Peer clinics help grad students succeed in career transitions (opinion)

Two major drivers dictate the quality of graduate and postdoctoral career development programs: the depth of training and how much they address the perceived pain points or areas of anxiety trainees must deal with that are only partially within their control. Professional and career development training programs must create awareness, build skills and/or provide experience while also adding to a trainee’s research, publication record, funding and career transition. If programs are not delivering some combination of the above, then they must be revised, reconsidered or even abandoned.

For instance, graduate students and postdocs who decide to go on the job market must do much more than just submit applications and wait for offers to roll in. They must also find a position that’s a good fit for them and concisely convey their previous educational and career trajectory to potential employers. Yet there is a real lack of guidance, mentoring and peer support for job search and transition readiness among many trainee populations, especially international scholars and groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM.

Offering and repeating targeted monthly career-transition trainings on such topics as CVs and résumés, cover letters, teaching statements, research proposals, and job interviews can help trainees prepare their minds and materials for the job market. This article addresses how training offices can engage trainees and provide instant support in their job search through facilitated discussions and peer reviews using a career clinic model. As director of a postdoc office, I have been facilitating monthly career clinics since 2017. In that time, I have found them especially helpful for graduate students and postdocs from all types of disciplines.

Unpacking the Career-Transition Process

Perhaps the most significant aspect of successful career clinics is that they incorporate shared participant responsibilities. Participants are expected to prepare a draft of a job search component that they are willing to share, and several peers as well as the facilitator or another expert will critique it. They must also be willing to read, review and critique each other’s materials. That encourages participants to realize the significance of having their materials reviewed and then revising them.

The structure and flow of a career clinic is important. In general, trainees submit a draft of their application materials ahead of time for the facilitator or expert critique. The typical workshop begins with a discussion of self-identified struggles of drafting those materials, followed by facilitator-led brainstorming of actual strategies to overcome such struggles. Usually, the facilitator then gives a brief presentation on the tips, tricks and best practices that respond to the issues raised in the struggles-and-strategies sessions.

Next, the participants are put into pairs or small groups for a few rounds of peer review and critique. Afterward, the group synthesizes the lessons people have learned about the entire process. Ph.Ds and postdocs walk away with several critiques and an appreciation for the importance of critical material review.

In managing a career clinic, the facilitator must ensure that the flow of discussion is independent of who is in attendance, as the audience and atmosphere of the workshops can be highly variable. While the presentation components may reinforce the discussion, facilitators should endeavor to use minimal slides, since the presentation is often redundant to the discussion.

In addition to benefiting trainees, these types of in-depth, interactive and insightful workshops assist training offices in developing programming that encourages Ph.Ds and postdocs to further participate in the full catalog of events those offices might offer. In the clinics, not only the trainees but also the training offices can gain information about innovative programming that can provide the skills that grad students and postdocs require for both nonacademic and academic-focused careers. Also, if training offices do not have the ability or staff to offer one-on-one coaching and advising, they can still use this model to teach these skills by either leveraging their own experience or bringing in someone with experience with graduate and postdoc job search and career-transition readiness.

Common Career-Transition Topics

Some of the specific topics that career clinics can explore include:

  1. The CV and résumé. A CV or résumé provides the first impression of a candidate to a potential employer. The content of the document should quickly grab the reader’s interest, and the format must deliver information clearly and concisely. To make it even more challenging, trainees need to summarize the highlights of their career in just a few pages.
  2. Cover letters. By understanding the job posting and aligning the cover letter to its content, candidates can quickly and concisely convey their interest and job fit, all in just one page. In crafting and tailoring a cover letter, the candidates must address the specific qualifications employers are looking for when they advertise open positions.
  3. Statements of teaching philosophy. Writing the teaching statement can be one of the most esoteric exercises in crafting the academic application package. While less philosophical and more practical, the challenge is to communicate a tangible evidence-based teaching approach in just a single page.
  4. Research proposals and statements. Writing the research proposal is one of the most intense exercises in putting together an academic job application. While constructing the intellectual framework of a lab for the next several years, applicants must also convey a feasible, fundable and future-focused research program in just a few pages.
  5. Interview preparation. Every trainee could benefit from interview prep as they move forward in their job search. A critical part of their job hunt as a candidate is convincing other people (and sometimes themselves) through effective storytelling that they are capable of performing successfully.

The Struggles and Strategies of Application-Material Prep

Graduate students and postdocs may find such career-transition topics and materials to be overwhelming and confusing. Thus, they are often mystified and even paralyzed as to how to proceed. Using peer review and critique to one application documents, as well as focusing on self-awareness and authenticity, trainings should cover common struggles and effective strategies for preparing trainees for successful job searches and career transitions. Through my own work in career clinics, I’ve found trainees often identify shared struggles across the five career-transition topics I’ve just outlined, as well as some potentially effective strategies to deal with such challenges.

For instance, when it comes to drafting materials and preparing for career transitions, trainees are surprised to learn that most of them have the same concerns, regardless of experience or topic. Graduate students and postdocs tend not to understand the true purpose of some or all of the components within the application package. They also have questions about each document’s length, structure, order of sections, formatting and balance of soft and technical content.

The best strategies to address such common struggles can actually be universally applied across all topics. When trainees are crafting their applications, they should have others review documents, find and model recent examples, and mirror the language of the job posting, if possible. Additional advice is for trainees to always be themselves—honest, authentic and direct.

Beyond the application, trainees are very concerned about interviewing and the inherent preparation required. Specifically, they struggle with talking about themselves and their research without sounding awkward or salesperson-like. A helpful strategy to deal with that concern is for trainees to share concrete, detailed and authentic experiences through storytelling.

Improving and Expanding Career Clinics

If a training office implements a version of the career-clinic model, they may want to make several adaptations. For instance, they might dedicate more time to each session to dive deeper into the topic and encourage a longer peer review. Offices can also incorporate an additional follow-up session to evaluate progress and critique revisions. They can also provide further community support by launching peer support groups that help individuals develop application materials and the likes. Turning the career clinics into an all-day workshop or a multiweek course across multiple topics could also broaden impact.

Finally, it’s important to note that training offices should not confine the topics of their career clinics to just the five topics I’ve outlined but should expand them to include specific career tracks (academe, industry, nonbench and more), individualized development plans ( IDPs), manuscript writing, presentation preparation, diversity statements, grant writing and many others.

Career and professional development workshops for trainees, in any form, will most likely be beneficial to some graduate students and postdocs regardless of their topic or structure. However, if the offerings address areas of trainee anxiety while providing awareness and depth, then a training curriculum will emerge that has substance, relevance and impact to trainee well-being and career outlook. And in the case of the career-clinic model in particular, the principles I’ve outlined can well exceed this threshold by giving trainees real-time feedback on their career-transition journey.

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