PhD Career Exploration Fellow Spotlight: Nikhil Dharan (Hosted by Bucks County Community College)

In the spring of 2022, 34 PhD students from a range of academic disciplines at Penn participated virtually in Career Services’ PhD Career Exploration Fellowship (CEF) program, where they were matched with a host organization to learn about different careers beyond the professoriate. Nikhil Dharan, a PhD candidate in History & Sociology of Science, was placed as a Fellow with Bucks County Community College. Read about Nikhil’s experience in the CEF below!

Nikhil Dharan HeadshotDescribe your experience working with your host:

Dr. Patricia Smallacombe, a Penn PhD alumnus, became a real mentor to me during my fellowship. She took great pride in working at a community college and in grant-writing work, which brings together stakeholders from across campus and the community. This enthusiasm translated into the informational interviews I did with several of Patricia’s dedicated colleagues, as well as sitting in on grant and staff meetings. I also had a chance to go up to Bucks County and meet Patricia in-person for a campus tour. The whole experience was really valuable and affirming, and left me feeling re-energized about the possibilities of higher education.

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

I learned about many opportunities and careers that I could envision for myself within the larger higher education ecosystem. All of the professionals I spoke to followed unconventional routes towards their current roles, and seemed to embrace the community college as a space for the non-traditional. Moreover, they were all deeply invested in students being able to thrive. Their roles varied greatly, but mixed administration, student and community engagement, and personal passion projects in interesting ways. I’m not sure yet exactly what kind of role I would want for myself at a community college, but the balance and intention really appeal to me.

How does your CEF experience benefit your future career plans?

I think the CEF opened a door for me to connect with a different group of dedicated scholar-educators than I normally would in my day-to-day life as a graduate student. It broadened how I view what I can do within the higher education space, and will certainly impact what sorts of jobs I’ll apply for once I go on the market.

What was the most valuable part of your CEF experience?

This fellowship was a crucial reminder, especially as I was getting deeper into my own research, that there are a lot of people who share my values that are doing incredible, collaborative work. It made me realize that getting a PhD is not just about actualizing my own niche interests, but also about preparing myself to contribute to a broader mission or objective.

Top reason PhD students should apply to the CEF:

Like most things in graduate school, the CEF is a chance to learn something new. But with the mentorship and support you’ll receive from your host and Career Services, it’s also an invitation to see yourself as much more than a researcher.

By Jacob Myers
Jacob Myers 2021-2022 PhD Professional Development Fellow, Career Exploration Fellowship Program