Endless pivots in the 2020 curriculum and academic environment inspired a University of New Mexico group to rally – ensuring graduate students had the tools needed to search for jobs in an increasingly competitive market.

The coronavirus pandemic has made life as a graduate student very challenging, particularly for those who are close to completing their graduate educations. The economic recession is hitting higher education budgets hard, making competition for fewer academic jobs soar as schools cancel or postpone searches.

“This last year was stressful, and that stress was exacerbated by the threat of joblessness post-graduation. In May 2020 I finished law school and dove into studying for the bar exam, it's been a roller coaster of emotions. Even when I learned I passed the NM Bar, I was still struck with the possibility of not finding work.” – Violette Cloud, 2020 UNM School of Law graduate.

In an attempt to try to help UNM’s graduate students seeking employment navigate the tumultuous job market, the College of Arts and Sciences moved quickly to offer workshops focused on applying for research jobs outside of academia. Julia Fulghum special assistant to the Dean of Arts and Sciences for Graduate Education, and Gabe Sanchez, director of the Center for Social Policy (CSP), led the effort.

"Fortunately, I had put together job market preparation courses for the Fellows of the Center in the past and was able to coordinate workshops on non-academic jobs for social science Ph.D. students,” Sanchez explains. “We moved fast to adapt those in order to better serve this situation.”

The workshops focused on how students can make themselves more attractive to non-academic institutions and included networking with UNM alumni who shared their experiences and careers in applied research. Sanchez and his team opened up the workshops beyond the Fellows of the Center to help as many students as possible in this tough job environment.

“As a Black woman, it was very important that I not only felt prepared but also confident and competitive on both the academic and applied policy job markets,” said Brooke Abrams, a participant and political science doctoral candidate. “It was equally imperative that my lived experiences and social identity were reflected in the panelists and that I had the opportunity to learn from scholars of color, especially women of color, about how to successfully prepare for and navigate predominantly white male-centered spaces. That is exactly what CSP’s Annual Job Market Prep series achieves which is why I truly believe it is second to none.”

The workshops made a difference for at least two of UNM’s graduate students who have since landed jobs with national research centers. That they were able to secure such impressive positions prior to completing their doctoral dissertations – and in the midst of preparing to do so – speaks to the caliber of the students and the job market prep workshops. Abrams started a position with Abt Associates as their Senior Analyst in their Social and Economic Policy (SEP) Division and Violette Cloud, a 2020 UNM School of Law graduate and Psychology doctoral student, accepted a position with Policy Research Associates as a Project Associate II on their Criminal Justice and Behavioral Health teams.

“If there is one thing I learned as a Fellow, it is that our colleagues are deep reservoirs of wisdom and generosity. As a first-generation college student and queer-identified Native American woman a JD/Ph.D. was not an expected path for me, but when we have support systems and mentors that care, anything is possible,” Cloud said. “I am grateful to my colleagues in the Fellowship, the Center leadership, and the research mentors I have had the honor of working with. I look forward to being a resource to others on this path.”

Both women are Center for Social Policy Fellows who participated in the applied research jobs workshops and have extensive experience conducting research while being students at UNM. This includes research published in both academic journals and more public-facing outlets, including policy briefs and blogs. Both graduates have also worked on contract research which gave them a better understanding of the challenges involved with working at applied research.

“In contrast to the academic job market where publications are the bread and butter, the applied field needs to know you have the tangible skills to do the job,” Cloud explained. “While the workshops helped me finesse my resume and interview skills, the Fellowship provided me opportunities to demonstrate tangible skills, from policy analysis and data management to client interfacing and team coordination.”

“UNM’s Center for Social Policy was foundational in equipping me with the skills to hyper-specialize in a wide range of policy topics, methodologies, and nonwestern approaches to ethnoracial and social disparities which makes me a unique thought partner in my new position at Abt,” Abrams added. “Overall, CSP was key to both connecting my academic research interests to my passion for applied policy work and building lasting relationships with other scholars of color who I now consider family.”

Sanchez attributes the graduates’ success not just to the program and workshop, but to their own unique skills, drive, compassion and ambition.

“Our Center has a lot of experience preparing graduate students for applied research careers and I have learned a lot over the years about the steps students can take to make themselves more attractive to these types of employers,” Sanchez said. “Brooke and Violette have done everything we have suggested over the years to improve their skills and marketability and their success makes us very proud. They are both motivated to use their training to improve the lives of people from their respective communities and these jobs they are starting will allow them to do just that.”

Abrams and Cloud will share their wisdom with others as speakers in one of the next workshops on job market preparation put together by the Center for Social Policy.