What I Learned at Career Pathways Week

By Victoria Romano |

I had the pleasure of organizing and participating in this year’s Career Pathways Week for my first time as a Consultant for the Graduate Student Resource Center. What a privilege to attend this four-day-long professional development program as part of my job! This quarter, the focus was on pursuing academic jobs, specifically tenure-track positions at research universities. The programs ran the gamut from panels with UCR alums in postdoc and tenure-track roles to cover letter workshops to candid advice about interviewing etiquette. The inclusion of a diverse array of panelists from the sciences and humanities—where I reside—made it so that in each session, someone on the mic was in my position not too long ago.


[Image Description: Boromir from Lord of the Rings, facepalming as he remarks, “One does not simply walk into Mordor!”]

Caption: One needs to walk into academia.

On day one, I finally met Dr. Lidia Kos, our new Vice Provost & Dean of Graduate Students. She gave a keynote that began with her narrative, including the values, circumstances, life events, and opportunities that shaped her academic career trajectory. She injected so many little pearls of wisdom into her presentation with an unflinching earnestness that we, graduate students, crave. At each turn in her story, she extrapolated the skills and traits she gained. The research skills she began honing as an undergrad, the interdisciplinary bent she developed as a graduate student, her collaborative attitude as a postdoc, and her penchant for DEIA advocacy that she gained while a professor, mentor, and administrator at Florida International University. After hearing her story, I am more grateful than ever that she has chosen to serve here at UCR. My most treasured takeaway from her presentation was when she implored us to work with our advisors to craft an IDP or an Individual Development Plan that allows us to articulate short- and long-term goals and take inventory of the resources at our disposal.

Then, we heard from a panel of four UCR alumni who completed postdoctoral fellowships. Each had their reasons for pursuing their fellowships. Mainly, they were keen to collaborate with a specific scholar, either one who specialized in their research area or who always believed in them. The expectations of each fellowship depended: sometimes, there was a particular outcome, deliverable, or research initiative; sometimes, they were required to produce a high volume of work on a topic of their choosing; others just negotiated with their advisors to make the most of it. Some of these fellowships were in conjunction with other non-academic institutions, such as the US Department of Agriculture or organizations advancing research on specific illnesses. I learned that the secret to a productive postdoctoral fellowship is finding a faculty mentor who believes in you and who can open doors for you, and it might be someone unexpected. Consider if anyone in your professional periphery has always been in your corner. Upon graduating, could they become a future collaborator?

On day two, we heard a presentation from Dr. Annika Speer from UCR’s Theater, Film, and Digital Production department. She offered many tips on being clear, concise, polite, and engaging while interviewing. She also mentioned some awkward situations or turn-offs that she experienced from the other side as an interviewer; these were helpful in avoiding those pitfalls in our future interviews. These included interviewees who did not provide specific details about their work or ideas for their prospective position, which made their answers appear curt and those who didn’t prepare any questions for their interviewers. On Zoom, where it’s becoming more popular to conduct interviews with candidates from around the globe, it’s prudent to test your tech and ensure you’re dressed appropriately and in a professional setting. These little details don’t go unnoticed by those interviewing you. During the Q&A, she offered some great advice to me about a past mistake: losing an opportunity because I tried to negotiate too early on. Make sure you’ve got their attention before you make any “asks” of a potential employer…save it for the final rounds in the interview process. I also learned about her “rule of three”: prepare three talking points that you want to drive home during the interview. This will keep you focused. Additionally, if you include any anecdotes about how you navigated challenges or created new initiatives, you also have outcomes demonstrating that your efforts were successful.

On day three, we first heard from the Graduate Writing Center Specialist, Dr. Lauren Hammond, who, like Dr. Speer, drove home the importance of specificity in her Introduction to Academic Cover Letters workshop. Be concise. Use active language. Tailor each cover letter to the position you are applying for, and for Pete’s sake—make sure you put the correct addressee at the top! Now more than ever, it is imperative that you professionally format your cover letter and include all of the right information since employers are using AI to scan and discard cover letters deemed underqualified, out-of-depth, or lacking specific details.

Then, we heard from UCR alums who snagged those highly-coveted (but maybe not as cushy as we grads think?) tenure-track positions. In the panel’s experience, quality and not quantity—but persistence—was what worked for them. They applied for only a few jobs but tailored those applications and did this for up to four years. The panel bonded over discussions about being on the job market with a young family and how those considerations played into the opportunities for which they could apply. They made the best decisions for their growing families, and it all worked out with a little bit of confidence and dedication. 

They were honest that the workload is vast but negotiable if you are clever; it’s okay to say no sometimes, and contrary to the myth, will actually garner respect from those deciding on your promotion; and that you should always ensure a proper and healthy work-life balance. Finally, the panel offered reassurance despite the reality of the academic job market: you belong here and will become a professor if you want to be a professor.


[Image Description: Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, asking, “What, like it’s hard?” in response to her Harvard acceptance.]

Caption: You got this!

We had a delightful post-panel Coffee Social on the XCITE Patio adjacent to the Rivera Library, where we ate cookies, listened to early 2000s throwbacks, and a lucky few won gift cards courtesy of UCR International Affairs! It was our first Coffee Social on the patio, and I’m sure not the last because that rocked.

On the final day, during which students scheduled one-on-one conferences with the Graduate Writing Center to workshop their cover letters in progress, I reflected on the week and how it had encouraged me. As a Ph.D. music composer, I never considered myself a competitor in the academic job market; as a Ph.D. student, I’ve been mainly doing my own thing. But maybe—just maybe—it couldn’t hurt to apply for one or two academic opportunities if they look especially tempting…