As Meredith Wilson entered her final year of doctoral study in biological anthropology, she knew that she no longer wanted to pursue a career in academia. Between competition for funding and her desire to live closer to family and friends, she decided that facing the post-graduation cycle of postdoc position to visiting assistant professor position and onwards up the academic ladder was not for her. While she enjoyed teaching, mentoring, and advising, she did not want the uncertainty that comes with an academic position.
However, once she made the decision to pursue alternatives to academic careers, Meredith was not sure who to turn to for advice. Her advisors were kind, but their experience was in academia, so their advice was not necessarily applicable to non-academic jobs.
Enter the participated in the Graduate College’s Career Exploration Fellowship: this unique fellowship offers Illinois graduate students the opportunity to explore alternative career paths by working with various host units on the University of Illinois campus. Meredith’s own position was with the Career Development Office, helping to advise other graduate students about their own career options.
Inaugurated in fall 2022, the Career Exploration Fellowship continues to grow with the fall 2023 semester seeing thirteen fellows working in eleven different participating units across campus. During the fellowship period, fellows receive mentorship from their host units and participate in regular professional development meetings with the Graduate College’s Career Development Office. As part of the program, fellows receive both a $5,000 stipend for the semester and also work in their host units for an hourly wage. The fellowship offers graduate students a mechanism to gain firsthand work experience with their host unit while they continue to pursue their degree. English PhD candidate Heather Ennis —who was also part of the inaugural cohort of Career Exploration fellows last fall—highlighted the fellowship as offering her a “practical way” to gain different kinds of professional experience amidst “the demanding schedule of graduate school.”
Mike Firmand, Associate Director for Graduate College Career & Professional Development, emphasizes the exploration aspect of the program, asserting that the opportunity is “about seeing alternative career options as opposed to yet another thing to add to the CV.” He notes that the program is mutually beneficial for graduate students and host units as campus offices are able to benefit from Illinois’ graduate students’ “particular strengths.” Indeed, many fellows see the Career Exploration Fellowship as a way to apply the academic skills they’ve developed in a practical setting. For example, current fellow Jana Perkins, a PhD student in Information Science, noted that her work in Student Affairs Assessment and Planning allows her “to learn more about the work of analyzing data in a real-world environment" since there’s “a lot about this type of work that you just can’t encounter in a classroom setting.” Similarly, Shiyu Sun, a PhD student in Educational Psychology, sees her work in Student Affairs International Education as “an opportunity to bridge the gap between theory and practice, ensuring that my contributions remain meaningful and impactful in both realms.”
Many current and past fellows encouraged anyone considering applying for the Career Exploration Fellowship to give it a chance. According to current fellow Guatham Krishnan, a PhD student in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, the job coupled with the ongoing career advising allows graduate students “to systematically think about fellow and PhD candidate in Molecular & Integrative Physiology, noted that the ongoing career development meetings help you to “learn a lot about yourself” and what kinds of careers you may want to pursue. Past fellow Sneha Das, a PhD candidate in Microbiology, also praised the fellow meetings, noting that working together with her cohort to “discover our core values and who we are as people was also a big part of this experience” that has led her to “feel better prepared for the job market now than before.”
Heather Ennis argued that even if you aren’t sure about leaving the tenure-track path, “you will develop insights that would be beneficial as a faculty member” since “working at a unit on campus gives you the opportunity to learn how large universities function and how they are structured.” This knowledge allows fellows to further appreciate and understand how large academic institutions run.
Even if the Career Exploration Fellowship does not fit into an individual graduate student’s timeline, seeking out a variety of career advice and experience can benefit anyone. Derek Attig—Assistant Dean for Career & Professional Development—notes that while this fellowship formally structures alternative career experience, many graduate students gain invaluable insight “through internships or substantial volunteer positions.” Current fellow Kevin Neumann—a PhD student in Ecology, Evolution & Conservation Biology—suggested that grad students who are interested in alternative career paths
Looking back at her experience, Meredith credits the Career Exploration Fellowship with giving her the confidence that she made the right decision to look for a career outside of academia. Her time as a fellow exposed her to how corporate environments function and gave her non-academic work experience to draw on as she interviewed for positions. Further, she cited the professional development guidance the program provides as being particularly supportive in helping her reach her non-academic career goals. Ultimately, Meredith leveraged her work as a Career Exploration Fellow into her current position as a project manager for Avant Healthcare.
Meredith advised current graduate students to consider applying for the Career Exploration Fellowship. She noted that “on an academic track, we’re told that’s the only way you can do something. It’s very linear. But life’s not really like that: you can switch your career as many times as you want and that’s okay. You don’t have to have the whole thing planned out. There are multiple ways to approach your life and career and recognizing that flexibility can be calming.”
Bri Lafond is a PhD candidate affiliated with the Center for Writing Studies, the Department of English, and the Department of Gender & Women's Studies. She is currently the Career Exploration Fellow for Graduate College Communications.