Grad students attend workshop to hone skills needed for career in academia

10/18/2023 Phillip Kisubika

Written by Phillip Kisubika

Grad students attend workshop to hone skills needed for career in academia

Making the transition from graduate student into any career is difficult, but going from student to teacher may be the most challenging conversion.

NPRE graduate students Amanda Bachmann and Jeremy Mettler—along with fellow Grainger Engineering students Abigail Beck (Civil and Environmental Engineering) and Vince Kelly (Biomedical Engineering)—recently attended NextProf Nexus, a three-day program that is part of a nationwide effort to strengthen and diversify the next generation of academic leaders in engineering.

The program is hosted annually by Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Both Bachmann and Mettler said that as undergraduate students, they developed a desire to pursue careers in academia and have already taken steps on that path.

“I had finished the Mavis Future Faculty Fellowship and wanted some outside perspective on the process,” Mettler said. “NextProf was really beneficial for that.”

“I’ve always been interested in a faculty position,” Bachmann said. “It’s the whole reason I went to grad school. I went through a similar program at NC State last year, and that was a really great program. NextProf is more engineering-focused and it focuses more on the application and interview process, and it fills a gap in the NC State program.”

What stood out to them at NextProf was the focus on the interview and application process for potential faculty. They were also able to listen to multiple perspectives about life in academia and get an idea of what their futures could hold, in and out of the classroom.

“They talked a lot about how to leverage the flexibility of a professorship to increase work-life balance,” Bachmann said. “One professor told us how she would leave the office at 2 p.m. every single day to spend the afternoon with her kids, and she could still work from home a bit and be in on some virtual meetings as needed. But she could physically be present, and I thought that was a really specific way to have that balance.”

As much as the workshop may have been about learning from current faculty, the opportunity to go through it with people from all over the country who could be future colleagues was something both Bachmann and Mettler said they enjoyed.

“Everyone was trying to make friends and meet people they could collaborate with someday,” Mettler said. “We ended up in group chats talking about plans and book clubs for the future.”

“Academia naturally has a lot of isolating elements,” Bachmann said. “You are an expert on this topic, so you’ll stand out, which is kind of a nice thing, but that can distance you from your colleagues. To be around so many people who are in the same boat as me, trying to finish up my defense, writing a dissertation and defending, thinking about jobs…it was really comforting. It was definitely an atmosphere of support.”

Another rewarding part of the experience was attending the workshop with other students from the Grainger College of Engineering.

“Georgia Tech, Berkeley and Michigan host it, so naturally they had the most attendees,” Bachmann said. “Illinois was basically next with 4. We know the Grainger College of Engineering has a really strong program. To see that we had such a relatively large presence reinforces that, because it’s incredibly tough to get in to NextProf. I applied last year and got rejected. To see students across three departments get in is great. It’s excellence across the field.”

Mettler is planning on finishing his PhD in the next year, with an eye on doing some postdoctoral research before jumping into academia. Bachmann is defending her dissertation this fall and has accepted a postdoctoral position at Argonne National Laboratory to start in January.

Whenever they start teaching, they will be able to look back at the NextProf Nexus as an important step in that journey.

“It was really energizing to be among all these brilliant people with the same goals,” Mettler said. “It reinvigorated me and made me even more excited for the potential as a faculty member.”

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This story was published October 18, 2023.