At USC College, doctoral students seeking careers in the academe learn to become professionals long before they begin searching for work.
The College's Office of Graduate Programs believes that students, facing an increasingly competitive job market, must be as prepared as possible.
Two years ago, the office launched the Graduate Professionalization Initiative (GPI), providing funding for student-led endeavors such as interdisciplinary team research projects employing undergraduate research assistants, and workshops and symposia.
The response has been overwhelming, with 35 student-led projects created in departments throughout the College this academic year alone.
In addition to interdisciplinary research, awardees have pursued community outreach, and projects with faculty and graduate students from other elite institutions. The process is competitive with a faculty committee reviewing all applications.
The payoff is worth the effort. A student with a well-received dissertation, several conference papers, a few publications and the experience of designing and sponsoring a workshop or conference has a greater chance to compete in the academic marketplace, said Steve Lamy, vice dean for academic programs in the College.
Participants are also introduced to senior scholars who may choose to recruit them for future job openings.
“We want our graduate students to think creatively about sponsoring programs for their colleagues in various disciplines across the university,” Lamy said.
For example, a student in the Ph.D Program in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography might be funded to sponsor a conference on coastal pollution issues involving colleagues from other sciences as well as political science, public health, anthropology and public policy.
Mark Todd, associate dean for graduate programs, said the initiative also funds conference travel as well as summer research for students writing their dissertations.
“We see this initiative as a great opportunity for our students to get ahead of the competition when it comes time to go on the job market,” Todd said.
“Our students can say they’ve had the experience of putting on a seminar, or they’ve built networks with renowned scholars, or have engaged in interdisciplinary discussion or research during their graduate careers. They will be ‘professionalized’ and better prepared for their jobs as a result.”
Department of American Studies and Ethnicity
Genevieve Carpio believes that to be the case. The 2nd year doctoral student in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity (ASE) chaired a student committee whose members spent the fall semester working with College faculty and the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research on a project called, “Building a People’s History.”
The goal was to integrate the history of communities’ struggles for justice into ASE’s undergraduate curriculum.
The library at 6120 S. Vermont Ave. holds about 30,000 books from 1930 to the present on labor, women, civil rights, civil liberties, people of color, left culture, peace, radicalism, socialism, communism, Marxism, and other political theories and movements.
Attempting to encourage undergraduates to use the vast archives, the committee held an open house and tours of the library. They organized workshops, panel discussions, film screenings and lectures at the library, where Carpio held office hours for undergraduate students conducting research.
They helped undergrads taking Black Social Movements and Mexican American Places in Literature and Film courses integrate their research from the library into their class projects.
“My hope is that undergraduate students will continue to do research at the library and that work there will continue,” Carpio said.
Adam Bush, another 2nd year ASE doctoral student and committee member, met undergrads at a bus stop near campus and traveled with them the 30 or so blocks down Vermont Ave. to the library.
“Once they take that first step, the rewards will keep them coming back,” Bush said.
Yusef Omowale, the library director, was impressed with the students’ efforts. The library has been in existence for 45 years, but had not been utilized by many USC undergraduates until the ASE students’ project.
“It’s crucial to tell the histories that are typically silenced,” Omowale said. “This is a way for us to challenge dominant discourse about what’s really happening in our community.”
Teaching undergrads about the importance of “people’s history” was an important professionalization project, Bush said.
“It’s not just about publishing and not just about reading books,” Bush said. “For us, professionalization is learning about what kind of academics we want to be. It’s about collaboration and building relationships.”
Department of Sociology
Another exceptional GPI project was led by Ph.D. students in the Department of Sociology. In October, they organized a symposium titled “Culture, Race and Class: How Meaning Matters for the Marginalized.” Their goal was to address the question, “How can cultural sociology enrich our understanding of marginalized populations in the United States without blaming the victim?”
The event drew more than 80 graduate students and faculty from the College as well as other nearby, major research institutions such as the UC San Diego, UC Irvine and UCLA.
The keynote speaker was renowned sociologist Michèle Lamont of Harvard University, who discussed the importance of culture in the understanding of poverty.
Edson Rodriguez, 5th year Ph.D. candidate, who led the student committee, said organizers gained important hands-on experience in professionalism and collaboration.
“Being on committees and organizing symposia are central aspects of our future jobs in the academe,” Rodriguez said.
Networking with academics, too, is an essential part of graduate school training, he said.
“This,” Rodriquez said, “has brought us closer to the beginning of our professional careers.”