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A behind the scenes look at the graduate experience at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?

    It’s well-known that academic jobs are in short supply for humanities PhD graduates right now, but the question ‘what can I do with a PhD in the humanities?’ should have less to do with a lack of academic positions than it should the sheer number of career possibilities. That was the focus of ‘What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?’, a 5-week Graduate College workshop run by Derek Attig that I attended last Spring. The workshop covered advice and resources for finding jobs beyond academia, weekly conversations with humanities PhD graduates working in fields like public radio to environmental advocacy, and self-assessments of values and skills. The self-assessments were particularly illuminating, and they allowed each of us to approach the broader workshop questions with a focus on our own goals and interests.

    For me, there were two significant results of this focus. First, the reassurance that in doing my PhD I’m already doing useful work towards a wide variety of careers (and you probably are too). And second, I finished the workshop with a much better idea of what else I could be doing to make it easy to keep my career options open in the future.

    I’m sure I’m not the only PhD student to occasionally worry about falling behind my peers in the workplace. So it was a relief to learn just how many transferable skills I’ve gained in the process of my PhD already. In other words, the PhD is work experience. Take, for instance, your field exam, or prelims. On the face of it, nothing could seem more academically-focused. But the exam also demonstrates your ability to quickly learn and distil a large field of knowledge that can be applied widely to other fields. One Illinois alum with a PhD in English found that this very skill helped them land a data science job in DC. To take another example, teaching demonstrates your ability to explain complex ideas to a range of audiences, create engaging presentations, and provide useful feedback. And almost every guest we spoke to told us that their ability to write made them stand out in their post-PhD jobs. Humanities PhDs already have countless skills; the real challenge, I learned, is to tell a different story with them than we’re used to telling.

    I also left the workshop with a strategy for adding skills and experiences to those I already have, without taking away important time from dissertation-writing. They are small things, which I enjoy – writing short non-academic pieces like this one, and involvement with the GEO, for instance. Depending on your interests, there are any number of small experiences like these that can help you both explore and prepare for a range jobs. In fact, you might already be doing them. For two of the guest speakers, blogs they began for fun in grad school were surprisingly helpful when it came to finding jobs in communications. The blogs were related to neither their academic work nor the fields they ended up working in – they were about fashion and baseball – but they demonstrated the variety and strength of their writing skills.

    With so many options, it can be frankly daunting if you’re not sure what you want to do with your PhD – how do you even begin to narrow down your options? Perhaps this is why, on a recent trip to New Orleans, I gave in to touristic curiosity and had a tarot card reading. When the psychic asked, “What are you going to do after your PhD?” I told him that was the big question. “Well,” he said, gesturing at the cards scattered on the table in front of him, “you could really do anything.” I wasn’t expecting a lot, and it certainly didn’t answer the big question. But then, I didn’t need to go all the way to New Orleans for that anyway. All I needed was the opportunity to take a step back from my research and writing to see it in a new light. That’s what the workshop did for me. And while I haven’t yet answered my big question, I now have the tools and confidence to approach it as an exciting, rather than daunting, prospect.

    Alexandra Paterson is a PhD candidate in English. She participated in the What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? group last spring.

    This year’s What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities? Group starts November 2 and includes a field trip to the University of Illinois Press. Get more information and register online.

  • Meet the 2017-2018 SAGE Board Members

    Students Advising on Graduate Education (SAGE) is a student advisory board and leadership opportunity for graduate students at Illinois that fosters active engagement with Graduate College programs and initiatives. SAGE board members enrich graduate student community, build leadership and administrative skills, and strengthen Graduate College services and programs.

    This board contributes to the graduate student community at Illinois by providing varied perspectives that enhance the academic, professional, and social experience of graduate students at the university and collaborating with Graduate College staff on a project related to a program, initiative, or the broader goals of the college.

    As we embark on a new academic year, we are excited to introduce our 2017 – 2018 SAGE board:

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    AnnaMarie Bliss is a sixth year PhD Candidate in Architecture with concentrations in Historic Preservation of Cultural Heritage, Perception Studies, Environmental Design, and Tourism. She is also pursuing her architecture license and hopes to become a professor and preservation architect/consultant. Her work concerns the impacts of preservation and restoration of historic architecture on future design and tourism in Barcelona. She is a world traveler, experimental cook, avid runner, and college football fanatic.

       
     
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    Raghavendra Pradyumna Pothukuchi is a sixth year graduate student pursuing his PhD in Computer Science (CS), focusing on Computer Architecture. His interdisciplinary research draws on Control Theory and Machine Learning to advance the efficiency of computer systems. He shares an equally keen interest in teaching and was selected as a Mavis Future Faculty Fellow (2016-2017) by the College of Engineering. Outside of his academics, he and his wife (also pursuing PhD in CS at U of I ) spend time playing with their one-year old son or cooking or learning classical Indian music, dance, language, texts and philosophy.

       
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    Maryam Khademian is a fifth year graduate student in the department of Microbiology. Her research focuses on oxidative stress and anaerobic respiration. She tries to understand why organisms have so many different enzymes to degrade hydrogen peroxide, using genetic and biochemical approaches. In her spare time, she enjoys reading and discussing books, painting, biking and hiking in Champaign heights.

       
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    Matthew Fiorentino is a second year PhD student in Music Education studying teacher education. Before moving to Illinois, Matthew was an orchestra director in Boise, Idaho. He hopes to work with preservice teachers and is passionate about string education, as well as teacher leadership and issues of social justice. He is an avid trail and mountain runner and enjoys exploring the Midwest in search of a good hill.

       
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    Harsh Banwait is a second year Master of Business Administration candidate. As an aspiring technology professional, he hopes to leverage his business background and engineering knowledge to help companies utilize technology to solve complex problems. His research interests broadly include the economic impact of IoT and Autonomous Vehicles. You can usually spot him running up and down the BIF stairs, at the gym, or talking about why Tesla is the future to any and everyone.

       
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    Josue Lopez is a third year PhD student in the Energy-Water-Environment and Sustainability program in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. His research focuses in understanding the crystal growth mechanisms that underlie the biomineralization phenomena in order to develop sustainable materials inspired by nature. During his free time, Josue enjoys jogging around campus, trying out new restaurants, experimenting with his slow cooker, and catching classic movies at the local theaters.
       
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    John Musser is a sixth year PhD candidate in the department of English. His research interests include performance studies, queer theory, and 20th century literature and visual culture. He is currently writing a dissertation about the figure of the diva in the long 20th century, and the diva’s evocation of the queer sublime. In this project, John is most interested in the queerness of aesthetic theories and how they inform genealogical conversations about race and sexuality in the 20th century.

       
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    Diana Byrne is a fourth year graduate student pursuing a PhD in Environmental Engineering with an emphasis in Energy-Water-Environment Sustainability. She is most interested in quantitative sustainable design of water infrastructure and hopes to use her education to increase access to and sustainability of water resources around the world. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with friends, volunteering, watching TED talks, and vegetable gardening.
       
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    Vicky Baraldi is a second year graduate student in the Professional Science Master’s program in Food Science and Human Nutrition. Her passion towards food has motivated her to contribute to the transformation of processed foods into a healthy and affordable option. She enjoys trying new food, running, and yoga.

       
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    Zane Ma is a third year PhD student in Computer Science. His research interests focus on network security and how to identify and repair insecure computer systems, recently focusing on cheap, low power Internet of Things devices. In addition, Zane enjoys teaching and aspires to become a professor. Whenever he's not in front of a computer screen, Zane enjoys all forms of non-digital games, basketball, and hiking in new and remote locations.
       
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    Sulagna Chakraborty is a second year PhD student in Public Health. Her focus is on Infectious disease Epidemiology and she plans to pursue a career in infectious disease prevention, surveillance, and policy. She loves to travel and experience different cultures and indulge in varied cuisines. She is an amateur poet and a blogger and loves to socialize and form meaningful connections.
       
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    Halie Rando is a fifth year PhD student in Informatics. Her research focuses on exploring the genetic basis of friendly and aggressive behavior in foxes (using the famous friendly Russian foxes, as well as other populations). In her free time, she enjoys cooking and traveling.
       
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    Stephanie Schramm is a first year graduate student pursuing a Masters in Environmental Engineering. She is most interested in examining the metabolic properties of microalgae in order to further technological advances in nutrient recovery and biofuel production with algae. She hopes to use to skills she learns at Illinois to develop better bioprocessing techniques for water treatment and energy production systems. Stephanie will take every opportunity she can to travel somewhere new and enjoys reading and rock climbing in her free time.
       
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    Charlotte Prieu is a second year PhD student in French Linguistics. She aspires to do research on language and race in the French banlieues and more specifically at ‘crossing’, a linguistic phenomenon that consists in code-switching in a language that is not a part of the speaker’s ethnic background. In her free time, she is an advocate for social justice, here on campus as well as in the Champaign-Urbana community. Charlotte is also a visual artist and realized an award winning documentary on sexual assault on campus. 
       
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    Sophia Imtiazi is a second semester graduate student pursuing a Master of Human Resources and Industrial Relations. As an aspiring HR professional for a multinational organization, she hopes to gain experience in the various functions of HR in order to contribute strategically to the development of a healthy talent pipeline in concert with business goals and objectives. Outside of class, she enjoys spending time with friends, traveling, and making progress on lists of books/movies/TV shows to dive into.

       
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    Celeste Alexander is a second year graduate student pursuing a PhD in Nutritional Sciences. She hopes to become a professor and study the effects of dietary fat on the gut microbiome and host metabolism as well as teach upper level nutrition and microbiology courses to aspiring scientists. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, swimming, and visiting with family and friends.
       
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    Reshmina William is a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering, with a concentration in Environmental Hydrology and Hydraulic Engineering (EHHE). Her research focuses on urban sustainability, and the characterization of green practices to tackle water quality and urban flooding. In her free time, Reshmina volunteers as an ESL instructor with the Wesley Foundation, and sings with the Lesbian/Feminist community chorus Amasong.
       
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    Mackenzie Neally is a second year Master's student in the College of Education with a concentration on Higher Education. Her research interests revolve around the experiences of racial minorities in educational institutions, primarily Black males and minority populations of student-athletes. Mackenzie is passionate about teaching, working in collegiate athletics, and working on social justice causes. When she is not on campus, Mackenzie enjoys hiking, playing tennis, and spending time with her husband, Justin, and their dog, Rex.

       
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    Rhianna Anglin is entering her 11th year as a Texas public school teacher. She has lived in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex for the past ten years and attended the University of North Texas in Denton. Currently she works as a teacher in the Richardson Independent School District where she co-teaches the AVID program at Lake Highlands High School. She is a master’s degree candidate in Educational Policy at the University of Illinois, concentrating on equity and diversity in public school policy. 
       
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    Ga Young Chung is a fifth year doctoral student in education policy studies with a minor in Asian American studies. Her dissertation investigates the current US immigration system and its impact on undocumented Korean immigrant youth. In her free time, she enjoys swimming, scuba diving, and exploring with her two chihuahuas, HoSoo and BaaDaa.



     

  • Letters of Reference for Fellowship Applications

    “Applications must include three letters of reference…”

    If you’re applying for graduate research fellowships and grants, you will likely find something along these lines in the application instructions. These letters are absolutely critical to the success of your application, yet you have no control over them — or do you?

    Although you are dependent on others to write the letters of recommendation, that doesn’t mean you play no role at all. You can choose your recommenders wisely and help them write the best letter possible. Even more importantly, you can build relationships over time that will lead to strong letters and strong scholarship.

    There is no “one-size-fits-all” set of guidelines on this topic. Letters of reference are by their very nature highly personal. Ways of building relationships will also vary according to discipline, the nature of the research, and the applicant’s career goal. That’s why it’s essential to get advice from your advisor and talk with other students in your program about their own successful strategies. However, there are a few overarching points to consider.

    What role do letters play?

    Letters form one component of a larger fellowship application that may include a résumé, a research statement, and often a set of transcripts. Together, these components tell the reviewer about you, your educational background, your experience, and your research project. A strong letter is one that can speak persuasively and in detail about the project you are pursuing, your skill as a researcher, and your long-term promise.

    Letters of reference can help make the case for both you and your project by providing important contextual information. For example, a letter written by an expert in your area might discuss the innovative nature of the approach you are using. A letter writer might talk about your intellectual growth over time, and compare you (favorably!) to other students who have gone on to successful careers. Perhaps a letter writer could discuss a manuscript currently in preparation or resources to which you will have access. 

    It’s not about letters, it’s about relationships

    How do your letter writers know all this about you and your work? A good letter is the product of a relationship. Building relationships is an ongoing process and should be a natural outgrowth of becoming a member of a profession—one who knows what is going on in the field and is actively engaged in research. Investing in these relationships will lead to better scholarship as well as stronger letters.

    OK, but what if you need a letter right now? Who you ask depends on several factors, including your stage of study, the nature of the work you do, and the goal of the fellowship for which you are applying.

    The most logical person to ask is your advisor. If you are applying for a dissertation fellowship, this letter is essential. If you have recently started graduate school, however, you may not yet have an advisor. You can ask the people who wrote letters for your successful application to graduate school. Additionally, your department’s Director of Graduate Studies will be able to speak to the factors that led to your admission to the graduate program.

    In the sciences, first-year students generally begin working in a lab as soon as they enter graduate school. This gives them the advantage of having a faculty member with first-hand knowledge of their work early on. In other fields, such as the social sciences and humanities, coursework in these early years offers graduate students opportunities to develop and exhibit their skills through the papers they write. Reviewers understand that there are different disciplinary norms.

    Regardless of the field, as you progress, you will develop a long-term relationship with an advisor, and will begin to build relationships with faculty who will serve as committee members. These might develop through coursework, discussions outside of class, or, in some fields, an advisor’s collaborations with other faculty. Over time, these individuals will become familiar with you and the research you are pursuing, and will become a source for letters of reference. Make sure to keep them up-to-date about your progress.

    You are not limited to letters from (or relationships with) Illinois faculty. Research takes place in many settings, including archives, museums, laboratories, and field sites throughout the world. The scholars and scientists who come to know your work may be potential reference writers as well. Whether this is appropriate will depend on the discipline, the fellowship you are pursuing, and your ultimate career goal. It’s worth discussing your choices with your advisor.

    What can you do to help?

    Although you don’t write letters of recommendation yourself, you are in a position to assist your recommenders. You can help them prepare a letter for the specific fellowship for which you are applying by providing them with the following:

    • An outline of key points about the fellowship and why you’re a good candidate.
    • The deadline and any special instructions for letter writers.
    • An up-to-date copy of the résumé or curriculum vitae you will submit for that competition.
    • A draft of your research proposal and any other application components.
    • Copies of any papers, including those in preparation, related to the project you are proposing.
    • A copy of the solicitation and/or link to the funder’s website.

    Make sure to do this well ahead of the deadline. Even if the people you are asking have written letters for you in the past, they still need time to update them for this competition. You might also ask your letter writers for feedback on the materials you intend to submit. If you do, allow plenty of time for them to give you comments and for you to incorporate their comments into your final draft.

    Don’t forget to thank your letter writers for their time and effort once you have submitted your application, and let them know the outcome when you hear back from the funder. Even if you end up with disappointing news (you didn’t receive the fellowship), it gives you an opportunity to tell them about the progress you have made in the meantime. That is also part of relationship building.

    Moving ahead

    After you’ve submitted an application and thanked your recommenders, take a deep breath, and then take a moment for reflection. Are your relationships on track?  Are you building a network that reflects your career goals?  Prepare now for next time you’re asked for “three letters.”

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    Karen Ruhleder joined the Graduate College in 2014. As Assistant Director of External Fellowships, she presents proposal writing workshops for graduate students and postdocs in STEM fields and individually advises graduate students applying for grants and fellowships across all disciplines. She also helps manage the Fellowship Finder database. Ruhleder earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in Information and Computer Science and a B.A. in German Language and Literature from the University of California at Irvine. Karen reviews for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship competition.