Student Support

Preparing graduate students for the future of work outside academia

CareerWell, a new program at the UNC Graduate School, builds core business skills and valuable professional networks.

A Carolina student faces a crowd at a commencement ceremony.

CareerWell, a new program at the UNC Graduate School, builds core business skills and valuable professional networks.

A new program at The Graduate School builds core business skills and valuable professional networks.

Mary Learner spent her graduate school career studying Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers
while Brianna Vickerman was in a chemistry lab studying the delivery of therapeutic drugs. In the
course of obtaining doctorates in English and comparative literature and chemistry, the two haven’t
typically crossed paths. However, both women, along with students who are getting advanced degrees
in fields like journalism, public health and government, are participating in The Graduate School at
UNC-Chapel Hill’s new program CareerWellOpens in new window this spring.

Students across the country have felt anxious while trying to launch their careers in a depressed job
market. Despite having excellent academic mentors, many haven’t known where to turn for help as
they look for jobs outside of academia. Leaders in The Graduate SchoolOpens in new window observed changes in the job
market and were considering options for additional career training services. Then, the 2020 economic
downturn and a struggling job market, that’s still down about 8.4 million jobsOpens in new window compared to pre-pandemic
numbers, made the program an immediate priority.

Preparing students for the future of work

The Graduate School established CareerWell in September 2020 to equip students with the key business
skills and professional networks that are needed to launch successful careers in a rapidly changing
labor market, heighten their job security and advance their career prospects.

“Too often schools across the nation lack the resources to adequately train students in key business
skills and provide them with the relevant work experiences that can make them more competitive in a
difficult job market,” said Jason Cramer, director of experiential professional development in The
Graduate School. “By providing this training and facilitating valuable relationships with outside partners,
CareerWell is helping our students to ‘future-proof’ their careers, or develop the skills to navigate future
career difficulties in a rapidly changing job market. We are equipping our students to become leaders
who are well-prepared to take on tomorrow’s challenges.”

Any graduate student may enroll in the courses that are offered through CareerWell. In addition to a
series of business courses that may be taken in any order, the program offers seminars, a
multidisciplinary team internship opportunity, and a certificate known as the Graduate Certificate in
Innovation, Leadership and Management. Participation in the program also brings students close to
professionals from business, nonprofit and government settings who are interested in recruiting new
employees from the program.

“I want to be flexible and creative as I make a career for myself,” said Learner, a 2017 Carolina DigitalOpens in new window
Humanities Fellow and current Ph.D. candidate in the College of Arts & Sciences, department of
English and comparative literature. “Through CareerWell I’ve had the opportunity to work on an
interdisciplinary team writing a sample bid proposal for potential biotech clients. The experience has
shown me that the skills I’ve developed in the humanities — like effective communication, creativity and
problem solving — are valuable, in-demand skills that I can apply in other settings.”

Building the skills that the market demands

The team internships offered through CareerWell are distinct in the way that they prioritize teamwork
across disciplines. While some programs offer internships and group projects on behalf of outside
partners, these opportunities are typically offered through a department or school where participants
have similar academic backgrounds and areas of expertise. The projects run through CareerWell are
multidisciplinary by design, and students are actively recruited from across Carolina’s schools and
departments when assembling teams. Team projects seek to bring students from STEM, humanities
and other backgrounds together, to collaborate as they will need to in their future careers.

CareerWell has facilitated four team projects to this point — two in partnership with Enzerna
Biosciences and two with PRA Health Sciences. The four teams have included 20 students who hail
from 10 different schools and the College of Arts & Sciences. Through the Team Collaboration
internship with PRA Health Sciences, Learner and her team are developing an exploratory landscape
analysis that the company can use as they create future bid proposals. To create this report, Learner’s
team has interviewed professionals from emerging biotechnology companies to learn what they are
most interested in seeing in bid proposals from clinical research organizations, like PRA. This
experience has allowed students to apply the skills, like writing, that they developed in their degree
programs, while learning new skills and gaining in-depth knowledge of a major industry.

Career successOpens in new window requires more than possessing strong technical acumen. It’s increasingly important for
employees to be proficient in a wide range of competencies such as interdisciplinary teamwork,
leadership, project management and professional communication. Carolina is committed to training
students to demonstrate the skills needed to navigate a challenging job market so they can build
successful long-term careers.

“I want to be a leader in my field. Skills like knowing how to work effectively with people from different
professional backgrounds are necessary to succeed in the real world,” said Vickerman, a 2020 HiskeyOpens in new window
Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences, department of chemistry, who recently defended her
dissertation. “CareerWell is allowing me to build leadership skills now, in a more nurturing environment,
so that I can take them into my career from the very beginning.”

An inside look at the workplace

Another unique aspect of the program is the degree to which external partners are directly involved.
Professionals from for-profit, nonprofit and government organizations lead many of the courses and
seminars offered through the program. CareerWell partners are also directly involved in the design of
group projects, which ensures that the projects will provide students with a realistic experience of what
will be needed from them in the workforce.

Michael Levy is one such CareerWell partner. He serves as CEO of the nonprofit Digital Health Institute
for Transformation, has been an adjunct faculty member in The Graduate School since 2019 and is an
executive-in-residence for CareerWell.

“There’s been a nationwide gap in opportunities for students to collaborate across disciplines in real-
world settings. CareerWell provides these valuable opportunities and runs projects in a way that
guarantees they are mutually beneficial for the students and the organizations involved,” said Levy.
“Projects are jointly designed by school leaders and external partners, which ensures that needs are
aligned, positions students for success and makes the program valuable to its partners.”

Since the program’s launch in September 2020, roughly 250 students have enrolled in CareerWell
courses and 200 students have registered to participate in team projects and other non-course activities. Interested students may submit a formOpens in new window to register for future CareerWell programming.

CareerWell is less than a year old, but the interest from graduate students already outpaces program
capacity. With CareerWell, donors and corporate partners have the unique opportunity to help develop
an innovative program that benefits students from all fields of study. In time and with additional
resources, The Graduate School plans to expand CareerWell to support Carolina alumni. By getting
involved now, partners can lend the support and expertise needed to grow CareerWell’s offerings and
create opportunities for more students and alumni.

To learn more about CareerWell, please contact Jason CramerOpens in new window, director for experiential
professional development in The Graduate School.

CareerWell is currently supported by Enzerna Biosciences.

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