Logo: University of Southern California

Faculty Mentors Grad Students on Academic Careers

Mentoring Forum Will Be Held Every Semester
Bob Calverley
May 04, 2009 —

More than 100 USC Viterbi School doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows attended a mentoring forum to learn how to successfully pursue academic careers.

“This was an obvious success,” said Maja Mataric, professor of computer science who is senior associate dean for research. “The panelists were all wonderful and the audience received them enthusiastically. We had to usher people out the door after 6:20 PM, more than two hours after we started.” 

In addition to Mataric, four faculty, Andrea Armani, assistant professor of chemical engineering; Urbashi Mitra, professor of electrical engineering; Krishna Nayak, associate professor of electrical engineering; and Cyrus Shahabi, associate professor of computer science all made presentations, participated in a panel discussion and answered questions. 

Mentor Forum.web
Andrea Armani addresses doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows at the mentoring forum on careers in academia.

The five faculty are at different stages of their academic careers, but all share a strong commitment to mentoring.  The senior members of the panel have been recognized with Mellon Mentoring awards and Nayak had just been promoted to associate professor a few days before the event.   

In the forum, the five faculty covered everything from the mechanics of applying for an academic position, to the importance of believing in themselves, to how they should balance concerns outside of academia such as family life and support networks, to proper attire when seeking an academic position.

Armani advised the would-be academics to be prepared to summarize themselves in three to five minutes, or even less, advice that was echoed by several others.  She called it “the elevator pitch.”

“You never know when you’re going to have the opportunity to present yourself to an important professor who may be filling a position.  You could find yourself on the same elevator,” she said.

Nayak said that while publishing a quantity of papers was clearly important, it would be better if at least one was a very good paper that got noticed and which the student could build upon.

“I kind of got known in the area of real-time MRI (magnetic resonance imaging),” he said suggesting that the students and post docs carve out their own niche rather than focusing on exactly the same area as their advisors.  “And you should always take the quality of your work very seriously.”

Margie Berti, associate dean for postdoctoral programs, said she thought “being entrepreneurial” was an important attribute for future academics.  After joining a faculty, when the start-up package has dwindled, young faculty members have to scramble to fund their research.

“You not only have to write proposals, you have to be able to win some of those competitions,” she said.  “You can learn how to do that by talking to senior faculty.  You need to learn what life as an academic is really like.  You probably think you already know, but you really do have to talk to faculty.

“That’s what we’re doing here,” she concluded.

Buoyed by the success of the mentoring forum, Mataric said that she and Berti plan to make it a once-per-semester event for Ph.D. candidates and post doctoral fellows.