PhD Career Exploration Fellow Spotlight: Anna Todd (Hosted by Penn’s Online Learning Initiative)

In the spring of 2020, 36 PhD students from a range of academic disciplines at Penn participated in Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship (CEF) program, where they were matched with a host organization in Philadelphia to learn about different careers beyond academia. Anna Todd, a PhD candidate in History, was placed as a Fellow with Penn’s Online Learning Initiative (OLI). Read about her experience in the CEF below!

What was your fellowship experience like working with your host? What activities did you engage in?

OLI was my top choice for the fellowship because of my interest in the methods and future of online learning, so I was thrilled to be assigned to work with Dr. Rebecca Stein (OLI’s Executive Director) and her team. When the university shifted to remote learning after Spring Break due to the growing threat of COVID-19, my placement took on a greater relevance and immediacy. As a part of my shadowing experience, I sat in on several meetings of online learning professionals from across Penn’s twelve schools as they discussed plans for shifting coursework online and addressed emerging issues related to technology, access, and training. Dr. Stein made sure to build in time for the two of us to debrief after every meeting I observed and provided me with further insight into the business, methods, and mission of online learning. I was also given the opportunity to review and offer feedback on OLI resources for students and educators, and I met twice with OLI’s Associate Director of Online Instructional Design, Jessica Morris, to learn about her role and the field of instructional design more broadly.

What did you learn from this opportunity (about yourself, about career fields, the job search, etc.)?

At the most basic level, this fellowship gave me the opportunity to explore a field that I was interested in, but previously had little direct knowledge of or experience with. I gained immense insight into everything from online learning technologies to the regulatory environment of distance education and the components of instructional design. On another level, I learned a lot about myself and my strengths. Through various assessments and activities built into the program, I was able to further clarify the type of work I enjoy and find validation in the skills that I already have. This insight, in addition to resume and job search coaching, has given me greater confidence that I could succeed in a non-faculty environment if I choose to take that path after graduation.

How does your CEF experience benefit your future career plans?

The CEF experience offered me a pathway into a potential career and an opportunity to make myself a better candidate and future professional. When I think about my career options, I’m most excited by opportunities that engage my passion for teaching and learning. My graduate education is already preparing me for a potential future as an educator, but that is only one component of the field of higher education. Through my time at OLI I learned more about the business and operations of online education which both complements my teaching experience and expands my instructional competencies. Participating in this program has given me the chance to become a more well-rounded educator and a more flexible higher-ed professional, and that personal development will serve me well regardless of the specific career I choose to pursue after the PhD.

What was the most valuable part of your CEF experience?

The most valuable part of my CEF experience was the one-on-one mentoring it provided. Dr. Stein was an attentive host who not only offered me insight into the field and engaged with my ideas, but also took an interest in my own work, well-being, and future. The fellowship also served as my introduction into informational interviews, another type of one-on-one mentoring, in a sense. These conversations were incredibly productive and allowed me to begin building a network and taking actionable steps toward my career goals.

Top reason PhD students should apply to the CEF?

PhD students should apply to the CEF because it’s an accessible, flexible way to explore a future career that doesn’t interfere with degree progress. The program’s career mentors are enthusiastic about engaging with graduate students and are willing to work with you to make the experience what you want and need it to be. There are, understandably, a wide range of emotions that can accompany a graduate student’s decision to explore non-faculty careers, but this programs offers an easy and enjoyable way to do that while building in assessments, skills, and collaborations that will polish your resume and allow you to get to know your working self better in the process.

For more information about Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship, please visit our program webpage here.

By Helen Pho
Helen Pho Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs