Chemists in Career Services

Profile: Alexis Thompson, Ph.D. (Chemistry, 2007), Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois

Alexis Thompson made the jump from physical chemistry research into career services-- and she loves her job! Courtesy photo.

  When Alexis Thompson was in grad school studying physical chemistry, she discovered that her passion was helping other people discover their passions. After she got her Ph.D., she landed her first job as a career adviser-- more specifically, as the assistant director of career services in the Graduate College at the University of Illinois. As a career adviser, Alexis spent her time meeting with students to answer questions, help them prepare job applications and perform mock interviews. She also created and hosted professional development programs that addressed students’ needs. Side note: What’s cool is I actually met Alexis in the first year of my Ph.D. program, right around when she was wrapping up her degree. In my first year, I attended one of her career workshops and got to hear about her nontraditional career path. I’m pretty sure this is what first got me thinking about how a Ph.D. qualifies you for more than just academia or industry. Not surprisingly, most university career advisers don’t have doctorates in chemistry. Many come from a background in education or counseling. But Alexis’s background in science makes her uniquely suited for her current position. If you’ve been through grad school, you have tasted and seen the academic world from the inside and can relate to the struggles that science students are going through, in a way that non-science people can’t.­ And though it’s not always apparent, many of the skills you acquire through toiling in the lab and facing research ups and downs—well, they can carry over into your seemingly unrelated career. Alexis can certainly attest to the power of transferable skills. She had quite a learning curve when she started her first job in career services. But she felt confident diving into an entirely new field, thanks to her Ph.D. training. So, how exactly did Alexis take her chemistry Ph.D. and break into career services? Well, without realizing it, several experiences during grad school helped prepare her to make a case for why she was the ideal candidate for the job. Alexis held leadership positions for the chemistry grad student advisory committee and assisted with the planning of session on work/life balance at an ACS national meeting. She also had gotten acquainted with the university’s Graduate College by going there for their services and also serving on a student advisory committee. Those leadership and volunteer experiences made Alexis realize that while she enjoyed research, her real passion was working with people and planning events. Also, as she was seeking out career options for herself, she talked with friends who were also starting to think about careers. “I got excited about helping other grad students with that transition,” she said. These experiences made her realize that career advising would be a good fit for her. Alexis has recently taken on a new job, as the Director of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now her job is to equip postdocs with the resources they need to succeed in their careers. And here’s what she has to say about that: “Quite frankly, it’s my dream job.” It’s hard to describe her typical week or day, Alexis said, because it’s always something different. Some days she researches what resources for postdocs currently exist on campus and meets with people from other campus resource centers to discuss potential collaborations. Other days, she’s meeting with higher-ups to learn what needs each department has, and to get the word out about the resources that will soon be available for both postdocs and advisers. And of course, she regularly meets with postdocs, to chat, give advice, listen and answer questions they have.

Career counselors develop professional development programs, such as CareerStart, which Alexis Thompson developed to help students explore career options.

Alexis also sets aside time to develop web resources, write, and read about current trends on postdocs. Her advice to others interested in career services:
  • Talk to career services staff at your institution to learn about the field— they may be able to help you connect with others in the field.
  • Organize professional development events as part of your student organization—bring in people to talk about careers in a certain area or practice interviewing.
  • Keep up with national news and trends in higher education like the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Alexis and I also chatted for a while about networking, informational interviews, and the importance of finding a job that you love, which, if you’ve read my dream job post, you know I am all about. Which reminded me: About a year ago I attended a “CareerSTART” session that Alexis hosted through the Grad College, which was all about finding the career that’s right for you. It dawned on me that so much of what I have to say about finding a career you love all goes back to the seeds that were planted at that workshop. And I have Alexis, career adviser extraordinaire, to thank for that!

Author: Christine Herman

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