Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers spend countless hours in pursuit of information and technical skills to become specialists in their fields. New sources, programming languages, algorithms, and biological clues beget insights and innovation that lead to shrewd expositions.

PhD students Yanjun Liu and Tianmei Wang attended a Stanford Earth Pro-Seminar on Initiating Scientific Collaborations with Earth system science Professor Kate Maher. The event qualified as experience in the Leadership & Collaboration pillar for the new certificate program. (Image credit: Elenita Nicholas)

But research is just part of the recipe for success following graduate work.

Other skills, such as the ability to bolster collaborative teams, manage direct reports, and exercise influence with confidence and humility can be critical for advancing into rewarding careers.

With the Stanford Earth Academic Professional Program that launched April 1, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) now have the opportunity to delve deeper into their professional development through a program that provides formal structure and additional support around the opportunities that were previously available. Participants earn a certificate that can be noted on their CVs upon completion.

“Previously, we offered an overwhelming array of workshops, with little support for how graduate students and postdocs could select among them to create something that would be useful for them. For example, they might attend a workshop on how to write a teaching statement, but then they never wrote it,” said Stanford Earth Educational Affairs Program Director Audrey Yau, who created the certificate program with partners across campus. “This program ensures they actually integrate the new skillset, produce a piece for their professional portfolio, and then receive credit by getting a certificate.”

Participants are expected to pursue the certification concurrently with graduate studies at Stanford Earth. PhD students must complete 200 hours of training over the course of their time at Stanford; postdoctoral researchers complete 100 hours. Participants may progress at their own pace, choosing their own routes for fulfilling the five required competencies: Teaching & Mentoring, Writing & Public Speaking, Career Education, Leadership & Collaboration, and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. Each competency area includes education, experience, and a portfolio component.

While co-terms and master’s students may take advantage of Stanford Earth’s professional development resources, the certificate program is geared toward the longer tenures of PhD students, according to Yau. All Stanford postgraduate scholars are encouraged to participate in the programs and workshops hosted by partners like the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education (VPGE) and BEAM, Stanford Career Education.

“We welcome anyone who’s interested to take a look at our suggested frameworks for education in these professional competencies and take part in the opportunities available,” Yau said. “When you come to an institution like Stanford, you’re not coming just to complete a degree – you’re coming to learn through a breadth of experiences.”

A holistic approach

The concept of balancing technical education with non-technical “soft” skills related to how people work is an essential part of graduate students’ education, according to Blanca Virrey of VPGE, which offers professional development resources through Grad Grow. Based on VPGE’s guidance in addition to feedback from Stanford Earth faculty and students, Yau honed the competencies to best serve the Stanford Earth community.

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers attended a Conversations with Alumni talk with Kira Smiley, BSH ’18, MS ’19, titled Moonshot thinking and a career in sustainability: what it’s like to work at X, the moonshot factory. The event qualified as experience in the Career Education pillar for the new certificate program. (Image credit: Audrey Yau)

“What we hear from students is that they want to develop a more holistic view and approach to being in grad school, whether they decide to go into academia or any other industry,” said Virrey, who supports some of VPGE’s fellowships and professional development programs, including Preparing Future Professors. “What they’re learning can become transferrable skills for navigating their future endeavors, but also for enhancing their experiences as graduate students.”

Lauren Abrahams, a fifth-year PhD student in geophysics, is on track to become Stanford Earth’s inaugural professional certificate recipient. She started participating in Stanford’s professional development workshops during her first year because she knew she wanted to be a leader in her field of physics-based computational simulations. The fact that she’ll end up earning a professional development certificate is the fortuitous result of her commitment to developing non-technical skills over her five years at Stanford.

“I sought out these opportunities because I wanted to be a leader and I was also really quite shy at public speaking,” Abrahams said. “Once you start attending more and more classes and getting more educated in the five pillars, you start to gain the confidence that you, too, can be a contributor in conversations.”

Equality of opportunity

This holistic approach to graduate and postdoctoral education reinforces the university’s commitment to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion; many of the professional development workshops and classes are funded by campus partners, making them accessible to all students.

“I view this program as an additional way in which we can try to level the playing field so that everyone who comes into Stanford Earth has the same opportunities to build up all their skill sets,” said geological sciences Professor Jonathan Payne, the Dorrell William Kirby Professor and senior associate dean for faculty affairs at Stanford Earth. “Historically, not everybody leaves graduate school on equal footing because of these non-technical factors – even if they leave on equal footing in terms of technical training.”

The Stanford Earth Academic Professional Program represents a major step toward filling gaps in graduate students’ career readiness, but Yau also hopes the certificate program evolves into a supportive cohort experience in the new school focused on climate and sustainability.

Payne, who also served on the Education Workstream of the transition team for the new school, sees the program as serving not just the mission of a particular school, but all of Stanford.

“Starting a new school gives us a moment to re-examine how we’re doing all of these things,” Payne said. “My hope would be that we’re setting an example that will be followed by the rest of the university.”