Seminars Prepare Graduate Students for Professional Careers

By John C. Giardina

In a seminar on presentation techniques, Dr. Carolyn Lin of the Department of Communication Sciences described how one can give an informative yet engaging lecture. On November 19th, graduate students and faculty from across the School of Engineering gathered to listen to Dr. Lin discuss these vital skills. This seminar is part of a new initiative by the School of Engineering to provide graduate students with professional development opportunities. Held on Fridays during both semesters, these talks provide students an opportunity to learn skills vital to their future careers, but which are not often taught in standard engineering classes. The seminars cover a wide range of topics, including proposal and technical writing, teaching skills, entrepreneurship and career planning. The sessions are led by top professors from across the University, giving engineering students a wide range of experiences and perspectives from which to draw.

The series arose from a kind of epiphany among the School of Engineering’s leadership, explained School of Engineering Program Coordinator for Outreach and Diversity Sonya Renfro. “Our graduate students need additional training in preparation for their careers. They’re getting all the technical, engineering, and science training in their classes and in their lab work, but they’re really not getting the skills necessary for proper presentation and even technical writing.”

The program, developed by Ms. Renfro, Dean of Engineering Mun Choi, and Assistant Dean for Graduate Studies and Diversity Dr. Jun-Hong Cui – along with the Student Association of Graduate Engineers – aims to change that. Ms. Renfro said that, even though those skills are important for the job market, prior to the genesis of this professional development seminar series, there was no structured way for graduate students to acquire these skills. “What they’re getting in their classes and from their advisors is a guess and check. They are putting something out there and they are getting some revisions but not always in an instructional format.” This new program offers that formal instruction. “Students wanted more, and this type of professional development is really giving them that.”

Ms. Renfro also stressed the fact that this program is not something that is new just for UConn, but for other schools as well. She said other schools have similar types of programs, but nothing on the order that is happening now in the School of Engineering. This will enable graduate students to become more competitive right out of UConn, giving them a head start in skills that many students do not start to learn until they begin their professional career.

Not only will this initiative advance the careers of students, but it will also enhance the culture and reputation of the School and University as a whole. Graduate students are an integral part of research and teaching mission at UConn. The professional development series provides significant support for students in applying for federal fellowship programs and grants that bring prestige to the students as well as the University. Also, since graduate students teach classes and hold teaching assistantships throughout the School of Engineering, the emphasis these programs place on presentation and teaching techniques will build the learning environment in undergraduate classes, translating the benefits of these seminars to the entire university population.

Each seminar usually consists of a few presenters giving a short lecture on a topic and then opening up to the audience for questions and participation. Each session is specially tailored for engineers, giving students access to people who understand what engineers specifically need to succeed, especially in terms of technical writing and presentation. A professional certificate is also offered if a student attends at least six of the 10 seminars offered this year.

The response from graduate students has been very positive. Derek Doran (PhD. student, Computer Science & Engineering) said he recognizes that students need something beyond technical skills to succeed in engineering. “As graduate students, we are supposed to focus on technical details and research, but at the same time we often lose a broader perspective of what it means to be a professional.” He also remarked that these programs highlight the care the School of Engineering is taking to prepare students for a world beyond academia. “These sessions show that administrators have a real interest in making sure we are successful professionals, as well as researchers.” Paiyz Mikael (PhD. Student, Material Science and Engineering), described how these programs can ease the transition for incoming graduate students. “When you’re starting out, you often don’t know where to begin,” she said. She says there are some skills students don’t feel comfortable addressing on their own, but these seminars provide an opportunity for instructors to explicitly teach those skills.

Dr. Cui, the Assistant Dean and director of the new initiative, is excited by the great start this program has had and believes it separates UConn from other engineering schools.  She said “Our systemic graduate professional development program will make UConn engineering unique. Besides helping current students, we believe that this program will also attract more quality students.”

As successful as this year’s series has been, Ms. Renfro envisions new topics the series can explore. “We intend to tap the graduate population for other workshop topics that students feel would directly benefit them.” She views the series as an organic, evolving program, which can continue to grow and become an integral part of graduate education, leading the School of Engineering in an innovative and exciting direction.

The seminars continue next semester; a schedule of topics, locations and times may be found here. RSVP is requested, but walk-ins are accepted.