Science) expand Data Domain and several of my Ph.D. peers become founder-CEOs. In addition to being a source of inspiration, graduate school taught me a lot about emotional resilience, problem solving and the joy of mentoring.

Emotional resilience is essential for a founder. One of my undergrad professors told me, “Once you are in a Ph.D. program, it is all about the emotional resilience to fail many times before you succeed.” His words rang very true in my Ph.D. career, and the same is true of being a founder — a role that requires persistence and resilience in the face of endless challenges.

One hard transition I had from undergrad to graduate school is that I went from taking classes to picking problems. At first, I was either picking the wrong problems or the wrong approach. It took quite a few dead ends for me to get a feel for picking a good problem. After persisting for some time, I eventually could start feeling out a path in the dark, then it all started to click. This hard-earned skill has guided me a lot as a founder as well — a role that requires you to pick a problem, pick the approach and pressure test it from several angles.  

My second year of graduate school was my hardest. I missed the consistent structure of classes, my first two attempts at thesis topics were dead ends, and I hated being in a long-distance marriage. My advisers (Jennifer Rexford, the Gordon Y.S. Wu Professor in Engineering and professor of computer science, and Mung Chiang, then a visiting research scholar in electrical engineering) suggested I mentor an undergraduate. I was reluctant because I was already overwhelmed, but it turned out the student was struggling due to some personal difficulties, and I was one of the people that convinced her to stay and graduate. It was in supporting her that I became stronger and was able to work through my own struggles. Throughout my career — whether at McKinsey or as a founder, being a manager and mentor to others has always brought me the greatest joy.  

A great piece of advice I got early in my career was to follow people instead of ideas. A great manager develops you and champions you for better opportunities, even if it means moving with them to another company. One of the things that is different about being a CEO is that I am suddenly without a manager for the first time in my life. My investors are wonderful and very supportive, but it does mean I primarily get support from peers — other founders and executives.

Dane Christie

Dane Christie

Dane Christie

Materials Scientist at Corning Incorporated
Painted Post, New York
Ph.D. 2019 in Chemical Engineering; Christie spearheaded the development of a tool probing the transition temperate at the nanoscale level as his doctoral thesis. 

I synthesized a ton of polymers. I must have synthesized upwards of 60 unique polymer architectures in order to complete this study.

I wish I’d known that fulfilling the requirements of a thesis alone does not prepare you for the professional world. I honed my technical abilities over the last five years, but in my current work environment, the ability to communicate verbally, not in writing, is king. If you cannot convince people of the merit of your ideas in language they can understand, you are not going anywhere, since it is impossible to solve any meaningful problems by yourself. I think it could have helped to be exposed to different career paths and to learn about the additional skills needed to be successful.

I felt tremendous pressure to complete the program due in part to my history. I am a minority. I started in community college as an adult who did poorly in high school the first time around. I eventually graduated from a small but excellent four-year program. If I failed, I worried that other people who share parts of my background would be denied entry. I could not accept that, so I persisted.

Jay Xu

Jay Xu

Jay Xu

Director of the Asian Art Museum
San Francisco, California
Ph.D. 2008 in Art and Architecture

You go to the doctor when you think you’re sick, but you come to the museum when you want to feel better, too.

My title makes it sound like I sit on the top of a pyramid, but to accomplish any goals, I have to think about myself more as a link in a chain. What I really do all day is identify how to make connections. Connections between very different museum departments, between audiences and our collections, between benefactors and exhibitions or programs they might want to support. At the end of the day, a museum can have the most spectacular art, but if audiences don’t see it as relevant and don’t feel engaged, then you haven’t fully connected with them.

Scholarship of course is also about synthesis — bringing together and seeing the connections between diverse strands of evidence or experience, or thinking about how two elements might spark together. I am constantly conducting research, and while I’m not able to publish everything, I look forward to my “retirement” when I can start to synthesize what I’ve uncovered. Do research like you are going to live forever.

I’m actually proud that there is a 15-year gap between my Ph.D. candidacy and the defense of my dissertation. I worked in museums that whole time, but I knew that before I took on a leadership role here, I wanted to complete what I had begun. That taught me the persistence that I needed to get me through a series of major challenges, including navigating the global financial crisis in 2008 soon after I started my job.

Academia teaches you to stay observant and stay curious, which is essential when you work with art and artists. You can never learn everything, and allowing yourself to be a little humble about that means you are open to growth. Contemporary art teaches me new things by raising new questions and by pushing boundaries. In this way, art almost supersedes science. I know people might not agree with me, but I’m here in Silicon Valley, and part of my job is to raise funds from entrepreneurs who work in these sectors. I ask them to describe their products, and they have to use my words: “state of the art” or “a work of art.” Art is a level of human creativity beyond expression or articulation.

Patrice Jean

Patrice Jean

Patrice Jean

Intellectual Property Partner at Hughes Hubbard
New York City
Ph.D. 1999 in Molecular Biology

During graduate school, I honed my skills as a scientist, but I also learned how important it was to engage with all people from different disciplines, places, lifestyles and cultures. These skills have proven to be extremely valuable in my current role because, as an IP lawyer, I must critically evaluate the science behind my clients’ many diverse technologies and also engage and persuade examiners, judges and juries to decide matters in their favor.

My experiences at Princeton have been the inspiration behind me pushing for more inclusive and diverse environments at all of the institutions that I have studied at and worked for.

Life outside of academia is challenging but extremely rewarding. Everyone can make a difference and sometimes the most meaningful and empowering moments happen on a very small scale — and you may not know right away. I recently received an email somewhat out of the blue from a Princeton alumna telling me what a difference I had made for her while I was teaching her undergraduate section over 20 years ago. I could never have known then that what I was doing made such a difference in her life. It was a special reminder that it’s the little things that you do every day that can make a real difference in other people’s lives.

Matt Weber

Matt Weber

Matt Weber

Data Scientist at Bloomberg LP
Skillman, New Jersey
Ph.D. 2009 in Psychology/Neuroscience

My work entails about an even mix, these days, of statistics/machine learning and software engineering; I've also done a lot of internal education, mentoring, organizing and hiring.

Some academics are prone to believe that business problems are uninteresting. False! In my experience, at least, having a concrete context for a problem and a requirement to actually solve it subject to constraints, rather than just “shed light on it,” make life plenty interesting. And I never quit learning. When I left academia I didn't know anything about modern neural networks, natural language processing, databases or any number of software engineering best practices.

Soapbox time: Academics have more skills than they think, if they can just find the words to explain them to hiring managers. Grad students are required to write and speak in ways that junior contributors in the corporate world don't get to. Writing a co-authored paper is “project management.” Lab meetings are “using data to guide stakeholders on business decisions.” For most Ph.D.s, this stuff is going to work a lot harder for you than your deep subject matter expertise, so find ways to notice and foreground it.

On the flip side, some hiring managers believe that Ph.D.s (a) want to teach, (b) don't want to take direction and (c) don’t want to work on anything that isn't cutting-edge research. It’s not fair, but it’s what you’re dealing with. Tweak how you show up — on your resume, cover letter, interview answers, etc. — to mitigate those concerns.

And when you do succeed at your transition to industry, please keep your alumni networks in mind. I've spoken with a lot of college and graduate students looking into careers in data science, and my strong impression is that women and students of color are looking for career guidance at much higher rates than their representation in the student body. Take a few minutes to keep your information up to date so you can help your fellow Tigers out. Or send an email to Amy Pszczolkowski in the grad school or Susanne Killian in the career center — they'd love to hear from you!