Graduate programs are well-suited to preparing students for a career in academia, but only 23 percent of postdoctoral researchers in life sciences pursue a tenure-track position (Denton, Borrego, and Knight, 2022). So, informing graduate students about non-academic career choices helps them navigate their career trajectories early on in graduate school. An approach to achieve this goal is by organizing a career exploration event where graduate students can learn about non-academic career paths and establish connections with industry professionals. This approach has been successful and adopted by many institutions and scientific societies. In our case, the first career exploration event was organized in 2016 by the University of Kansas graduate students from the Department of Molecular Biosciences and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In 2019, the Chemistry Department joined the effort and helped organize the third symposium. As former organizers of the Scientists Exploring Non-Academic Career Choices (SEARCH) Symposia, we have compiled this guide to provide you with a foundational framework for your own career exploration event, saving you time and effort. So, let’s get into it. 

Before you start planning the event, it is important to answer three questions:

  1. Why do you want to host a career symposium?  

Think about what gap there is at your university and what you want your audience to gain from your event. These answers can help determine what format will work best for the symposium. 

Possible motivations What you can do
Give audience the opportunity to expand their networks– Invite a wide variety of people external to the university
– Have a networking or poster session so visiting professionals can interact freely with your audience
Expose your audience to different career pathsHave a select group of professionals participate in panels or give talks to share their career journeys and give advice 
Provide your audience with resources they will need in the job search process Incorporate hands-on sessions such as:
– CV/resume reviews 
– Mock interviews
– Workshops on navigating the job market for international students and postdocs 
– Speed networking 
  1. Who is your audience? 

Is the event for STEM PhD and master’s students, or are you also considering non-STEM graduate programs? Do you want to open up the event to neighboring universities or even to all universities? The answer to these questions will guide not only the type of event you host (in person versus virtual) but also who can assist in organizing the event, what types of speakers you will invite, and what fundraising sources you can seek out. 

As you are considering this, begin to build a team by reaching out to students and postdocs in other departments to gauge interest in who is likely to attend, and who might help organize the event. Once there are people interested in getting involved, you can begin to schedule planning meetings.

  1. How will you structure the event? 

Since 2020, a key question for organizing any event is whether you would like to host it in person or virtually. If networking is the main purpose of the event, in-person may be best. However, if your main goal is to expose your audience to a broader array of careers or provide resources, these objectives could be met just as effectively virtually while making the event more accessible to attendees from all over. 

Another consideration is the timeline for planning the event. Fundraising and planning for an in-person event with many external speakers takes significant time and effort, while a virtual symposium could be organized with minimal budget on a shorter time frame. 

At least six months before the event date:

Once you have answered the questions above, it is time to assemble your organizing team and start planning the event. For the purpose of this guide, we will assign the main tasks to four committees: content organization, fundraising, logistics, and communication. Next, we will walk you through the major decision points and milestones each of our hypothetical committees should reach in the course of planning the event. 

  1. Content organization
    • Create the event structure and decide if you want to include keynote speakers, panels, Q&A, informal networking time, and/or workshops. 
    • Search for keynote speakers and panelists and finalize a list, keeping in mind that an effective career symposium should feature diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and demographics.   
    • Assign the invited speakers into panels as you receive confirmations, and identify whether there are any remaining gaps that need to be filled. 
    • Include professional development seminars or workshops. Reach out to your university career services or graduate advising groups for facilitator recommendations. To support the international students at your university, contact your university legal services, international student services office, or independent immigration lawyers to see if they can provide a session covering special considerations for international students.
  1. Logistics
    • If you are hosting an in-person event,
      • Allow people to register at least six weeks in advance, which will help you estimate the number of attendees and determine the appropriate venue and catering budget.  
      • Decide on the event date. Before you reach out to the speakers, review national and religious holidays to ensure the event does not overlap with these dates. 
      • Venue reservation may require a serious budget, especially if you want to book multiple rooms. For a less expensive option, you could take advantage of venues at your university. In addition, through the university you will have access to well-equipped facilities with technological tools and on-site IT assistance.  
      • Catering is an important aspect of organizing the event. Include a question in the registration form about any food restrictions, so you are able to accommodate any food allergies or preferences. 
      • Ensure your event is inclusive by providing accessibility accommodations. 
      • Gather materials for the event by printing name tags, buying name tag holders, and designing and printing banners. Create a symposium booklet with the event schedule and any important information regarding the event. Ask speakers for a short biography and headshot to include in the booklet.
    • Source platforms if you are hosting a virtual event. Compare options based on what is available for free through your university or what is available externally for a fee, keeping in mind what features you need to accomplish your goals. Ensure all attendees can access the event regardless of their affiliation with your university. 
  1. Fundraising
    • Estimate the budget for the event, considering registrant numbers, venue fees, IT equipment, printing, catering, and speakers. Out-of-state speakers require travel bookings and hotel reservations as well as transportation to and from hotels and airports. Local speakers may require gas reimbursement.
    • Determine where you will hold the money you fundraise and how you plan to keep track of it. If you choose to hold your money in a university-associated account, ensure you understand the rules for what you can and can not pay for and how to access the money before you begin asking for donations. 
    • Identify external funding sources, such as scientific organizations and professional societies, research programs, grants, and industry sponsorships. There are many organizations and companies that would be excited to sponsor a career event in exchange for the opportunity to build a relationship with students at the university. Some companies already have programs where you can apply for funding.
    • Identify internal funding sources, such as relevant departments within the university, graduate and international student services offices, or university fundraising programs. 
    • Draft a form letter explaining the goals of your symposium and why you think it would be of interest to the audience. You will use this letter for fundraising and inviting speakers. 
    • Begin to fundraise far in advance of the event so you can finalize decisions, such as how many non-local speakers to invite or whether you need to charge admission to your event.
  1. Communication
    • Promote your event by sending emails to graduate program officers, posting flyers on departmental advertisement boards, and taking advantage of social media, such as Twitter and LinkedIn. When you confirm your keynote speaker and event dates, update the flyers so potential donors and attendees are kept up-to-date.
    • Figure out how to collect data, such as registrations before the event and feedback after the event.
    • Share updates on your funding efforts and confirmed speakers with donors and graduate programs. 
    • Reach out to the university communication and media department for media coverage or hire a photographer.
    • Create an event website, where you can post the event schedule and list of speakers and sponsors.

Two weeks before the event:

  1. For virtual or in-person events,
    • Reach out to your speakers with the final schedule and any other important information.
    • Assign tasks and share them with the organizers.  
  2. If you are hosting an in-person event,
    • Print essential documents (e.g., the booklets, name tags, and banners). 
    • Print the registrants list to keep track of who attended the event.
    • Inform your speakers about the transportation schedule
    • Exchange contact information with representatives of the venue, catering, photography, and IT.
    • Invite your speakers for dinner with the organizers the night before the event. This is a great way to break the ice and meet your speakers in person. 
  3. If you are hosting a virtual event,
    • Test your platform and troubleshoot any problems. 

On the day of the event:

  1. If you are hosting an in-person event,
    • Arrive at the event venue early, at least an hour before the event starts.
    • Test the equipment, including computers, projectors, pointers, and microphones.  
    • Set up your stations with name tags, banners, and booklets.
    • Keep in touch with the representatives from catering, the venue, photography, and IT department. 
    • Ensure your speakers are being taken care of throughout the event.
  2. If you are hosting a virtual event,
    • Connect to the platform an hour before the event starts.
    • Invite your speakers for a 10-minute meet and greet with the organizers.
    • Test the presentations and audio on the platform
    • Keep the IT representative updated as you go through the event.

Within two weeks after the event:

  1. Send a thank you email to all donors, speakers, and attendees for their support and attendance. 
  2. Reimburse your speakers in a timely manner. 
  3. Design and share a survey to gather feedback on the event. Analyze and store the data for future organizers to use. 
  4. Meet with your team one more time to gather their feedback and tie up any loose ends before wrapping up the symposium. 
  5. Make sure all of the documents (receipts, important contact points, funding spreadsheets, speakers list, email templates, etc.) are up-to-date and shared on Google Drive. These documents will be helpful for future organizers. 
  6. Deposit any leftover funds into your student organization financial account or into your department account under the symposium’s name.  

Want to learn more about SEARCH?

Overall, the University of Kansas SEARCH Symposia invited 53 diverse speakers, raised more than $40,000, and hosted more than 250 attendees. Our speakers represented a broad array of careers and employers, including the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Estée Lauder Companies, and Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health, who introduced our attendees to the wide variety of careers possible after completing their graduate studies at the University of Kansas. 

We would like to acknowledge the SEARCH symposia organizers, without which the events would not have happened. We also would like to thank our donors, including the Genetics Society of America, and sponsors who financially supported our events.


U.S. postdoctoral careers in life sciences, physical sciences and engineering: Government, industry, and academia – PMC

Graduate student and postdoctoral leaders from the Early Career Scientist Committees of the GSA.

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