Career Building 101: How Do I Host a Careers Beyond Academia Event?

By Janani Hariharan

How often do you get to meet professionals in your field (who are not at Cornell) and hear about their experiences and career paths? Would you like to be the person who brings this person (or persons) to Cornell? If you answered yes to both of these questions, then consider organizing an event with the Careers Beyond Academia program.

Susi Varvayanis, Executive Director of Cornell’s Careers Beyond Academia program, believes that getting involved in organizing professional development opportunities can help cultivate many essential skills that are needed in the workforce today: collaboration, teamwork, cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural communication skills, time management, public speaking, networking, budgeting and so on.

“In the past year alone, over 15 seminars, symposia and workshops were proposed and organized by Careers Beyond Academia participants who were guided through the process and gained skills in networking, event planning and management (in patent review, governance, consulting, entrepreneurship, communication, and industry),” Susi said. “Many more were conceptualized and run by graduate student organizations with minimal Careers Beyond Academia support. Additionally, five experiential activities were proposed by Careers Beyond Academia participants and sponsored for individuals to network with professionals off campus and gain specific skills in biofabrication, medical writing and communication, plant health, entrepreneurship, and medical technologies. Twenty individuals were facilitated to participate in four off-campus workshops to build skills in policy development, project management, or via case competitions.”

While the Careers Beyond Academia program staff are willing and available to train, plan, and assist the group in organizing events, their level of involvement ultimately boils down to the the group’s needs. Rest assured, anyone who works with Careers Beyond Academia to plan an event will be thoroughly prepped, including on-demand group coaching and event planning sessions. Based on the numbers mentioned above, it certainly seems like Cornellians have started to take advantage of these experiential opportunities.

People sitting at a table.
Graduate students and postdocs at an alumni-led Careers Beyond Academia event. Photo credit: Susi Varvayanis

From a graduate student’s perspective, the biggest roadblock can be the time commitment needed to plan events with visiting speakers or large groups. Susi reveals an alternative that may seem more manageable for some: students who would like to get trained in organizing events can participate at multiple levels of time and effort, depending on their schedule and interests. While developing a new idea from scratch may be tempting and exciting, it is also very time-consuming, and beginners may wish to join an existing team of students working on an event that interests them instead. This will help them achieve valuable skills while preserving time to pursue research and teaching commitments.

Monique Theriault, a PhD candidate in Microbiology, has organized two events on careers and internships in microbiology for her fellow graduate students. While her motivation for designing these events came from a desire to learn more about career opportunities after graduation, the discussions and invited presenters ultimately proved to be important resources for a much larger community as well. Here is a checklist of what she says student organizers should keep in mind when planning an event:

  1. What need does the event fill? How does it serve the graduate student community or other communities?
  2. Start planning well in advance, especially if you are bringing in speakers from external sources. Time spent organizing will vary, with a sharp increase close to the date of the event.
  3. When approaching the Careers Beyond Academia staff, a strong idea is critical but it is okay to not have details fleshed out yet! The program can usually offer resources, a network and help with planning logistics.
  4. When asking for financial sponsorship, ask groups (example, a department or a program) to contribute to specific instances that are of interest to their members. For example, a request like ‘Could you pay for lunch for 30 people at this career event attended by your graduate students?’ is more specific and effective than ‘Would you be willing to pay for the cost of food?’
  5. Doing a pre-event survey can provide great feedback for your presenters about participants’ goals and expectations for the event. This helps presenters make customized, tailored talks and prepare for audience questions.
  6. Technology issues can often crop up, especially if you are hosting an event in an unfamiliar building. Be sure to do a few test runs, especially with guests who may be attending via video conferencing.

Monique also mentions networking and communication skills, organization, delegation, leadership, budget design and money management as essential skills learned from this experience, along with designing and analyzing survey data.

Many of these skills are valuable across disciplines and career paths, and yet very few graduate students get to acquire experience in these areas during the course of their programs. Working with Careers Beyond Academia could offer a great opportunity to pick up these skills, build your professional network and create an event that is of value to a larger community. It may even be an opportunity to meet a future employer!

If this post has inspired you to put an event idea into action, reach out to the Careers Beyond Academia program by emailing Susi Varvayanis or Denise DiRienzo to get guidance on how to Create Your Own Activity!