GradUCon activates

A new conference provides a “support group” for grad students.

By Jake Grubman, ’11
Photography by Lloyd DeGrane

As people trickle into the Ida Noyes Hall reception room and grab their Potbelly sandwiches, linguistics PhD student Nikki Adams, AM’07, laughs with the other grad students at her table. At some point they were discussing academia. Now they’ve moved on to Krispy Kreme hamburgers, the ones with the donuts for buns.

In a few minutes, the inaugural Graduate Student Development Conference—GradUCon—will begin, and the room’s attention will return to doctorates, work-life balance, and options after graduate school. For Brooke Noonan, director of the Office of the Graduate Student Affairs (GSA), the daylong event is more intimate than a typical conference. “Welcome to your support group,” she says with a smile to the crowd of about 320 graduate students, opening the plenary discussion.

Debora Heard, right, looks over GradUCon swag.

The Office of Career Advising and Planning Services (CAPS) and the GSA began collaborating on the event last winter, when both wrote grant proposals to the Women’s Board for graduate-student professional-skill development. They weren’t among the projects funded, so they explored alternatives—a “recession version” of the conference, as Noonan says, drawing panelists from inside the University community.

In choosing topics for the event, the organizers sought to answer concerns that had arisen frequently in graduate-adviser meetings over the past few years. “We wanted to address those issues in a central way, in light of the recent recession and tough job market,” Noonan says. “This is something a long time in coming.”

The day featured eight sessions, with one of the most popular focusing on academic and grant writing. There Noonan, University of Chicago Press acquisitions editor Robert Devens, and associate English professor Lisa Ruddick offered suggestions for what editors prefer in journal articles or books and how students can best pitch their projects to publishers. Two of the hour-long panels were dedicated to dissertation writing, one including deputy dean of social sciences Elisabeth Clemens discussing the planning process as well as how to work through problems in the later stages.

The program was not all dedicated to producing work. The discussion on work-life balance, for example, addressed the need to retain a social life during the intensive dissertation-writing process. “We were trying to focus on ways to not forget about the other parts of life that students should also find time for,” Noonan says.

In the plenary discussion, Deputy Provost for Graduate Education Cathy Cohen, Vice President for Campus Life and Dean of Students Kim Goff-Crews, and Deputy Provost for Research and Minority Issues Ken Warren highlighted keys to a positive graduate-school experience, such as identifying appropriate faculty members for doctoral advice.

During the Q-and-A portion the adviser-advisee relationship arose several times. Cohen drew laughs in summarizing a couple of student questions in slightly more blunt language: “So, how do you fire your adviser?” The planning committee hopes to expand the scope of next year’s event. Adams suggested a greater focus on careers outside academia, adding to this year’s introductory discussions on the topic. “Most of the event was geared toward people writing their dissertations, and I’m already finished,” says Adams, in her ninth year in the Department of Linguistics. “The advice would have been helpful toward the beginning; somewhere around the second or third year would have been the best time.”

A survey of attendees has Noonan and her fellow organizers working toward improvements, specifically seeking more student input on topics to cover.

“We definitely want to build on the enthusiasm of the students,” she says, “and make sure they are involved in the planning committee from the beginning so that we can make it as relevant as possible.”

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