Reimagining Graduate Student Professional Development as an Inclusion, Equity, and Innovation Driver

December 1, 2023 | By Evangeline “Eva” Kubu

Inclusion & Equity
Someone demonstrates the use of a virtual reality device.

TAGS: diversity and inclusion, graduate students, journal,

Photo credit: Sameer Khan Fotobuddy

NACE Journal / Fall 2023

In his remarks at the Graduate School’s 2023 Hooding and Recognition Ceremony, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber underscored the interconnection of graduate student diversity and career diversity as new Ph.D.s embark on their next chapters and join the graduate alum community: “They do so with consistent excellence and ever-increasing diversity: diversity in the backgrounds from which they come, diversity in the topics they have studied, and diversity in the futures that they pursue.”1

Institutions committed to access have steadily increased the diversity of their graduate student populations along multiple dimensions in recent years, greatly enriching the campus community of scholars, researchers, and student leaders and advancing intellectual discourse and research innovations across all academic disciplines. Implicit in higher education’s goals for access to graduate education is increasing opportunity. Yet, for many doctoral students, the path from graduate school to career remains opaque. We must address long-standing systems and practices to ensure all Ph.D. students have equitable access to comprehensive professional development to help them build the clarity, competencies, connections, and confidence they need to create their futures—on their terms. The time has come to entirely shift the graduate student professional development paradigm from training solely for the professoriate to preparing for an ever-evolving global landscape of opportunity.

Now more than ever, delivering on the transformative promise of graduate education is integrally linked to reimagining professional development as an inclusion, equity, and innovation driver. Integrating professional development more seamlessly within doctoral training can enhance graduate student recruitment, retention, success, and outcomes; it can also expand the impact of the Ph.D. in contributing solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

This article provides an overview of historical and present-day challenges and opportunities and recommendations for changing the graduate student professional development paradigm to drive systems-level change and innovation. The recommendations are informed by national trends in graduate education, best practices in career and professional development, and lessons learned during my first four years serving as the inaugural associate dean for graduate student professional development at Princeton University’s Graduate School. The goal is to contribute to this relatively new field within graduate education in ways that amplify the impact of ongoing efforts, accelerate positive change, and support graduate student futures—however graduate students themselves may imagine them.

The National Imperative to Support Diverse Graduate Students and Diverse Futures

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action, many in the higher education community are engaged in conversations about operationalizing their commitments to diversity, inclusive excellence, and equity. Even before the decision, some have recommended that institutions evaluate how they demonstrate their commitments vis-a-vis outcomes and opportunities.2 In their 2023 “Dynamos for Diversity” report, Sigelman and Howard urge institutions to think beyond enrollment metrics and to focus on skills and outcomes when evaluating higher education’s progress as an “engine of mobility and equity.”3

Over the past two decades, great strides have been made toward integrating career readiness and professional development within undergraduate education, particularly for first-generation and underrepresented students.4, 5  The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has played an integral role in advancing these important agendas at the undergraduate level through its career readiness initiative and by providing diversity, equity, and inclusion resources for career services practitioners.6, 7 However, graduate education within the arts and sciences has lagged by comparison in terms of integrating professional development and broad career exploration—except for professional schools. One reason for the difference is that traditional doctoral training has historically focused on research and teaching as a singular pathway to the professoriate, with little to no preparation for careers beyond academia.8

Given the decline in the academic job market and an ever-evolving landscape of opportunity for Ph.D.s, it seems antithetical to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion—and the spirit of inquiry embedded in the liberal arts—to continue to limit graduate students’ professional exploration and preparation to one pathway. It has only been during the last decade or so that graduate institutions in the liberal arts have begun to systematically invest in comprehensive professional development for graduate students.9

In The New Ph.D.: How to Build a Better Graduate Education, Cassuto and Weisbuch advocate for a more diverse, inclusive, and socially engaged graduate education system that embraces career diversity and centers graduate students’ unique interests and needs.10 They chronicle the evolution of graduate education and the decline of the academic job market, bringing attention to the pioneering work done in recent years by institutions to support professional development and preparation for diverse careers.

One of the most significant catalysts for expanding professional development has been the movement toward greater transparency in sharing Ph.D. outcomes data.11 National career outcomes data illuminate that more than half of all Ph.D. recipients go on to careers beyond the academy.12 When coupled with data regarding the decline of the academic job market, there is a clear need for comprehensive professional development to prepare graduate students for a much broader set of possible careers. 13 

The need is particularly acute within the humanities and humanistic social sciences according to the “State of the Humanities 2022: From Graduate Education to the Workforce” report by the Humanities Indicators Project of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which showed a 15% decrease in academic placements for Ph.D. recipients in these disciplines between 2008 and 2020.14 In recent years, career diversity initiatives across the country have proliferated to expose graduate students to careers beyond the tenure track.15 However, some have noted that graduate education is now at an inflection point, where careers in academia are “more the exception than the rule,” and “career diversity initiatives, though well-intended, should rather become central to doctoral training.16

Through the “Ph.D. Education Initiative,” the Association of American Universities (AAU) has called for institutions to embrace a broader definition of postdoctoral success, adopt student-centric approaches to professional development, and prepare graduate students for diverse careers within and beyond the academy.17 They note that as graduate student populations become more diverse over time, the range of interests, lived experiences, perspectives, and professional aspirations they bring to their research and scholarly endeavors has exponentially changed.18

A national study by the Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) Understanding Career Pathways for Program Improvement project found that first-generation students are more interested in diverse career options but often feel less supported by their departments. Subtle and not-so-subtle communications about Ph.D. careers at our institutions may inhibit graduate students from fully exploring their interests.19 Hartman and Williams note that lingering, narrow definitions of success may “stifle creativity” in graduate students’ research and negatively impact agency, self-efficacy, and future career planning.20  Emphasizing the importance of messaging, the CGS advises institutions to shape new narratives about success by replacing terms such as alternative academic (alt-ac), nontraditional, and nonacademic labels to inclusively describe the array of Ph.D. careers in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors.21

While the culture of graduate education is slowly shifting to support more holistic professional development, generational, demographic, societal, and future-of-work trends continue to accelerate rapidly. The demographics of our graduate students and the geographies from which they hail also continue to evolve. For example, the CGS’ 2023 International Graduate Admissions Survey found that the number of international graduate applications received by U.S. degree–granting institutions increased by 26% between 2021 and 2022.22

In addition, globalization, ongoing technological changes, digital disruption, and artificial intelligence continue to change the employment landscape for today’s Ph.D. recipients. For these reasons and more, nearly all national professional associations, foundations, and grant-funding agencies have recommended changes in graduate education to meet the diverse needs of all graduate students and better serve society in the 21st century.23 Ultimately, creating new systems and structures to support diverse students and career diversity can broaden the impact of doctoral training in addressing society’s most urgent and pressing needs.24

The Case for Change at Princeton

During Princeton University’s strategic planning efforts in 2015, a task force conducted a comprehensive self-study on the future of the Graduate School. It evaluated national trends, institutional data, and feedback from various stakeholders, including graduate students, graduate alums, faculty, and staff. The primary recommendations of the task force included providing “a supportive climate, resources, and professional development opportunities to enhance graduate student placement outcomes both within and outside of the academy” and establishing  “partnerships with academic departments to create a culture in which graduate students in all divisions can freely pursue their placement options both inside and outside the academy without fear or anxiety.25

At that time, more than half of Princeton’s doctoral students pursued opportunities in fields beyond academia. However, feedback from graduate students and alums indicated that the level of individual professional development support offered within the academic departments varied greatly, particularly for those who were interested in pathways beyond the academy. Many graduate students reported that they were left to seek out for themselves the kinds of professional development, skill-building, and experiential opportunities critical to augmenting, reinforcing, and translating their scholarly and research endeavors. Some candidly shared that this had been a source of stress and anxiety.

When applying an inclusivity and equity lens to this feedback, uneven access to professional development privileges those with the agency, networks, and faculty support to navigate a highly decentralized landscape. In the years following the release of the report, the Graduate School prioritized professional development and established a team to make it a more intrinsic part of graduate education. The GradFUTURES professional development initiative launched in 2019 and continues to build momentum and impact. Our strategy addresses the historic gaps identified in the report while creating an inclusive and integrative approach to empowering graduate student futures.

Shifting the Paradigm: Embracing Innovation and Systems-Level Change

Advancing institutional goals for inclusion, equity, and innovation while aligning cultures and structures to support holistic professional development for graduate students is no easy feat and cannot be accomplished in a vacuum. The following are recommendations underway to accelerate the paradigm shift and create innovative approaches to ensure inclusion and equity in graduate student professional development. Iterative and interconnected, these recommendations can be customized and translated into policies, processes, and programs to enhance graduate student outcomes and equitable access to opportunity.

1. Begin with an entrepreneurial mindset and an inclusive strategy. For those in the early stages of developing a graduate student professional development initiative or forming a new entity on campus, it may be helpful to think of your organization as a start-up. Since graduate student professional development is a relatively new field within graduate education in the arts and sciences, taking an entrepreneurial and inclusive approach by deploying lean startup  and design-thinking methodologies can drive innovation.26, 27 This is especially helpful given that new initiatives often begin with an ambitious vision and plans but have limited staff and resources. Forging new ground and leading change in any long-established field, particularly the field of graduate education, requires mobilizing all stakeholders around a shared vision and common goals. Human-centric design, collaboration, and co-creation are important when developing a strategy for inclusive and equitable professional development.

As the GradFUTURES initiative launched, we embarked on a collaborative strategic planning process. We convened several “think tank” meetings involving cross-functional groups of stakeholders including graduate program administrators, directors of graduate study, campus partners, graduate students, and graduate alums.28 Engaging this broad range of stakeholders in design-thinking activities, ideation, and information sharing helped us create a common definition of professional development, test assumptions, and gain support for the five key components of our strategy.29 During these conversations, we also created an inventory of existing professional development programs and revealed several gaps and immediate opportunities. By assigning graduate students to each of the groups, we prioritized their voices and learned first-hand about their experiences, needs, interests, and perceptions.

These meetings led to formation of the Professional Development Working Group, a campus-wide coalition of more than 40 campus partners representing the academic departments, administrative units and centers, graduate student leaders, and alums.30 The group meets regularly and includes ad hoc project teams, including an assessment team to measure the holistic impact of professional development across campus, and an external relations team to identify and leverage the university’s industry relationships across the academic, public, and private sectors for professional development.

Broad stakeholder involvement and multiple feedback loops have helped us evaluate and “pressure test” new initiatives, which serves to de-risk the process of experimentation. For example, by embracing continuous assessment and iteration from our inception, we were able to revise our strategy and quickly pivot to virtual programming for our first GradFUTURES Forum professional development conference in spring 2020 (just weeks after the onset of the global pandemic).

We also decided to open the online event to all graduate students and institutions as a way to share critical advice at a challenging time for students, alums, and administrators. In its inaugural year, the GradFUTURES Forum attracted roughly 3,600 registrants and participants from 75 universities in 42 countries. Since then, we’ve launched dozens of pilots and gained traction with our strategy in part because we’ve taken calculated risks, highlighted the needs of the graduate community, and worked with campus partners to develop win-win solutions.

2. Activate an expansive ecosystem of support to serve all graduate students. Partnerships on and off campus are crucial to scaling and customizing professional development to meet the needs and interests of all graduate students. In addition to the coalition of campus partners mentioned above, we’re continuously building a broader ecosystem of support. (See Figure 1.) Galvanized by the Graduate School and its inherent relationship to the academic departments, Princeton’s professional development ecosystem includes a wide range of graduate student leaders, faculty, staff, and graduate alums, as well as scholarly and professional associations, foundations and funding agencies, other academic institutions, and industry and community partners. Each plays an integral role in creating customized programs, expanding access to resources, and connecting our graduate students to transformative experiences.

Figure 1

Our ongoing goal is to continue to expand and deepen our partnerships across the entire ecosystem so that support for graduate students becomes more visible and ubiquitous. For example, to deepen partnerships with the academic departments and further engage faculty champions, we are piloting a Faculty Fellows program in the 2023-24 academic year, awarding grants to faculty who propose and co-create innovative professional development programs with graduate students in their departments. We’re also collaborating with scholarly and praxis-based associations, foundations, and funding agencies to co-host or promote professional development opportunities tailored to our Ph.D. students.

In 2022, we hosted the Modern Language Association’s  Summer Teaching Institute in Reading-Writing Pedagogy focused on anti-racist pedagogy. Seventeen faculty and doctoral students from access-oriented institutions (including Princeton) participated in this weeklong professional development program funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.31 To continue to grow the ecosystem beyond campus, we are also leveraging Princeton’s existing academic-industry collaborations as part of our ongoing professional development programming by incorporating guest facilitators, experiential learning partnerships, and short-term projects that align with the research interests of our Ph.D. students.

As programming evolves, recognizing highly engaged internal and external stakeholders by developing campus awards and grants is a powerful way to accelerate and sustain ecosystem growth. In 2020, the Graduate School's professional development team began to award GradFUTURES Clio Hall Awards to faculty, staff, graduate alums, and graduate students who made significant contributions to the professional development of Princeton graduate students.32 The annual GradFUTURES GRADitude Award for Advancing Graduate Professional Development was established in 2022 to recognize national leaders who have influenced the field of graduate professional development in profound and substantial ways.33 Professor and author Leonard Cassuto received the inaugural award for his pioneering work in promoting graduate student professional development at the local, national, and global levels.34

3. Co-create professional development programs with graduate students and prioritize their unique interests. Tailoring programs based on insights gleaned from graduate students and collaboratively co-creating programs with them over time is essential to sustaining student-centric, inclusive professional development. It is also inherent in advancing agency, creativity, and exploration. We assess graduate students’ evolving needs, interests, and goals at various stages of the student lifecycle. We then partner with graduate students to co-create professional development initiatives and programs that support and reflect their interests. Author Christopher Caterine provides a meta-analysis of this approach: “Doing so will put student empowerment at the center … and prepare Ph.D.s to navigate the world as it is—even as they shape it into what they believe it should be.”35

To align a holistic professional development learning framework with the complete graduate student lifecycle, we began surveying incoming graduate students before their arrival to identify their interests, professional development experiences, and self-reported preparation in specific professional competencies. Since the survey launched in 2021, nearly one-third of incoming graduates have indicated an interest in exploring both academic and diverse career pathways. However, more than 70% indicated they were only somewhat familiar with career options beyond the tenure track. The survey findings have helped guide our early engagement with first-year graduate students and inform program creation. For example, our “Shape Your Ph.D.” learning cohort for first-year graduate students reflects generational trends and students’ desire to thread purpose, meaning, and impact in their doctoral training.36

There are numerous formal and informal ways to involve graduate students as active partners in reciprocal learning and co-creation that help them build professional skills while enhancing agency and inclusion.37 In addition to hosting regular focus groups, establishing a graduate student advisory committee/board, partnering with graduate student organizations, and providing funded administrative fellowships can empower graduate students to create programs for their peers.38, 39

The GradFUTURES Professional Development Associates program is a funded campus leadership opportunity during which graduate students engage with the assistant deans and support professional development programs at the department and divisional levels.40 Associates liaise with the departments within their division to create, promote, and support graduate student professional development programs. They also provide peer mentoring for fellow graduate students, offering referrals to programs and resources across campus.

4. Design a framework for interdisciplinary engagement throughout the graduate student lifecycle.To design a holistic, student-centric approach to professional development, we must understand graduate students’ experiences throughout the entire graduate student lifecycle, from recruitment to retention, completion, and beyond. This involves knowledge of prospective students’ motivations for applying to graduate school, the cultures they will experience within their department and the academy after matriculation, and the range of support available to help them thrive. It also involves consideration of the elements that will help them succeed in their postgraduate careers and investment to enhance graduate alums’ affinity across their lifetime.

Figure 2

With these considerations in mind, we designed a learning framework to support early and sustained engagement that offers interconnecting and intersecting entry points and opportunities. The framework scaffolds and supports discipline-specific professional development efforts in the departments while providing a broad spectrum of skills training, social capital-building, bespoke experiential opportunities, and interdisciplinary exploration programs. (See Figure 2.) As programs are designed, we endeavor to weave together each section of the framework wheel, so graduate students are learning/honing skills, building connections, gaining experience, and exploring their interests every step of the way.

Research demonstrates that graduate students who participate in a cohort and shared-learning community report enhanced levels of personal and professional support and the development of strong social and professional networks.41 Among our most popular professional development programs are the GradFUTURES interdisciplinary learning cohorts.42 Each cohort brings graduate students together with alums, faculty, post-docs, and industry experts to explore diverse professional pathways and societal and global trends.

Several cohorts are offered each semester, and most offer an immersive project or an experiential opportunity. For example, the Inclusive Leadership learning cohort was developed with the goal of preparing graduate students with inclusive leadership skills to combat systemic racism. Session topics include exploration of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs within academia and industry; inclusive leadership models and best practices; and leadership assessment. As part of this series, guest speakers share personal stories, practical strategies, and ways to promote individual and collective action. At the culmination of the sessions, graduate students present an individual inclusive leadership action plan involving a concrete project or initiative they plan to initiate in their respective communities.43

Participation in interdisciplinary discussions and projects, whether part of a formal cohort or not, may also lead to the formation of peer networks outside of departments and labs, improve students’ sense of belonging, and increase interdisciplinary thinking. 44 Together, these activities foster community and greater confidence as graduate students from across disciplines build professional skills and explore together.

Expanding the opportunity for doctoral students to collaborate beyond their disciplines may inform their research in unique ways and contribute to potential solutions for the public good.45 We’ve designed each of our learning cohorts to maximize the opportunity for interdisciplinary connections and collaboration. My colleagues on the GradFUTURES team at Princeton, Majumdar and Van Wyck, recommend graduate students connect with the vast social and intellectual ecosystem beyond their departments to gain exposure to diverse ideas that can broaden the scope of scientific research and scholarly inquiry.46

They point out that “creative thinking and bold ideas often emanate from interdisciplinary conversations” and that students can gain an “understanding of potential gaps and disparities in their research design and its impacts by including perspectives from other disciplines.” This expanded outlook can “create long-term benefits, as most grand challenges in society—whether climate change, global health, or democracy—require multidisciplinary (and multicultural) viewpoints and collaboration.” In addition, labor market data point to increased demand for a combination of discipline-specific skills and interdisciplinary collaboration to drive innovation across all fields.47

5. Render visible the skills and competencies that fuel success in graduate school and beyond. In testimony to the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce, Matt Sigelman, founder of the Burning Glass Institute, stated that skills are the currency of the job market and the language of opportunity.48 Recognizing the skills and competencies that fuel success in graduate school and beyond can aid in persistence and create optionality and long-term career mobility, particularly for underrepresented graduate students.49 Several graduate institutions have established competency models for their graduate student professional development programs that are similar to the career readiness competencies that NACE developed. Among the earliest was Duke Options, created at Duke University with funding from the Council of Graduate Schools ETS/CGS Award for Innovation in Promoting Success in Graduate Education.50

When we launched GradFUTURES in 2019, we were inspired by the work done by Duke and other institutions and developed a competency model customized for Princeton. Based on benchmarking, alums’ career outcomes data, and labor market research conducted by Burning Glass Technologies (now Lightcast) in partnership with the Graduate School, we articulated eight foundational skills in the GradFUTURES competency model:

  • Research and data analysis;
  • Writing and public speaking;
  • Teaching and mentoring;
  • Leadership and collaboration;
  • Personal well-being and effectiveness;
  • Career management;
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion; and
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship.

These competencies mutually reinforce success in graduate education and future careers.51 The competency of personal well-being is an area of emphasis that speaks to the growing concerns across the country regarding graduate student mental health and evidence that career uncertainty is one of the primary sources of stress and anxiety.52

The latter two competencies were added in 2021 to reflect evolving labor market trends. Willis and Schram noted a growing demand for diversity, equity, and inclusion knowledge and practices. They found that employers “both within and beyond academe in the USA—now expect graduates trained to work skillfully across differences.” They also noted the importance of preparing graduate students as inclusive leaders “to promote equity and inclusion both in their current roles as scholars-in-training and in their future workplaces.”53

Figure 3

Based on our initial work with Burning Glass Technologies (now Lightcast), we adopted a framework for considering the combination of skills needed as part of a lifelong learning approach to skill building. It includes foundational, discipline-specific, and distinguishing skills. (See Figure 3.) The eight foundational skills in the GradFUTURES competency model mutually reinforce success in graduate education and future careers. These foundational skills complement the discipline-specific skills gleaned throughout students’ doctoral training. As graduate students identify possible pathways, adding distinguishing skills that reflect specialized needs in their target industry may enhance their marketability and expand their options. Distinguishing skills may include a range of business and financial acumen, project and people management, and proficiency with digital technologies.

Given the dynamism of the Ph.D. labor market, we’ve expanded our work with Lightcast to develop a custom dashboard and other tools to better understand the evolving job opportunities for students emerging from each Princeton graduate program.54 Looking ahead, we are exploring microcredential programs focused on high-demand, specialized skill sets and their potential impact on career outcomes. Microcredentials might include online certificates or digital badges, and both signal “verifiable, competency-based learning credentials that certify an achievement or skill.”55

For example, Boston University’s Ph.D. Progression program offers three different learning pathways and 160 badges for Ph.D. students aligned with core capacities or competency areas.56 As the microcredentialing landscape is still evolving, CGS recently partnered with the Educational Testing Service on an 18-month study to explore the definitions, perceptions, and value to employers and institutions.57 The results of their study should be available this fall,  and will help us further develop our strategy.

6. Create bespoke, part-time experiential learning opportunities and on-ramps to diverse careers within and beyond the academy. Internships and experiential programs have long been recognized as game-changers for undergraduate students by enhancing first-destination career outcomes.58 However, these programs have historically been less prevalent in graduate education within the arts and sciences. In recent years, several institutions, professional associations, foundations, and funding agencies have begun to address this gap.59, 60

Leonard Cassuto cautions that the “graduate version of internships shouldn’t merely copy the undergraduate template … internships for doctoral students need to harness their advanced training and point toward career outcomes related to their … [unique] ... skills and interests.”61 Recent studies have demonstrated the value of offering experiential programs tailored to the rigors of doctoral training as a means to enhance graduate students’ overall academic and research success, build critical professional skills and social capital, and increase awareness of career options within and beyond the academy.62 However, convincing some faculty and graduate students of the value of these experiences may still pose a challenge.

In a recent op-ed, Edward Balleisen, Duke University’s vice provost for interdisciplinary studies, called for institutions to “Take Experiential Learning for Ph.D. Students Seriously” and increase access to internships as part of doctoral training. 63 He noted that internship experiences can “reshape research agendas and re-energize students … assist with career discernment … and [may lead] directly to excellent post-graduation employment.”

To help gain faculty buy-in, Balleisen recommends building an evidence-based case and studying how these “experiences shape intellectual growth and processes of career discernment.” He also suggests comparing students “who take part in experiential learning to peers who don’t in terms of attrition, time to degree, and later career outcomes.” A recent study explored the impact of Ph.D. experiential programs for all stakeholders and found significant positive benefits for doctoral students, internship hosts, and trainees’ labs.64 This study also demonstrated that faculty support for experiential programs was improved when they saw how the trainees’ research was enhanced by the experience.

When applying an equity lens, institutions may also explore whether there is a disparate impact on underrepresented Ph.D. students who do not participate in experiential opportunities across any of the dimensions mentioned above: attrition, time to degree, and initial career outcomes. A recent NACE study of undergraduate internships found that historically marginalized groups were less likely to have participated in an internship and that this had a negative impact on their first-destination career outcomes. 65 Given the value of experiential programs in connecting graduate students to future career opportunities, exploring ways to embed these experiences as part of doctoral training may also help address gaps and increase access. For example, while expanding access to internships for our large population of international graduate students is far more complex due to work-authorization requirements, academic departments that do not already provide curricular practical training may wish to consider making this available in their graduate programs.

Gaining a better understanding of the relationship between Ph.D. participation in experiential programs and access to career opportunities within and beyond the academy is important to advancing our strategy. A recent survey by UIDP, an organization that strengthens university–industry partnerships, found that Ph.D. internships serve as talent pipelines and pathways to industry employment, particularly in STEM fields.66 The UIDP survey noted that industry partners recognize the value of graduate interns contributing “fresh perspective(s) [and new insights] for problem-solving” as part of collaborative research teams.

A brief overview of each program can be found on the Princeton GradFUTURES website.

In recent years, several graduate institutions have developed innovative approaches to experiential programs. For example, North Carolina State University developed Accelerate to Industry™ to help “shape the future of holistic and integrated workforce readiness” and provides a toolkit for institutions and organizations interested in partnering in experiential programs for graduate students and postdoctoral associates. The program offers guidance on how to incorporate skills-based projects and training in conjunction with experiential opportunities focused on building the following competencies: leadership, teamwork, and communication; intellectual property and regulatory affairs; market and technology evaluation; and project management, commercialization, and finance.67

Graduate experiential programs are avenues for the exploration of pathways within the public and nonprofit sectors as well as diverse careers in academia. The University of Virginia’s (UVA) Ph.D. Plus program promotes the value of experiential opportunities as “enabl[ing] versatile academics who are deeply engaged with society’s needs to become influential professionals in every sector and field.”68

An example of an experiential program focused on the nonprofit sector is the “Humanities for the Public Good” internship program at the University of Iowa. Funded in part by a four-year grant from the Mellon Foundation, it offers doctoral students in the humanities and humanistic social sciences paid internships at local nonprofit organizations. According to its website, the program combines “experiential, cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral learning experiences to prepare students to center equity, inclusion, and social justice in any and every career or workspace.”69

The GradFUTURES professional development initiative at Princeton University offers several distinct experiential programs.70 Through highly customized fellowships, internships, and special projects, students can explore various professional paths within the academic, government, nonprofit, and private sectors. By design, each program allows graduate students to immerse in a unique professional setting, apply discipline-specific skills, gain interdisciplinary experience, and receive one-on-one mentoring while contributing to the goals of the organization or institution.

These tailored internships/fellowships differ from those found via online job posting sites in that they are carefully curated, managed and/or funded by the Graduate School, flexible and part-time during the academic year and summer, and united by a shared set of learning objectives and ongoing mentorship goals. For example, all experiential partners agree to provide the flexibility needed for graduate students to prioritize their academic and research commitments. Feedback from graduate student participants and our wide range of experiential partners has been overwhelmingly positive. In our survey data, we have also begun to see the early signs of a causal relationship between engaging in experiential programs and first-destination postgraduate career outcomes.

7. Broaden the base of mentors available to graduate students and help them build social capital.Many have recognized the value to graduate students of having an expanded base of mentors in addition to their faculty adviser.71, 72 In the book, The Reimagined Ph.D. Navigating 21st Century Humanities Graduate Education, Cassuto and Van Wyck recommend that “to prepare [diverse] graduate students for a diversity of possible outcomes,” each graduate student should have a team of mentors and advisers “with a diversity of skills.”73 Furthermore, Horinko and Reed note that having multiple mentors is particularly important for first-generation graduate students to help demystify the hidden curriculum of graduate school.74 Wright-Harp and Cole suggest a multiple mentor model with mentors of varied skills, ages, backgrounds, and traits to meet mentees’ individual needs.75 This may include other administrators, supervisors, near-peers, and graduate alums. Graduate alums can be critical mentors, advocates, and role models for current graduate students. Whereas most studies focus on alums mentorship for undergraduates, we can assume that the benefits to graduate students may be similar, such as positively affecting behavioral, attitudinal, wellness-related, relational, motivational, and career outcomes.76

Julia Freeland Fisher, author of Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks, was a keynote speaker at the 2023 GradFUTURES Forum professional development conference and shared her research on social capital. She described the “invisible currency” of professional networks and emphasized the importance of graduate students taking time to network and build relationships within and beyond their department and institution.77 As part of her role as director of education research at the Clay Christensen Institute, she notes that “social capital is a potent but often hidden asset in the opportunity equation” and that alum mentorship and networks can play a role.78 Fisher also emphasized that we must be explicit about training students on how to build and maintain social capital as part of our commitment to outcomes and opportunity. While the idea of networking can seem very inauthentic to Ph.D. students during graduate school, Vukov states “it is essential to building capacity for collaboration and teamwork” as well as for future job searches. He recommends faculty and administrators proactively “facilitate the construction of [graduate] students’ networks.”79

The GradFUTURES mentorship program and our other graduate alums engagement initiatives help us take a systematic approach to creating multigenerational networks of graduate alums similar to those who have long existed for Princeton’s undergraduate student body. Building connections and meaningful relationships among and between graduate students and graduate alums is an explicit goal of our mentorship program. Graduate students are matched with a graduate alums mentor based on similar academic and professional interests, life experiences, or identities. We use a mentoring platform that provides a structured means of initiating and maintaining the mentor-mentee relationship. Mentors and mentees mutually establish the cadence and goals of their one-on-one conversations.

Based on anecdotal feedback and surveys of graduate student participants, we see early evidence that the program enhances graduate students’ ability to navigate departmental and discipline-specific cultures. Participants also report that they gain advice regarding their research and a greater understanding of diverse career paths. Since 2020, we have forged nearly 450 mentor-mentee matches. We track participation by demographic to ensure a diverse pool of both graduate students and graduate alums. In addition, we have developed an orientation for all graduate alums mentors that provides an inclusive mentorship framework based on guidance from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) and their Inclusive Mentor Map. 80 This fall, we will host a roundtable on inclusive mentorship featuring speakers from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to bring together faculty, graduate alums mentors, post-docs, and graduate student mentees with a focus on mentorship, well-being, and professional development.81

8. Create a visible, accessible, and compelling brand for professional development. The AAU Ph.D. Education Initiative aims to make the full range of career pathways visible, viable, and valuable for all graduate students—and that involves increasing the visibility and sustainable value of professional development on our campuses.82  While an array of decentralized programs, services, and resources may be available to graduate students, these may not be visible to those immersed in their departments and labs. A recent study by the Council of Graduate Schools’ Ph.D. Pathways project found that 70% of graduate students who did not participate in professional development may have been unaware of these offerings at their institution.83

A strong brand can boost the visibility of professional development, promote access, and encourage participation. When creating the GradFUTURES brand, we considered our internal and external positioning within graduate education, and the range of stakeholders and audiences with whom our brand had to resonate. A resonant brand communicates vision and purpose, a strong value proposition, and functional and emotional benefits.84 We trademarked the name and logo of GradFUTURES to ensure graduate students and all stakeholders recognized the initiative as a distinctive feature of Princeton University’s Graduate School. In 2023, we added a tagline that aligns with our values around student-centricity “Create your future(s). On your terms.” We also redesigned our website content to encourage agency and greater student engagement and feature diverse voices, perspectives, and pathways.85

Brand messaging aside, we needed an easily accessible technology solution to integrate and cross-promote programs hosted by the Graduate School and the dozens of campus partners within our ecosystem. Based on graduate student focus-group feedback, identifying and accessing programs was challenging because they received too many email newsletters and were subject to numerous event registration systems. In 2020, GradFUTURES co-sponsored the MyPrincetonU platform, a campus-wide event management and community engagement solution, to streamline and simplify the process.86 We continue to work toward full campus-wide adoption of the platform to ensure the most visible, inclusive, and accessible approach to promoting professional development programs, and enhancing graduate student participation.

9. Build an ongoing evidence-based case for the value and impact of graduate student professional development. To shift the paradigm and drive structural change, it is necessary to demonstrate that participation mutually reinforces and enhances the individual andinstitutional goals for graduate training. As we have explored throughout this article, embracing the paradigm shift in Ph.D. professional development means broadening the goals for graduate training to include preparation for diverse careers. Referencing a range of quantitative and qualitative analyses, national trends, peer benchmarking, campus self-studies, and ongoing assessments provides the basis for evidence-informed conversations. One valuable resource is the Council of Graduate Schools’ “Ph.D. Pathways Project,” which offers a collection of research briefings and talking points to help graduate institutions make the case for professional development.87

Anecdotally, one of the most prevalent concerns of faculty is that taking time to participate in professional development will negatively impact students’ time to degree. A recent study of 10 institutions found promising evidence that there was no increase in time to degree or decrease in research productivity for graduate students who participated in professional development activities. The researchers also found that participation may have boosted productivity in some cases.88 Institutions should also explore the relationship between participation in professional development and Ph.D. first-destinations career outcomes to understand the impact and uncover gaps,  especially when disaggregating these data by race and gender. 89 Additional studies are needed to push past limiting beliefs and address possible structural inequities that may impede graduate students’ access to and participation in professional development.

We routinely assess our programs using various methods for gathering feedback from graduate students regarding direct or indirect learning. These include pre-program surveys, learning-outcomes surveys, written reflections, and capstone projects. The Graduate School also partners with our Office of Institutional Research on several surveys that allow us to gather information from all graduate students about their overall experience. We map these data to our program assessment data to look for patterns, potential trends, and gaps in terms of participation and outcomes. When meeting individually with directors of graduate study, it is helpful to share aggregate data about the percentage of graduate students participating in our professional development programs, graduate alums career outcomes data from their departments, and customized labor market analyses. Sharing these data often sparks fruitful dialogue and collaboration.

10. Use storytelling to shape new narratives about Ph.D. success and highlight diverse voices. Stories are proven ways to build influence, connection, engagement, and affinity in higher education.90 Tapping into the power of storytelling and shaping new narratives about Ph.D. success can play an important role in shifting the paradigm of professional development and promoting inclusion in graduate education. Developing a multifaceted approach to storytelling as part of your professional development strategy involves moving beyond sharing compelling anecdotes to creating and disseminating a wide range of stories through multiple platforms.

At most institutions, landing stories on the university homepage is a highly coveted prize. We’ve worked with our university communications team to develop homepage stories featuring graduate students whose research interests and professional development activities demonstrate Princeton’s priorities related to service, inclusivity and equity, the arts and public humanities, and entrepreneurship, among others. We’ve also been intentional about creating graduate student learning cohorts that align with these priorities. This approach has helped telegraph the central role graduate students play in the academic and research enterprise while highlighting the impact of graduate student professional development. Stories also elevate the evolving interests of our graduate students—and demonstrate to other students and faculty ways they weave individual passions and purpose with their research.

Data-informed and digital storytelling amplifies the value of graduate student professional development and helps shape new narratives about Ph.D. success. Tracking program participation data can reveal interesting combinations of graduate student interests, experiences, and learnings, as well as the impact on outcomes. Leveraging these data to create visualizations and stories of the iterative journeys of graduate students is a way to highlight the range of transformative learning experiences and demonstrate how students synthesize newfound knowledge and skills to determine their next steps.91

Podcast interviews with graduate students, graduate alums, and an array of advocates for Ph.D. professional development are becoming increasingly popular and help reach a broad public audience. On Princeton University’s GradFUTURES podcast, we feature the stories of graduate alums to showcase the multiple futures and possibilities with a Ph.D. and provide strategies and advice to prospective and current graduate students from all backgrounds.92 The podcast is also another example of an initiative co-created with our graduate students. Graduate students in our digital media learning cohort helped conceptualize the podcast and serve as executive producers and hosts.

A recent podcast episode features Princeton alumnus Jason McSheene, who received his Ph.D. in molecular biology in 2015. While still a graduate student at Princeton, he created and co-hosted the “Ph.D. in Progress” podcast to have honest, authentic conversations about professional perspectives and aspirations. He also saw it and as a way to help destigmatize diverse careers, noting “The boundaries ... [of] academic life can really restrain our potential to do something unique.” Today, he continues to use storytelling in his professional and volunteer work as a “champion of education, equity, and empathy.” His story is one of finding success on his own terms through introspection, self-discovery, and grass-roots advocacy. In the coming year, we plan to increase the cadence of podcast episodes and will continue to promote a diversity of voices and stories.

Expand the Impact of the Ph.D. Via Equitable Access to a Broad Range of Opportunities

The universal goals of graduate education are to accelerate innovation and discovery across all domains and to serve humanity. Yet, for far too long, Ph.D. professional development has focused on preparation for a singular pathway to the professoriate. Shifting the paradigm of Ph.D. professional development to support career diversity celebrates the diversity of our students and their unique interests, aptitudes, identities, and aspirations. It also supports inclusion and innovation through the formation of interdisciplinary relationships that can foster and inform meaningful research collaborations. When coupled with the ongoing dynamism of the Ph.D. labor market, it is imperative—both morally and socially—that we ensure equitable access to a much broader range of opportunities for graduate students. Our extraordinarily talented and diverse communities of scholars, researchers, and leaders deserve nothing less than integrative, inclusive, and innovative professional development to position them for lifelong impact in the ever-evolving future of work.

View Endnotes

Evangeline “Eva” Kubu is the inaugural associate dean for professional development and founder/director of the GradFUTURES® initiative at Princeton University’s Graduate School, where she oversees professional development for 3,200+ Ph.D. and master’s students in 45 graduate degree programs. She previously served as director of career services at Princeton, where she helped lead a major restructuring and expansion of the career center. Kubu has earned multiple awards for innovation throughout her career, including Princeton University's Donald Griffin Management Award, the NACE Innovation Excellence Award for Research, the Metropolitan New York Career Placement Officers’ Association Award for Innovative Career Programming, and the DeVry University Innovative and Creative Teaching Award, among others. She has served as a faculty member at the NACE Management Leadership Institute and is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium. As a first-generation college student, she has dedicated her career to creating structures that support social capital-building and equitable access to opportunity.