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Recently, a couple of members of our team commented on how several of our graduate students and postdocs are still reluctant to ask their questions at employer information sessions, departmental orientations and workshops.

At employer info sessions or alumni panels, where we expected a lot of questions (questions that many of us were asked in 1:1 counseling appointments), it’s was notable to us when there weren’t any. At first we thought that perhaps our trainees weren’t interested, or had all of their questions answered during the session. Which made it odder still that after the session, we found ourselves cornered by participants, asking questions which would have seemed to make more sense during the Q&A time. At some point, we realized that some of our trainees didn’t have the confidence to speak up, and at others, we’re concerned about signaling a career path among their colleagues.

For example, during a recent employer info session for a legal firm, OCPD staff were the ones gently and repeatedly pushing the presenter to answer the question about whether or not a postdoc needs a paper to be competitive for tech transfer positions. It’s a question we’re often asked in 1:1s, but no participant asked. (Answer: the presenter, a lawyer, insinuated that the postdoc would need a paper but the PhD on the panel responded that she didn’t have one, so….the answer would be ‘it depends’). Our Program Director only asked because it’s a question she is often asked in counseling appointments; afterwards three postdocs separately approached her to thank her for doing so.

At “careers beyond the academy” workshops (still not a fan of that phrase, but I don’t have a better one yet to designate non-academic career paths), participants are sometimes silent because they don’t want to out themselves. At those programs focused on pursuing a faculty career, participants are sometimes silent because they don’t want to presume that they are competitive for a faculty position in front of their fellow students/postdocs or faculty who may disagree with their assessment. In all sessions: people are quiet because they don’t want to ‘ask a silly question’, or one that signals issues (like their concern about their publication record).

In a perfect world, every students and postdocs would feel they have the confidence and the freedom to ask any questions that would help them on their career path; the room would be filled with many hands in the air. We’re tackling this two ways:

For those who lack confidence: We’re designing a session on how to ask a skillful question at a seminar, as part of a workshop on “Handling Q&A Skillfully”
For those who have concerns about publicly signaling their career path: We, as career and professional development staff , stand up to inquire, and sometimes answer, the questions that our students and scholars find themselves reluctant to ask.