Professional development: “Leading With a Ph.D.” conference

On January 13, 2018, the Graduate School hosted the third annual Leading with a Ph.D. professional development conference. Opened by Sarah-Jane Leslie, dean of the Graduate School and a 2007 Princeton graduate alum, the conference focused on enhancing graduate students' communication skills via observation and improvisation. Dean Leslie began by offering a bit of encouragement: “You don’t have to do this alone, as I did - we now consciously bring graduate students together to learn these skills.”

Just as writing is an iterative process of learning the style and mechanics of one’s discipline, so is the oral communication of one’s ideas to various audiences. This message was delivered by keynote speaker, Adam Ruben, a 2001 Princeton undergraduate alum who concentrated in molecular biology and then earned his Ph.D. in biology at Johns Hopkins. Ruben is currently the associate director of vaccine stabilization and logistics at Sanaria Inc., where his group is developing a malaria vaccine. This, however, does not stop him from traveling the world to perform his solo comedic show as part of anti-bullying programs, talking about his books to audiences of graduate students or pinball fanatics, and giving lectures on science careers and the public perception of science.

Dr. Ruben’s story of his own career journey and his love to speak to various audiences have provided inspiration to graduate students exploring the many career paths one may take with a Ph.D. Theresa Andrasfay, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Program in Population Studies appreciated Ruben’s advice: “I really enjoyed his observation that you never know whether something will lead to an opportunity, but it doesn't hurt to try, and eventually you will find your way.”

Later in the day, the graduate student participants built communication skills and practiced getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Jake Livingood, a Ph.D. career adviser at M.I.T. and graduate of the Improv Asylum Training Center in Boston, led participants through a series of improv exercises. The activities featured real-life scenarios participants may face such as curveball interview questions, a job talk in front of future colleagues, or a tough Q&A session about their research.

Finally, Stephanie Whetstone from PrincetonWrites, a campus resource available to students for practical writing and speaking support, walked the graduate students through improving their 90-second pitch. Here participants worked on finding the right balance of the general and the specific in their pitches and thought more formally about audience.

Ongoing support for graduate student’s public speaking skills will continue this spring through a monthly workshop called GradSpeak, which is offered in partnership with the Graduate School and PrincetonWrites. For more information please e-mail