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Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

Helping graduate students find alternative careers

Career Development Organization for physicists and astronomers (CDO)

“There are three things I know I like: research, mentoring people and the Northwest. I’m looking to find a career path that combines those. I think I have plenty of options that will use my skill sets appropriately and they’ll all be good ones.”

Andrew Laszlo ‘14
2013-14 Coordinator, CDO; Ph.D., Physics; Postdoctoral Researcher, UW Nanopore Physics Lab

 

Several years ago, physics and astronomy graduate students co-founded an organization to support students looking for jobs outside of academia. They met a growing need to connect graduating Ph.D. students to employers. “The reality is that most people don’t go into a tenure-track position,” says Andrew Laszlo, who was a 2013-14 coordinator of the Career Development Organization for physicists and astronomers (CDO). “A lot of people are going on to do other things. Our goal is to get people thinking about other options and to see what’s out there.”

Connecting alumni, employers and current students: The CDO’s primary focus is an annual networking event. Student organizers invite local and international employers, many of whom are also alumni. On the first day, employers present to students. On the second day, students present their own work to employers. “The idea is to get people talking,” says Laszlo. The visiting professionals represent the range of opportunities open to graduating scientists. Recent graduate Amit Misra notes, “It was interesting to see their career paths. They’re not your professors; they are people who branched off and did what I’ve been hoping to do—find a career outside of academia.”

Creating well-rounded scientists: CDO aims to help science graduate students become better job candidates. Laszlo summarizes the challenge: “I think employers are happy to hire candidates who are good at working with other people and have skills beyond just being intelligent.” As a result, CDO’s programming highlights the value of ‘soft skills.’ The organization’s mission statement contends: “To remain competitive in the job market, physicists, mathematicians and astronomers need to augment their analytic and problem-solving skills with flexibility, leadership, and cross-disciplinary aptitude.”

UW neuroscience graduate student Liza Shoenfeld (sidebar) mapped out possible alternative career choices and sought out informational interviews to explore those options. She now works for a management consulting firm in New York.

Image courtesy of Liza Shoenfeld and branchingpoints.com.

Partnering with the Career Center: To prepare for its fall employer event, CDO holds two workshops with the Career Center: one on effective résumés and another called Networking for Shy People. Laszlo says CDO members have found these events and the Career Center overall “to be incredibly useful. It’s not the norm for physics people to be social, actively engaging with other people and selling themselves,” he says. “That’s what you do when you’re networking. So it’s a bit of social coaching.”

Seminars with guest speakers inform students about career paths: In addition to the annual networking event, CDO organizes a variety of other workshops and seminars, many of which feature guest speakers (often alumni) talking about their fields. Recent presentation topics include working in rocket science and employment opportunities at NASA, and landing a faculty job at a small college. CDO also recently arranged a tour of Boeing linear accelerator labs and a chance to meet the scientists who work there.

“I just got a job at Microsoft as a data scientist. I was asked to give a presentation on my research to start off my interview day, and I was able to re-use a lot of the presentation I gave at the CDO event last year. It was one of the few talks I’d given that was geared towards a technical audience, but one that didn’t have much astronomy experience.”

Amit Misra ‘14
Ph.D., Astronomy

 

For students, by students: For ten years, “the CDO has been passed down grad student to grad student,” says Laszlo, the third generation of coordinators from his research lab. Leading CDO was a core part of his UW experience. “Mentoring other students was an important part of feeling like I belonged in the department and was contributing to the community,” says Laszlo. “And, on my résumé, it demonstrates leadership and organization skills.”

For networking, practice makes perfect: Some CDO participants find jobs directly through the organization, such as Nathan Kurz ‘10, who was recruited by the electron microscope firm Nion after a senior engineer saw his presentation at the fall employer event. For students who don’t get a job offer right away, the event provides “good practice for how to present yourself,” says Laszlo. Misra agrees. “Just interacting with people, seeing what they were doing and how my skills from graduate school could transfer was really helpful,” he says, adding, “Learning to talk about my research to a non-astronomy audience was a good experience. At academic conferences you’re talking to the 10 or 20 people in your field who already pretty much know what you did anyway.”

Student groups complement Graduate School offerings: The Graduate School has a formal program for introducing graduate students to career options. In collaboration with the Career Center and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the Graduate School’s Core Programs offer workshops, seminars and online content geared toward career fulfillment, whether in academia, nonprofits or private industry.

Lessons Learned

  • Tapping recent alumni to participate in professional networking and mentorship opportunities helps students recognize transferable skills and explore a wider range of career options.
  • Graduate students are most competitive in the job market when they have both deep disciplinary expertise and practice communicating their knowledge and skills to people outside their field.

Learn More

Read the full Provost report on how to link academic passion to life and careers.