Workshops provide personal and professional tools to complement academic training

Mentorship is a critical piece of graduate-level education. Ph.D. students look to their faculty advisors not just for advice on what experiments to run in the lab, but also for career guidance, managing work relationships or coping with the rigors of academic life.

Nearly two years ago, graduate program coordinators at the University of Virginia Chemical Engineering Department wanted to know: How do faculty become good mentors? Were students invested in their roles as advisees? As one question led to another, the department turned to UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy to find answers.

The department worked with the Batten School’s Gabrielle “Gabe” Adams, an assistant professor of public policy and psychology and the director of executive education, to conduct a survey to evaluate the department’s performance on mentoring and assess graduate students’ needs and satisfaction.

“We learned were doing great on mentoring, but the students were stressing about finding jobs,” department chair William S. Epling said. “We discovered they really wanted more career advising.

“At the same time, when I think about the UVA engineer, I think about a technology leader, someone who is a positive influence in his or her research area, whether in academia or industry. Leadership can be brought out in students. We asked Gabe to design workshops for our graduate students that focus on career development and leadership skills.”

William S. Epling portrait

"Leadership can be brought out in students. We asked Gabe Adams at the Batten School to design workshops for our graduate students that focus on career development and leadership skills. "

William S. Epling, chemical engineering department chair

With the students’ input through the Chemical Engineering Graduate Board, Adams tailored a series of courses designed to complement programming offered by the UVA Career Center and the Center for Engineering Career Development. Making sure to address areas in which students expressed the most need or interest, Adams presented five sessions over the fall 2019 semester: Effective Teamwork: Composition and Coordination; Motivation from Two Perspectives: Mentors and Protégées; Mentoring, Networks and Networking; Negotiating Job Offers; and Race and Gender: Diversity in STEM.

Graduate Board president Erica Hui, who was then vice president, participated in planning the topics, and attended each one.

“The department was great to provide this training,” Hui said, noting attendance was good, with nearly half of the Ph.D. students showing up at many sessions. “Gabe Adams brought a different skill set that was really helpful. She brought a perspective from her background in business and psychology, but she also knows what it’s like to lead a research group from her own experience.”

Adams has broad expertise in organizational behavior, interpersonal and group dynamics, conflict resolution and more. Hui said every seminar included active learning components that got participants thinking deeply about issues, working in groups and problem solving.

“I hope they came away with a better understanding and feel for the real-world dynamics that they will face in a realistic way but in a protected environment,” Adams said. “Engineers think about how to solve critical problems, and this training gives them the tools they need to implement their solutions and to be effective in their professional lives.”

Unsurprisingly, the course on negotiating was especially popular. A number of fourth-years, who are gearing up for the job search, were there, Hui said.

Adams had them simulate a job negotiation. Acting as either candidate or recruiter, they had to settle on issues such as compensation, vacation and location. Adams discussed how negotiating — or not negotiating — contributes to the gender pay gap, and how negotiators are perceived by others.

The race and diversity workshop also was popular. It focused on the institutions and structures that reinforce inequality and result in discrimination, Adams said.

Gabe Adams headshot

"Engineers think about how to solve critical problems, and this training gives them the tools they need to implement their solutions and to be effective in their professional lives."

Gabrielle Adams, director of executive education, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy

Again, Adams had the students role-play, creating a simulated hierarchical social system with a lot of inequity: one group had wealth and the other had few resources. They observed the interactions and behavior of people within the hierarchy to understand better why inequality persists despite strong motivations to counter it.

They spent a lot of time on communicating effectively in all of the workshops, Hui said, something she found especially useful in mentoring — as both mentor and mentee.

“I have two undergrad researchers working in my lab this year,” she said. “It was helpful to figure out what the needs of the undergraduates are and how we can balance that with my needs and make it so that we both benefit.

“Gabe gave us concrete tips for how to start conversations with our advisors, for example to ask if you’re allocating your time correctly, and to be honest about whether you have too much on your plate.”

Adams said alumni often report wishing they had had more exposure to the kind of training covered in the chemical engineering series while they were still in school.

“It’s commendable that the department would be so proactive in this way,” she said, taking note of the impact of the students’ research and their potential contributions to society.

“These students are working on important problems, and it was great to be able to work with people trying to solve big issues facing the world.”