While those working toward a graduate degree in STEM fields specialize heavily by research topic, companies across the board are interested in utilizing the computational and deductive reasoning skills developed by PhD candidates. These positions and opportunities are often lost on students as they are pushed toward the default path of academic research.
One potential mechanism of opening the door between academia and the professional world is through either formal or informal career symposiums. These events offer the opportunity for students to learn more about prospective careers while giving companies a recruiting advantage.
A recent career symposium organized at Princeton University is adapted here to provide an open template for creating your own career symposium. Full materials, including template emails and promotional content can be requested through our contact page.
Motivation for event:
The most integral piece of your job search is not what is contained in your C.V., but rather in who can recommend it to the right people. Therefore, the career symposium should be organized with the purpose of expanding your network.
An established graduate school department often offers the perfect vehicle for this goal – most have underdeveloped alumni relations as well as an established excellence in high quality scientific research.
Princeton University is a prototypical example – the various departments are characterized by academic excellence, yet local companies are not engaged with the graduate students. Furthermore, alumni of the graduate departments, both local and distant, are not connected with the events or current members of the department.
This scenario allowed us to design an event in which both local companies and alumni were excited to engage with current students and faculty. By establishing this connection, the career symposium generated professional collaborations as well as job leads for many of those in attendance.
The date and event:
Given that a large number of students/faculty are absent throughout the summer and that the academic year is filled with other obligations, the two options available for choosing a date were either the beginning of the fall semester or far ahead in the spring. The former was chosen since it would draw more interest to the event as no seminars are typically held during the summer. This did have its drawbacks – the first week of the academic year prevents most people with teaching commitments from attending.
The event itself was organized with a full day agenda. The day was split into four sections surrounded by coffee breaks and meals. Each of the four sections consisted of 15 minutes slots for each invited speaker to present. These sessions were concluded with a 15 minutes question and answer session. More opportunities for interaction were created by creating isolated lunch groups of one speakers and five students. Informal interactions were promoted through casual coffee breaks and a reception.
The event was concluded with a dinner where both the speakers and current faculty attended. Again, this afforded the opportunity for alumni and local companies to forge a stronger connection with the graduate department.
We first decided on the types of speakers that we were interested in – business management and R & D, communications and policy, and teaching. A committee was gathered and members were assigned to each career field according to their interests. After choosing candidates for each career field, the committee met a second time and pitched recommendations about whom to invite. We wanted to invite as many former PhDs from the department as possible. The purpose of this was two-fold: former students are more likely to connect with their alma mater, and this creates a program that is more relevant to current students.
In order to control costs and promote a local network, we sought to fill the program with local professionals.
Using these restrictions, we solicited suggestions from departmental faculty. In addition to these excellent suggestions, a list received from the department with the trajectory and contact details of all former graduates proved invaluable to the organizers.
As you put together the program, keep in the mind the interests of your colleagues – has government work fallen out of favor while most people instead look to biotechs? Balance the number of invites according to these preferences.
From this list we chose ~20 people for the first round invitations. The plan was to proceed onto a 2nd and 3rd wave of invitations, with perhaps a 30% conversion rate.
Instead we had a >75% success rate for responses, putting us at a slightly higher number of speakers than hoped for. We also reached out to one speaker with a particularly storied past to serve as a keynote speaker.
It was remarkable to see how interested former alumni were in attending the event, keeping this in mind, it may serve future organizers to invite fewer people at first.
Follow-ups with confirmed speakers:
A quick thank-you email was sent right away to a confirmed speaker, informing them that a more detailed email would come soon. Eventually, we sent an email to speakers to ask them to fill out a survey to give them a tentative schedule, and to send guidelines for how to prepare their talk. Follow-up emails were sent once a month, mostly to ensure that the speakers were up to date and kept the event on their mind.
The function of the survey was two-fold. First, we needed to know logistical details, such as how many hotel rooms to book and how many speakers to expect for dinner. We also asked for dietary restrictions and which faculty they would like to meet with over dinner. Second, we wanted the speakers to give us information that we could use to build a program of the event.
During the entire career symposium planning process, the graduate school was very supportive. Basic logistical planning was provided as well as full monetary support.
In the case of students organizing a career symposium with a less supportive department, they were able to raise nearly $30000 from private donors to proceed with the event.
The administrative staff of the department were crucial in reserving rooms, managing hotel bookings and coordinating food. The logistical areas covered by the administrative staff were: Hotel booking, breakfast, lunch and dinner planning, the reception, room reservations, name tags, and the travel reimbursement process.
Website and Registration:
The IT department was involved in 5 different projects for the symposium. Individuals involved were a web developer and 3 IT techs.
The web developer created a “save the date”/event announcement page on the department website as well as a post-event portal for people to access materials from the career symposium after the event.
The IT techs were involved in creating an event RSVP and a lunch-signup with speakers.
The IT techs also provided audio/visual support during the event, as well as video extraction and compression.
Invitations to the event, dinner, and lunch:
A general RSVP was sent out to students and Post-docs approximately one month before the event. Invitations to lunch were extended one week before the event. Students and post-docs in the department were emailed an “About the speakers” document, and were provided with a link for registration. While only half the spots were filled before the event, we had a long line of people during the event who wished to have lunch with a speaker.
Invitations to dinner were only extended to faculty. The heads of various departments were automatically included. Next we asked speakers which faculty they would like to invite. Next we each asked our PIs if they would like to attend.
Video recording of event: The event was recorded in order to offer future students the opportunity to view the talks in off years. We borrowed a departmental camera and mic, then asked a fellow student to film. (Paying for a professional filming service is very expensive) The video was then extracted and compressed by the IT department, making the process very easy.
Other planning committees have had serious issues when one or more of the speakers objected to being filmed, and the video recording became unusable. We prevented this by informing speakers beforehand that they would be recorded, then had all of them sign permission sheets before speaking. All were happy to do this.
Thank you notes were summarily sent to all who helped out, especially the speakers. Next, a LinkedIn group was created in the hope that a network of Princeton graduate STEM students would facilitate future job discussions. The group is named “Princeton Graduate Science alumni”, and can be found here: https://www.linkedin.com/groups?home=&gid=8139592
Many of the speakers were very open about recruiting current students. We had quite a bit of follow-up, with several job postings and career days resulting. There were also several cases of students connecting with the speakers and starting a discussion.
A survey was conducted of only departmental graduate students and post-docs to gain feedback on the event. Overall, responses were overwhelmingly positive.
(Sample timeline for an event held on September 9th)
January 29: First meeting with Director of graduate studies to discuss feasibility of event.
January 30: Contacted potential planning committee members.
February 25: First meeting with Department Manager to determine dates, timeline and logistical issues.
May 6: Meeting with Department Manager to book rooms and set up logistics.
May 7: Committee meeting to discuss speaker invitations, timelines, promotional materials, and assignments.
May 8: Meeting with Career Services about contributions from career services and things to keep in mind.
May 10: Emails to faculty soliciting speaker suggestions. Two week deadline given for responses.
May 20: Committee meeting vetting potential speakers. All alumni contact details collected from department manager. Assignment of committee members to particular sections.
May 21 – June 1: Emails to speakers extending invitation.
June 1: Rooms booked for lunches and main event.
June 2: Began weekly meetings with committee to discuss progress and ideas.
June 15: Reservation made at an upscale catering venue for the dinner.
June 20: Reservations made at hotel with fluff names on the basis of distance from University.
June 20: First follow-up email sent to speakers who accepted invitation. Contained survey for logistical data.
July 7: Preliminary budget for event created. Expenses included: catering, travel reimbursements, hotel bookings, printing, and video recording.
July 20: Fellow student recruited for filming.
July 27: Reached out to Career Services to provide materials and a speaker for the event.
August 4: Save the date emailed to associated departments.
August 5: Meeting with committee and Department Manager to discuss final details.
August 5: One speaker cancelled but gave a suggestion for a new speaker, reached out immediately.
August 7: Intranet for lunch registration and RSVP goes live for testing.
August 11: Final follow-up email sent to speakers with directions, room reservations, and program.
August 11: RSVP link sent to all associated departments.
August 27: Dinner invitations extended to faculty.
September 2: Final count submitted dinner.
September 3: Advertising flyers posted around the departments.
September 4: Invitation to lunches extended to students and post-docs.
September 4: Programs printed.
September 8: Final reminder email sent to department.
September 9: The symposium!
September 12: Thank you sent to speakers and others involved with the event. Post-event survey sent to students.