CEU Professional Skills Program Helps Kickstart Careers

In order to equip CEU PhD students with practical skills to enhance their academic portfolios, the Alumni Relations and Career Services Office (ARCS) successfully  implemented a pilot Professional Skills Program (PSP). PhD candidates beyond their first year of study were eligible for the first two workshops on project management and the post-doc/job application process. Beginning in academic year 2015-16, ARCS will offer even more workshops on topics such as leadership skills, event organization and management, and public speaking and presentation skills.

In June 2015, 32 doctoral students representing various departments (Political Science, Public Policy, International Relations, Medieval Studies, History, Legal Studies, Environmental Studies, Gender Studies, Mathematics, Economics) took part in the workshops. They all appreciated the practical aspects of the events, the diversity of the speakers, the possibility to address questions to real life professionals both in the academia and beyond, and the overall relevance of having such a program at CEU.

CEU's Alumni and Career Services Office (ARCS) successfully implemented a pilot Professional Skills Program (PSP) in June 2015. Photo: CEU

Jenny Choi-Fitzpatrick, (former) CEU School of Public Policy Practitioner in Residence joined the Project Management workshop leader Oliver M. Triebel (SPP adjunct professor of practice) to talk specifically about project management in civil society, a field in which she has spent most of her career and one that is relevant to most CEU students. Triebel noted how important gaining project management skills is as “organizational boundaries are dissolving and the future of work is in project work.”

Choi-Fitzpatrick began by underscoring the major difference between project management in the private sector versus in civil society. “The end goal is not to produce a product or even necessarily provide a service, but social impact,” said Choi-Fitzpatrick who, before joining SPP, was the country director in Tanzania for a US-based international NGO where she developed and oversaw programming in education, health, food security, water and sanitation, child rights, and community mobilization reaching over 70,000 people in rural Tanzania.

The four tenets Choi-Fitzpatrick emphasizes when tackling projects are: scope, time, resources, and quality. Defining a timeline and having a real grasp on budget and expected outcomes is key, she said. Often, in the nonprofit world, projects are funded by donors and their interests and expectations must be considered and managed.

Building on the idea of the “human factor,” CEU Business School Adjunct Senior Lecturer of Marketing Istvan Otto Nagy advised students to always do a proper stakeholder analysis. He gave a simple example of what might happen when the office coffee machine is changed and how that change affects different groups.

“For me, the most important thing is making a list of who will be impacted by this project,” Nagy said. “All stakeholders will be learning as the project goes on. Getting to know people is key; projects are not static.”

All of the presenters agreed that politics and attitude toward the project play major roles. Triebel drew a matrix to help participants see important project advocates versus those who might hinder progress. Choi-Fitzpatrick noted that, often, the people with the most interest in the project have the least power – in her recent experience, that mean the 70,000 rural Tanzanian people in need of services.

“You want to not just 'keep your enemies closer,' you want to make them think you are their friend,” she said. “You have to be adaptive and know when people can be helpful to your project.” In Tanzania, Choi-Fitzpatrick massaged a relationship with an influential politician who eventually helped her organization overcome regulatory issues with the ministry of finance and he is now a big supporter of the project.

If a project takes you to a different locale, it will likely mean learning a new culture and ways of doing business. Nagy reminded students to not mix rules and norms. “Rules are standard operating procedures but norms are 'This is how we do things here (despite rules).' The latter are more powerful.”

PhD candidate in CEU's Department of Medieval Studies Ivan Maric attended both workshops and  recommends them to his peers. “They offer valuable insight into the professional world outside of academia and they can help students decide whether this is something they would like as an option; and if so, they also offer some useful guidelines and information for that type of career. Further, the diversity of speakers offered multiple perspectives, including from inside academia, and that is an aspect worth preserving.”

Mastering the post-doc /job application process

Before PhD students can manage projects, they will have to go through the application process for postdoctoral positions or jobs outside of academia. Eva Fodor (CEU Institute for Advanced Studies), Wolfgang Reinicke (School of Public Policy), Niels Gaul (Department of Medieval Studies), and Robin Bellers (Center for Academic Writing) contributed with Q+A sessions to the overall success of the second workshop alongside Oliver Triebel and Cristina Balint-Nagy (ARCS) who connected the workshop modules and also delivered a number of career-related topics providing the students with a diversified overview of experiences across academia and beyond.

In June 2015, 32 doctoral students representing various CEU departments took part in the workshops offered by the Alumni and Career Services Office. Photo: CEU

CEU Associate Professor Eva Fodor – who, in addition to teaching in the Department of Gender Studies, was the academic director of CEU's Institute for Advanced Studies for several years –  shared three of her best tips with participants.

First, she advised students to research the place they want to go to – whether it's a university, a nonprofit organization, or a private company. Having read so many applications, she noted that she can easily tell when a candidate has not done his/her research.

“Learn what the institution is about, find their recent publications. It's not enough to just read the call for applications, you have to see it in context.” Fodor said. “There will be people in the institution who already work on your topic. It's important to find ways you can relate to those people.”

Fodor then warned participants about “fluffing up” their resumes, or adding things just to make it seem that they have experience. She strongly advised against this, reminding students that they are young and not expected to have a large number of publications. She suggests making it clear which of your publications were peer-reviewed and to indicate in what language they were written. The vital elements, she said, are education and employment history (especially research-related employment or teaching assistant positions), awards/prizes, and publications.

Finally, Fodor gave advice on applying for research proposals that will almost certainly be read by academics who might not be an expert in your field.

“You have to write it in a way that will appeal to intelligent academic readers vaguely interested in your field, but not necessarily knowing a ton about your specific research. You have to present your own research topic in a way that will pique people's interest. This is what you're shooting for,” she said. “What does this mean? What does it relate to? Is the New York Times writing about it? Is it an age-old issue that's discussed/written about? Identify what your contribution will be – why and how will this advance our knowledge of your field?”

Another PhD student who participated in both workshops was able to put what she learned into practice immediately.

“After the workshop, I started applying what I’ve learned in my own job seeking efforts to find an appropriate part-time while still writing my dissertation. Two weeks later, I got one where I’m using my academic and non-academic knowledge and skills, working on a very relevant social and political problem, with a company whose mission is in accordance with my own values, where my skills are appreciated, and where I can develop personally and professionally,” said Silvia Ioana Fierascu, who studies comparative politics with a specialization in network science at CEU's Doctoral School of Political Science, Public Policy, and International Relations. “To get here, I tapped into my personal network, I dared to go for the best organization for my interests, and I prepared for the interview and negotiations using the practical information I got in these workshops.” 

PhD candidate Virag Ilona Blazsek who studies in CEU's Department of Legal Studies, returned to school after working as a lawyer for nearly a decade and needed more guidance on the inner workings of academia.

“I wanted to hear from career specialists about the career options and tips for career planning on the academic field after doctoral studies. This is a different environment from the business sector I am more familiar with, therefore the workshop was very useful for me,” she noted. “Also, I had limited knowledge about post-doc opportunities, so the workshop was very informative in that respect too.

For more information on PSP workshops, visit: http://alumnicareer.ceu.edu/PSP.