University Administrative Fellows program prepares Ph.D.s for careers within and beyond academia
Zoë Rose Buonaiuto realized she wanted to pursue a career outside of academia when she began archival research for her doctoral dissertation at Princeton. Although she was interested in her project and the study of history, in general, she couldn’t imagine spending so much time alone amid the stacks.
“I really started to crave having a team and working as part of a team,” said Buonaiuto, who earned a Ph.D. in history in 2018. “That’s not to say academia can’t be collaborative. Often times, it very much is. But I realized that I thrived most when I was working with people throughout the day.”
Recognizing collaboration as a strength and seeking to prepare herself for a variety of career opportunities, Buonaiuto applied in 2016 for a University Administrative Fellowship (UAF) in the Office of the Dean of the College. She shadowed Rebekah Massengill, associate dean of the college, for a few hours a week. As part of her fellowship project, Buoniauto researched a proposal to change academic requirements for Princeton undergraduates.
“It was really an opportunity to be mentored by someone who was not my academic adviser,” Buonaiuto said. “It also gave [one] a cohort of like-minded students who were having the same kinds of questions that I was. And so in one fell swoop, joining the program, not only did I have an additional mentor, but I had colleagues where I knew it was very much safe and accepted to openly talk about other things we could pursue after the Ph.D.”
Supporting graduate students in their career exploration and development is the primary goal of the UAF program, now in its sixth year at Princeton’s Graduate School. The program has proved so effective and interest has grown so quickly, that it has more than doubled in size in the past 12 months. It has become a signature program of the new GradFUTURES professional development initiative.
Over 40 fellowships are now offered, including at Advancement, Alumni Affairs, the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, Office of Information Technology, Office of Technology Licensing, Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials, and Princeton University Press.
“One of the fundamental tenets of our GradFUTURES professional development initiative is that, when it comes to professional development, there is simply no substitute for direct experience and great mentoring,” said Eva Kubu, associate dean and director of professional development at the Graduate School. “We are sincerely grateful to the campus partners who have hosted University Administrative Fellows over the years. These opportunities have helped graduate students build professional competencies, as well as confidence and connections.”
The experiences give master’s and Ph.D. students access to work environments where they can apply their research skills to high-level projects while also building competencies that are sought by employers, said James Van Wyck, assistant dean for professional development at the Graduate School.
“The fellowship renders legible a lot of the transferrable skills graduate students acquire in pursuit of an advanced degree, and gives graduate students the opportunity to apply them in important contexts within the University,” Van Wyck said. “UAF mentors provide a kind of independent third-party verification of each graduate student’s strengths and abilities. In some cases, it is the additional letter of support from a UAF mentor that helps alums of the program secure employment in fields related to their UAF experience.”
Some students choose a fellowship that aligns closely with their research, but they also can use the opportunity to develop a parallel strength or new talent, Van Wyck said.
Participants also benefit from connections with the cohort of fellows that forms each fall. Together they share common concerns on a virtual collaboration hub and participate in UAF seminars and events.
For Buonaiuto, the confidence and work experience she gained through her UAF led to a full-time position as executive assistant to the president at Princeton University Investment Company. She recently accepted a job as chief of staff for Ethos, a life insurance startup in San Francisco.
“You are developing skills that are absolutely employable,” Buonaiuto said. “And it just reminds you that if you decide you don’t want to take the traditional path, there are many, many things that you can do and many, many ways you can be successful.”
This fall, Max Horder, a Ph.D. student in anthropology, conducted ethnographic research as a fellow with the Keller Center for Innovation in Engineering Education to help the center identify how it can better serve and engage graduate students with its entrepreneurial offerings.
“I am an anthropologist, so the UAF position is exactly in my line of work,” he said. “The project involves observing, clarifying what respondents think, and connecting to broader patterns and problems. UAF is an incredible window into what one can do with this academic skillset outside of academia.”
Each week he met with Cornelia Huellstrunk, the Keller Center’s executive director, to report on his findings and think through the goals of his research.
Huellstrunk said the benefits of their collaboration have been mutual, especially as the Keller Center seeks to partner with graduate students in more meaningful ways through its programming and academic offerings. Since Horder’s arrival, the center has opened more of its workshops to graduate students, including its Friday lunch-and-learn series.
“I couldn’t be more happy with having that opportunity to work with a really talented grad student on something like this,” Huellstrunk said. “Max is trying to take this all the way through ideation, where he proposes a couple of different types of approaches, which we can then go ahead and prototype.”
Derek Lidow, an entrepreneurship specialist and lecturer in computer science and the Keller Center, recruited fellows Olek Niewiarowski, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in civil engineering, and Cory Isaacs, a third-year Ph.D. student in security studies, to build a research portal for the Keller Center.
In thinking through the needs of budding entrepreneurs who would benefit from access to the center’s resources, Niewiarowski and Isaacs suggested Lidow instead create an entrepreneurship podcast, which they are helping to produce.
Niewiarowski and Isaacs have interviewed small- and medium-sized enterprise owners for the podcast, as well as some bigger names in venture capital.
Entrepreneurship is an area that interests both fellows, though it isn’t necessarily related to their studies.
“My adviser knows that I have not been looking at careers in academia,” Niewiarowski said. “I did this because I don't really know what my next step is.”
“It's definitely a great networking experience, and it's great kind of working on the boundary of your comfort zone,” he added. “I definitely want to try my hand at something entrepreneurial in my future.”
Van Wyck said the UAF program will continue to expand through 2020 and beyond. In addition to its on-campus offerings, the Graduate School is planning a remote UAF option for students who are traveling while they complete their dissertation research.
The lessons learned through the program also will inform a larger, external program called GradFUTURES Fellows, that will be piloted in the spring. GradFUTURES Fellows will have the opportunity to partner with corporations, nonprofits, government entities and nongovernmental organizations on a variety of projects, with mentorship remaining central to the experience, Van Wyck said.
Shelby Lohr, a Ph.D. student in history and a University Administrative Fellow in the Office of Communications, contributed to this story.