Creating a Third Space for Conversation and Reflection

In the calmest of times, graduate school is challenging. Graduate students contend with impostor syndrome (“When will they figure out I don’t know everything?”), uncertainty (“Will I get an academic job? Do I even want an academic job? What do I do with this degree?”) and transitions (“Should I move apartments again? Do I spend the summer on internship, at home, or in the lab?”). In a pandemic, all those uncertainties are magnified because they exist in broader uncertainty. Even the experts can’t tell us yet exactly what will happen or what we should do.

Our interdisciplinary graduate student learning community focused on STEM doctoral students, and we intentionally designed it to offer a professional development experience for them. Our hope in establishing that community was that by engaging across interdisciplinary lines, graduate students would build their professional identities, learn to communicate to people outside their primary disciplines and build connections that stretched across campus beyond their home labs and departments. None of us could have possibly anticipated how important this community would become for both the students and faculty during the pandemic.

The faculty spent one year designing the curriculum and recruiting the first cohort of participants from the graduate programs in chemistry and psychology. We began meeting as a group in fall 2019, coming together in person every three weeks over the next few months. We discussed role conflict, key professional skills and how to develop them, and specific steps graduate students might take as they plan out their career, given a realistic assessment of their opportunities and their constraints. For example, we filled out individual development plans, or IDPs (and this IDP, too), and refined our SMART goals. We voiced fears and uncertainties, and we listened.


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Authors: Rose Marie Ward, Amanda B. Diekman, Ellen Yezierski, and Stacey Lowery Bretz