Preparing graduate students for the future of work outside academia

A new program at The Graduate School builds core business skills and valuable professional networks.

A master's student at commencement in a black cap and gown.
(Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Mary Learner spent her graduate school career studying Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers while Brianna Vickerman was in a chemistry lab studying the delivery of therapeutic drugs. In the course of obtaining doctorates in English and comparative literature and chemistry, the two haven’t typically crossed paths. However, both women, along with students who are getting advanced degrees in fields like journalism, public health and government, are participating in The Graduate School at UNC-Chapel Hill’s new program CareerWell this spring.

Students across the country have felt anxious while trying to launch their careers in a depressed job market. Despite having excellent academic mentors, many haven’t known where to turn for help as they look for jobs outside of academia. Leaders in The Graduate School observed changes in the job market and were considering options for additional career training services. Then, the 2020 economic downturn and a struggling job market, that’s still down about 8.4 million jobs compared to pre-pandemic numbers, made the program an immediate priority.

Preparing students for the future of work

The Graduate School established CareerWell in September 2020 to equip students with the key business skills and professional networks that are needed to launch successful careers in a rapidly changing labor market, heighten their job security and advance their career prospects.

“Too often schools across the nation lack the resources to adequately train students in key business skills and provide them with the relevant work experiences that can make them more competitive in a difficult job market,” said Jason Cramer, director of experiential professional development in The Graduate School. “By providing this training and facilitating valuable relationships with outside partners, CareerWell is helping our students to ‘future-proof’ their careers or develop the skills to navigate future career difficulties in a rapidly changing job market. We are equipping our students to become leaders who are well-prepared to take on tomorrow’s challenges.”

Any graduate student may enroll in the courses that are offered through CareerWell. In addition to a series of business courses that may be taken in any order, the program offers seminars, a multidisciplinary team internship opportunity, and a certificate known as the Graduate Certificate in Innovation, Leadership and Management. Participation in the program also brings students close to professionals from business, nonprofit and government settings who are interested in recruiting new employees from the program.

“I want to be flexible and creative as I make a career for myself,” said Learner, a 2017 Carolina DigitalHumanities Fellow and current Ph.D. candidate in the College of Arts & Sciences, department of English and comparative literature. “Through CareerWell I’ve had the opportunity to work on an interdisciplinary team writing a sample bid proposal for potential biotech clients. The experience has shown me that the skills I’ve developed in the humanities — like effective communication, creativity and problem solving — are valuable, in-demand skills that I can apply in other settings.”

Building the skills that the market demands

The team internships offered through CareerWell are distinct in the way that they prioritize teamwork across disciplines. While some programs offer internships and group projects on behalf of outside partners, these opportunities are typically offered through a department or school where participants have similar academic backgrounds and areas of expertise. The projects run through CareerWell are multidisciplinary by design, and students are actively recruited from across Carolina’s schools and departments when assembling teams. Team projects seek to bring students from STEM, humanities and other backgrounds together, to collaborate as they will need to in their future careers.

CareerWell has facilitated four team projects to this point — two in partnership with Enzerna Biosciences and two with PRA Health Sciences. The four teams have included 20 students who hail from 10 different schools and the College of Arts & Sciences. Through the Team Collaboration internship with PRA Health Sciences, Learner and her team are developing an exploratory landscape analysis that the company can use as they create future bid proposals. To create this report, Learner’s team has interviewed professionals from emerging biotechnology companies to learn what they are most interested in seeing in bid proposals from clinical research organizations, like PRA. This experience has allowed students to apply the skills, like writing, that they developed in their degree programs, while learning new skills and gaining in-depth knowledge of a major industry.

Career success requires more than possessing strong technical acumen. It’s increasingly important for employees to be proficient in a wide range of competencies such as interdisciplinary teamwork, leadership, project management and professional communication. Carolina is committed to training students to demonstrate the skills needed to navigate a challenging job market so they can build successful long-term careers.

“I want to be a leader in my field. Skills like knowing how to work effectively with people from different professional backgrounds are necessary to succeed in the real world,” said Vickerman, a 2020 HiskeyFellow in the College of Arts & Sciences, department of chemistry, who recently defended her dissertation. “CareerWell is allowing me to build leadership skills now, in a more nurturing environment, so that I can take them into my career from the very beginning.”

An inside look at the workplace

Another unique aspect of the program is the degree to which external partners are directly involved. Professionals from for-profit, nonprofit and government organizations lead many of the courses and seminars offered through the program. CareerWell partners are also directly involved in the design of group projects, which ensures that the projects will provide students with a realistic experience of what will be needed from them in the workforce.

Michael Levy is one such CareerWell partner. He serves as CEO of the nonprofit Digital Health Institute for Transformation, has been an adjunct faculty member in The Graduate School since 2019 and is an executive-in-residence for CareerWell.

“There’s been a nationwide gap in opportunities for students to collaborate across disciplines in real-world settings. CareerWell provides these valuable opportunities and runs projects in a way that guarantees they are mutually beneficial for the students and the organizations involved,” said Levy. “Projects are jointly designed by school leaders and external partners, which ensures that needs are aligned, positions students for success and makes the program valuable to its partners.”

Since the program’s launch in September 2020, roughly 250 students have enrolled in CareerWell courses and 200 students have registered to participate in team projects and other non-course activities.Interested students may submit a form to register for future CareerWell programming.

CareerWell is less than a year old, but the interest from graduate students already outpaces program capacity. With CareerWell, donors and corporate partners have the unique opportunity to help develop an innovative program that benefits students from all fields of study. In time and with additional resources, The Graduate School plans to expand CareerWell to support Carolina alumni. By getting involved now, partners can lend the support and expertise needed to grow CareerWell’s offerings and create opportunities for more students and alumni.