Staying incognito: How & why the OCPD helps UCSF Ph.D. students and postdocs discreetly explore career options

Lately, the OCPD team has been talking about publicity and photographing our career workshops – in particular, our #EveryMonth is career exploration month for PhDs series. The fact is we don’t take photos.  We don’t take pictures because we’re concerned about scaring off students and postdocs who feel their advisors/PIs would not approve.

We’ve noticed some of our students and postdocs possibly trying quite hard to remain incognito. Many of our trainees enthusiastically connect with the OCPD to explore their career options. Yet a few times every month, a student/postdoc will begin a career counseling appointment asking if anything discussed will get back to their advisor or PI.

At workshops,  some participants sign-in with fantastically unintelligible handwriting, while others who didn’t register at all drop by a few minutes before a program begins furtively looking around.  When we did take photos of workshops in the past, there were always a few folks who quickly slapped on the ‘no photo’ sticker on their name tag. Others would leave their name tag blank. One never knows why, but since we don’t want to spook anyone, if we believe they are a student or postdoc, we don’t insist.

Our team isn’t 100% settled around this issue (no photos) because we see our role as celebrating career diversity for PhDs. That celebration includes raising the visibility and normalizing our students/postdocs engaged in their career development. Images are a powerful way to do that.

Our perspective is the following: on the individual level, PhDs exploring and achieving their definition of career success is an important developmental milestone for any adult. At the macro level, we think UCSF’s vision to Advance Health Worldwide includes supporting our biomedical and social science PhDs who decide to contribute their training and talents to advance any field, from K-12 education, higher-ed, politics, business, advocacy,  technology, and the law, to the arts, research, every branch of government, international diplomacy, and more.

Why is this normalization effort necessary? Well, reasonable people can only wonder at how different the world (or even just the NIH funding levels) would be right now if more PhD-level elementary schoolteachers, postdocs-turned-science-communicators and/or biomedically-trained politicians had been seeded in non-academic career paths for the past twenty years. It’s clear that the direction and advancement of biomedical science is not solely influenced by discoveries at the bench. Science is a public endeavor; its success requires the awareness and support of decision-makers and organizations across every professional field.  For this reason alone, perhaps it’s time to redefine PhDs who thoughtfully decide to pursue careers beyond the bench as both ambassadors and success stories worthy of investment and training, rather than regrettable losses of a leaky pipeline.

OCPD’s beliefs are the reason why we are one the few career development offices that funds both a program director for academic careers and a program director for careers beyond the academy.  We’ve even received grants to encourage career exploration for our trainees.  So what signal do we send when we intentionally take actions, like avoiding photos of our workshops, that suggest that we believe that PhDs have something to hide?

Hopefully, that we are career diversity advocates, who are also pragmatists. We know that if trainees are putting that much effort into staying the radar, we need to respect their concerns. Yet, for those on the team with a background in career services, it does run counter to best practices in our (career development) field.  For example, the outreach strategy at an undergraduate career center is visibility: encouraging students to take selfies at networking events and workshops and post them on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat, probably with an #takingchargeofmycareer hashtag.

OCPD’s tactics balance visibility with discretion. We want to offer a sense of security to students/postdocs concerned about the real or perceived negative impact of publicly signaling their desire to look beyond a tenure-track faculty position at an R1 institution. (By the way, we also support to those who want academic jobs).

So, how is the OCPD team supporting the Ph.D. discreetly exploring career options?

  • Career counseling appointments are confidential, with very few exceptions
  • We’re looking forward to integrating Thi Nguyen’s and Liz Silva’s job simulation tool, Inter-SECT, into our offerings to support students/postdocs who don’t feel they can find the time or support for an internship
  • We offer 20-minute mini appointments to the student/postdoc who can’t take an hour-long appointment
  • We’re building online tutorials to help our trainees develop early drafts of their application materials (which can be reviewed in a shorter, 20-minute appointment)
  • We offer lunch at workshops, so students/postdocs can honestly say they just stepped out to grab lunch (Everybody’s got to eat)
  • Trainees who work in the OCPD sign a confidentiality agreement
  • When walking down the hall, we try to let the student/postdoc acknowledge us first before we greet them
  • We’re offering webinars, for the student/postdoc who doesn’t want to walk into a workshop
  • We’ve created online career exploration tools
  • We’ve focused on advocacy to track career outcomes
  • Years ago, we changed our name from the Career Center to the Office of Career and Professional Development (OCPD) and began offering programming that advisors and PIs would support (grantsmanship, academic careers, communication skills, etc.)
  • Finally, for now, we don’t take photos of participants at our career exploration workshops for PhDs

Our goal is for student/postdocs to know that we take their concerns seriously, and are committed to supporting them.

We’re sure our career development colleagues at fellow institutions have found their own best practices to address the issue of the discreetly exploring Ph.D. – we look forward to hearing them!


photo credit:  Mykl Roventine  via Wikimedia Commons