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Graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill learn communication skills as part of a boot camp offered by Professional Development.

Preparing the next generation of leaders

The Graduate School’s Professional Development initiative launched a communications boot camp in fall 2021 an effort to best prepare graduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill for the future of work. During the three-part workshop more than a dozen participants, from a variety of disciplines, learned persuasive skills to create effective messaging and relay the importance of their research.  

Rachel DuMez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program, attended the bootcamp. She said being able to clearly communicate about her scientific research is important to show the effects of her work.

Rachel DuMez wearing a hat while standing in a field
Rachel DuMez

“There are a lot of barriers in STEM, and it’s a mysterious field to most people. You say you’re a scientist, and the conversation ends there. That’s not because it’s tricky to understand; it’s because we don’t communicate it well.”

DuMez said it’s important to be able to share research, especially at a large, public university like UNC-Chapel Hill, which is funded, in part, by tax dollars. 

“I think it’s really valuable to learn how to communicate beyond your field and to able to engage with everyone about what your career is. … We need to break down these barriers.” 

Bri McWhorter, from Activate to Captivate, facilitated the workshop. McWhorter relayed several communications tips and tricks, several of which DuMez has begun to implement. 

“One thing I took away was you want to have range in your voice, and you can communicate much better if you’re standing. … It gives you a sense of confidence and more range of your vocals.” 

DuMez said developing a central, opening statement can be a starting point to engage your audience. The tips and trips offered during the workshop are applicable to matter the area of research—from fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to the humanities. 

“That can be the hook,” DuMez said. “You want an opening statement that everyone can say ‘yes’ to.” 

Communication skills key as the future of work evolves

Brian Rybarczyk, The Graduate School’s assistant dean for academic and professional development, said effective communications skills are becoming increasingly important. 

“Communications skills are critical for developing our graduate students as future leaders and a key component of our holistic vision to support students’ professionalism,” he said. 

The communications bootcamp experience gave DuMez the confidence she needed to enter The Graduate School’s Three Minute Thesis competition, in which graduate students have only three minutes to distill their research for a non-academic audience. Her submission was among the top ten entries, as decided by a panel of expert judges. 

“I didn’t really have plans to submit to the Three Minute Thesis before the workshop,” DuMez said. “I like that I had baby steps. I’m really glad that I could do that experience, because I feel like it was a good stepping stone to get outside my comfort zone in terms of communicating in front of a large audience.” 

DuMez has participated in several workshops offered by Professional Development, which aims to prepare graduate students to become the next generation of leaders in our state. 

“I think that if you take advantage of these opportunities, they’re really valuable. They’re really well-built curriculums, really intentional, and it was worth the time I put into it.” … It shows that The Graduate School really does want to support us beyond our academic work,” DuMez said. 

Putting it all together

Marina Sweeney, a Ph.D. candidate in the Gillings School of Global Public Health, said she values the presentation skills she learned during the bootcamp because she’ll be able to apply them in both formal and informal settings. 

Marina Sweeney standing in front of a tree and wearing a pink scarf.
Marina Sweeney

“I know presenting is something I’m going to have to do through the rest of my career. I think that’s true regardless of the direction I go in.” 

Using her voice to convey enthusiasm about her work also re-ignited her love for epidemiology. 

“It was helpful to be reminded that I am really excited to do what I do,” Sweeney said. “I have been able to get some of these skills because of what The Graduate School offers.” 

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