Staff Q&A with Julie Miller Vick

Julie Miller Vick

Peter Tobia

In many ways, Julie Miller Vick’s job is about making connections. As Senior Associate Director in Penn’s Career Services office, Vick links Ph.D. and postdoctoral students with opportunities beyond Penn, from academic jobs to employment outside of academia—and everything in-between.

Specifically, Vick advises students in the graduate program in the School of Arts & Sciences, as well as biomedical graduate students, Annenberg, Wharton, and Engineering doctoral students, PennDesign graduate students, and postdocs.

Vick’s team—which includes one other full-time employee and two part-time staffers—sees about 1,000 appointments annually, including in-person advising, telephone appointments, and mock interviews. She also runs speaker panels, workshops, orientations, and presentations both for grad students and employers. In short, Vick is part advisor, part listener, and part cheerleader.

“On my door I have this quote from Thomas Friedman who spoke recently: ‘The world doesn’t care about what you know, but more about what you can do with what you know.’ I really think that’s important,” says Vick. “Nobody is going to just hire you because you have a degree from Penn or any place. You’ve got to be able to talk about what you have to offer them. And so part of it is helping students develop their narrative.”

This year, however, marks her last as a full-time employee: Vick is retiring in mid-July, and then will work two days a week for the next year, starting in September.

A librarian by training with a master’s from Simmons College, Vick began working at Penn in the fall of 1976, after her then-boyfriend (and now husband) got into medical school at Thomas Jefferson University. She took a job at Van Pelt Library, got a second master’s degree (in folklore) and in 1986, began working part-time in the Career Services office, moving to full-time in 1999.

“I might see an architect and then the next appointment is going to be a Ph.D. student in comp lit, then a postdoc in immunology, then a student getting a master’s in environmental studies—everything is different and I’m learning all the time,” says Vick. “I’ve seen a lot of changes, too. We certainly have many more international students. We have many more women students. I’m a person who loves to connect with people. I love to learn about others, and so for me, it’s been great that way.”

Q: Why do people come to see you in the Career Services office?
A: People want very specific help on their job hunting material—CVs, if they’re looking for an academic job or postdoc, résumés, cover letters for faculty jobs, research statements, teaching philosophies. Some people want to come and brainstorm about what they might do. Many come in well before they graduate because they want to touch base. Many Ph.D.s decide that they don’t want to be faculty or they came here knowing they don’t want to be faculty members but they love their research and so they’re interested in consulting, or they want to be in something related to their field, if possible. People want to network but they don’t know how. Students and alumni and postdocs come in because they have interviews and we do mock interviews. There are a number of students and alumni—and particularly people who’ve been out for a while—who haven’t gotten their career together or want to make a significant change. Pat Rose, our director, says that what we do is information-based career advising, so it, indeed, is the student’s or postdoc’s or alum’s job search but we provide information, resources, certainly moral support and encouragement.

Q: You’ve said that Penn has a wholistic approach to Ph.D.s and postdocs. What did you mean by that?
A: One of the most important characteristics for being a career advisor for anyone, but certainly for graduate students, is to be optimistic and positive, not in any sort of fake way, but to help people gain the confidence that they should have from being in a program here at Penn, and to use the abilities and the skills that they have but they might not have tested as much as they should, or even be aware that they have. Sometimes, just in a session, I can look at someone’s résumé or CV and determine they’ve done quite a lot. In a way, I think that helps empower students to look at what they’ve done and be able to verbalize it because a lot of what job hunting is, is being able to tell your story succinctly but effectively.

Q: The past few years haven’t been great economically. For Ph.D.s and postdocs, have those markets also been a little bit shaky?
A: Well, it feels like the market’s getting a little better, so that’s always wonderful. Definitely 2008, 2009, 2010 were tough years. They were particularly tough for two groups of people my team works with. They were tough for Ph.D.s, particularly in the humanities. Some humanities positions were cut or weren’t maintained or many of the jobs that were available were just adjunct jobs. The other area that was really challenging during the earlier days of the recession was working with the School of Design students, especially architecture and planning. This year, though, our School of Design career fair had more employers attend than we’ve had in a long time. All the time, but especially during a tough economic time, it’s so important to let students know how crucial it is to connect with others, to network, to let people know you’re looking, to do small contract or consulting jobs if you can get them or create them yourself so that you get some experience and people get to know who you are and what you have to offer.

Q: Are there just simply fewer jobs in academia for people who have Ph.D.s in the humanities?
A: Certainly, there were some places where they cut the number of people in a humanities department or I think in some situations, even closed a department or a part of a department. Universities like Penn, a number of years ago, became much more selective about the people they accepted into their doctoral programs because they wanted to get the best people who would complete their degree. Then they wanted to fund those people so they were able to do their work without getting other jobs. At the same time, universities were trying to cut costs by hiring more people as adjuncts, than as tenure track professors. Not everybody wants to be a professor by the time they finish their degree. Some people decide that life looks great and others say it’s not for them. Nowadays, I think people are more focused on what they want to do and that’s why I think for some Ph.D.s, it can be quite devastating to either find it’s really hard to get a job or they really don’t want to do this anymore.

Q: What changes have you seen?
A: I think one thing that’s notable is how many universities have organized and standardized their procedures for bringing postdocs in, paying them, the benefits they receive, and the experience that they get. … Even though there’s a lot of information on our website on applying and negotiating, so often what students want is to talk to somebody. They still want to interact with us, whether we do it in person,
by email, by phone, by Skype. One of the great things that we offer is individual advising. Will this change in the future? It’s possible. I think it’s already changing at some places that are strapped financially.

Q: You seem to really enjoy your work. What’s led you to retire now?
A: In no particular order, I became a grandmother this year, and my daughter and her husband live in Toronto. My family’s all spread out now. My younger son is in Los Angeles, my middle son is in Philadelphia, my mother’s in Boston and is approaching 91, and I’m always trying to fit these trips in. I also wanted to have some more time for myself. I do other kinds of writing in addition to [a column for the] Chronicle of Higher Education and I wanted to do more with that. I’ve had about 20 pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer and I’d like to do more of that kind of writing. I want to work on a family tree. I’m working with a tutor in modern Greek. I have this expression: Go out while the lights are on. I have amazing colleagues, both in this office and across the University, but I’m ready.

Originally published on June 6, 2013