New programs ensure graduate students leave Mason with more than a degree

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For decades, graduate students were left to their own devices to find employment and, even with a degree in hand, successfully landing a full-time position became increasingly more difficult. Historically, graduate students are academically prepared to do a job in their chosen field, but may lack the skills to GET a job, exacerbating the student debt issue and leaving many Americans to wonder about the value of higher education.

It was this dilemma, and the opportunity to change it, that brought Stephanie Bluth, associate director for graduate professional and career development, to George Mason University. In her role, Bluth has established programs that allow Mason to meet state, national, and federal requirements while preparing graduate students for the changing workforce and ensuring that those who come to Mason not only leave with degrees but also with job force readiness skills.

“All a degree does is tell you where the door is, it doesn’t open the door for you,” Bluth said. “Students want to know that when they leave Mason, they can navigate their career journeys with purpose, resilience, and satisfaction. Investing in career and professional preparation programs helps students gain the confidence they need to shine in an interview, connect with industry professionals, and seek mentorship—skills they will use for a lifetime.”

Stephanie Bluth, Associate Director for Graduate Professional and Career Development
Stephanie Bluth, Associate Director for Graduate Professional and Career Development

So what does it take to ensure that when graduate students graduate from Mason, they are prepared to enter the workforce with the requisite knowledge, skills, abilities, and attributes required in their respective occupations? Eighteen months into her position, Bluth has made dramatic progress in opening doors for graduate students. Her implementation of a three-pronged professional development approach adapts to evolving demands, helps students remain competitive, and ensures long-term career sustainability through: 1) career planning; 2) communications and research; and 3) teaching skills.

“Graduate students not only learn about alternative careers and how to find potential employers, but also gain confidence in speaking about their work or research and how to sell themselves,” she said. “Specialized training focusing on skill building and communication practices provides essential guidance, support, and resources to help students build confidence, explore career options, and achieve their professional goals. Mastering these skills empowers students to navigate diverse social and professional scenarios with confidence, ensuring that they can effectively share their ideas, goals, and accomplishments and land that first job or promotion.”

Career Planning
By the time students are accepted to graduate school, they know what interests them and are pursuing specialization. What they might not know, however, is how to marry their academic interests with a profession–which is where career planning comes in. Bluth implemented the Accelerate to Industry (A2i) Program, developed by the Graduate School at North Carolina State University and funded through a National Science Foundation Innovations in Graduate Education grant, which helps graduate students and postdoctoral researchers develop business, leadership, and communication skills through a variety of modules by offering networking events, discussion panels, presentations, workshops, team projects, site visits at local companies, and internships—all of which allow graduate students opportunities to gain valuable experience and to tackle global challenges in partnership with researchers and companies.

Mason’s A2i program, which is open to all graduate students and is led by the Graduate Division in collaboration University Life, demonstrates a continued commitment to prioritizing experiential learning through partnerships with industry, federal, and community stakeholders. By participating, students can explore employment opportunities with regional and national industry partners.

“A2i transforms the classroom by creating experiential learning opportunities to use in the community and then translate them into workforce readiness,” Bluth said. “This model emphasizes that students need more than the accumulation of disciplinary expertise—academic preparation needs to be bolstered by experience and opportunities to empower students to apply their learning through structured activities and experiential learning opportunities.”

In partnership with Graduate Student Life and University Career Services, Bluth launched the Graduate Student Career Conference, which was held earlier this month and had over 100 students registered. This groundbreaking conference provides graduate students the opportunity to not just talk with potential employers, but to work with industry professionals on improving their resumes and writing career statements, as well as work on their interview skills and network with fellow students and potential colleagues.

“When graduate students ask what they can do with their degrees or where they will work, this conference tells them how to transition from student to employee, how to find potential employers, and how to sell what they do,” she said.

Saskia N. Campbell, executive director of University Career Services, agreed and noted that the conference is “an important skill-building professional development opportunity for an interdisciplinary group of graduate students to think about and practice communicating the transferability of their degrees to careers outside of academia, which is the path most will pursue.”

Through these continued collaborations with campus partners, University Career Services and Bluth have implemented the Graduate Career Series that includes multiple graduate student career workshops and events. Each covers topics such as creating individual development plans, tailoring resumes for each position, boosting networking skills for the new global job market, as well as translating graduate experience to employers and previous work experience into new fields.

“I realize there are many more skills that you need to succeed than those taught in regular classes, and I appreciate that Mason offers so many opportunities that contribute to our professional development in those areas,” said Cecilia Barriga Bahamonde, PhD candidate in environmental science and policy. “The Communication Academy is an excellent example of a curated workshop that has helped me improve how I communicate my research in a way that sets me up for success in any academic or professional presentation, from conferences to my dissertation defense. The A2i Immersion Week at North Carolina State University was also filled with empowering workshops, panels, and networking events that helped me be more prepared and confident in securing my dream job.”

Communications and Research
Another initiative championed by Bluth is the Communication Academy. This interactive four-part performance workshop series, which launched in January 2024, is a partnership with Mason’s Communication Center and and Writing Center. The series prepares graduate students to share their knowledge, communicate across disciplines, and connect with broader audiences by teaching them techniques used by professionals and speech writers, helping them learn to perform, communicate, improvise, and respond dynamically to an audience. The Communication Academy supports and prepares students to participate in the Mason Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference held each spring and the Three Minute Thesis (3MT®) competition during the fall semester. The 3MT® is a research communication competition where PhD students present their doctoral research to a non-specialist audience using only one single visual—all in three minutes. Through lessons learned in the Communications Academy, graduates incorporate storytelling and body language while talking about their work, ideas, and research.

Bluth adjusted certain aspects to Mason’s 3MT® to ensure that participating students are eligible for all levels of the program competition, including international events. As a result, Steven Zhou, a PhD candidate in the industrial and organizational psychology program and Mason’s first ever regional 3MT® winner, recently participated in the regional competition hosted by the Southern Council of Graduate Schools in Greenville, South Carolina.

Mason is educating a global workforce, and we need to provide services that directly support that work. Our students are as diverse as the opportunities that a graduate degree from Mason prepares you for,” Bluth said. “A major goal for me is to help students first identify their expansive options and then prepare them to translate all they have learned into the industry position. We don't just produce scholars and thinkers at Mason—we produce doers, creators, and innovators.”

Teaching Skills
Under Bluth’s watch, the Graduate Teaching Academy and and Crystal Anderson, associate director for engaged learning in the Stearns Center for Teaching and Learning, recently launched “SkillCraft: Educating for Impact Community of Practice” which encourages graduate students to develop skills that are crucial to the creation of stimulating learning environments in and beyond the classroom. SkillCraft also provides graduate students with opportunities to document their growth and achievements through certifications at several levels. Workshops introduce the foundations for effective student engagement that can be applied in various educational settings, ranging from small-group recitations for teaching assistants to classroom management for graduate instructors of record, while boot camps help students design teaching materials for courses they teach or hope to teach.

In addition to building partnerships and consortiums within the university, Bluth played a strong role in Mason’s participation in the Graduate Career Consortium which has over 500 members from 220 institutions and organizations across the U.S., Canada, and other countries with a mission to "build a diverse community of professionals and empower them to advance the field of graduate and postdoctoral career and professional development.”

“None of these initiatives were built in a silo, which is what makes them so great,” Bluth said. “Mason is about global education and we have built partnerships that show that the university affects the whole region, not just the students on our campus. And it is through these partnerships that Mason is breaking down walls every day.”

Moving Forward
Bluth’s work, which Senior Associate Provost for Graduate Education Laurence Bray said “has had an invaluable impact on the graduate community”, has only just begun. She is committed to ending the decades-long tradition of graduates entering the workforce alone and instead, outfitting them with a roadmap that will combine their academic learning with work readiness skills and result in individuals who are prepared and can navigate their career journeys with purpose, resilience, and satisfaction.

Mason is educating a global workforce, and we need to provide services that directly support that work. Our students are as diverse as the opportunities that a graduate degree from Mason prepares you for,” Bluth said. “A major goal for me is to help students first identify their expansive options and then prepare them to translate all they have learned into the industry position. We don't just produce scholars and thinkers at Mason—we produce doers, creators, and innovators.”