Parting Thoughts: Finding a Hole in the Shape of Me

 May 1, 2015


Courtnea Rainey, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and neuroscience, reflects on how Duke’s professional development programs helped her discover her professional identity.

When I began graduate school five-and-a-half years ago, like many entering Ph.D students, I had a rather cloudy understanding of my professional interests. I only knew that I was interested in neuroscience and that I liked teaching. Despite my vague professional identity, however, I had narrowed my career aspirations down to one very specific career objective: "Earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience, specializing in neuroimaging and human decision-making research. Upon completion of graduate and postdoctoral studies, pursue an assistant professorship."

Let’s just say a lot has changed since then.

Learning to Teach

By the second year of my graduate program, I had joined a cognitive neuroscience lab that studied how memory is motivated by rewards and punishments. I had also just enrolled in The Graduate School’s brand new Certificate in College Teaching (CCT). Before starting my Ph.D. and the CCT, I had a strong interest in teaching and had even had some teaching experience, but I had no formal training. Before CCT, I loved teaching, but I literally had no idea what I was doing. I was very happy to jump into a classroom or tutoring environment and try things, but I had no way of knowing if what I was doing as an instructor was effective.

Fortunately, as part of the certificate’s coursework, I learned teaching strategies and activities that actually worked. I learned how to evaluate and assess the effectiveness of my teaching. I received high-quality feedback on my teaching from graduate student peers and faculty. Most importantly, I was able to take what I learned in the CCT and apply it to my experiences teaching Duke undergraduates in the classroom and in the lab.

Rethinking My Path

Toward the end of my third year in graduate school, I began questioning whether my original career objective of becoming an assistant professor at a research institution was a good fit for me. Fortunately, because I was at Duke, there were several resources available to help me answer this question.

One approach in deciding whether a job in academia was appropriate for me was to consider faculty positions in a more diverse range of institutions. To this end, I participated in the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, where Duke graduate students are mentored by faculty members at partner institutions. The main goal of the program is for participants to learn what it’s like to be a faculty member at different types of academic institutions, such as a historically black college or university, a small liberal arts college, a smaller university, or a public university.

A second approach I took was to consider careers outside academia. Fortunately, right as I began searching for these types of careers, the position of the assistant dean for graduate student professional development was created. Shortly after Melissa Bostrom filled this role, there was an explosion of professional development training, especially in identifying and pursuing careers outside academia. As the result of advice proffered in these panels and workshops, I began conducting informational interviews on my own to further my career exploration.

That brings us to the present day. As a Ph.D. candidate in my sixth (and final) year, I participated in the Emerging Leaders Institute (ELI), a program designed to develop leadership in graduate students and postdocs through personality and strength assessments, reflection, and interdisciplinary teamwork. I really consider this year to be the capstone to my professional development journey as a graduate student.

Finding, and Filling, My Niche

Over the past five years, my vague professional identity has evolved to a more lucid understanding of my professional self as one who wants to help others transform through learning. Furthermore, I understand that I want to help others transform through learning while promoting equal access to education and celebrating the autonomy, free will, uniqueness, and values of the individual learner.

Clarifying my professional identity allowed me to be open to a wider array of future careers because I understand my bottom line. As the result of my professional development at Duke, I am also aware of several career options—academic administration, science outreach, and teaching—that I could pursue to help others transform through learning.

I think the quote that best summarizes the effect of my experiences at Duke comes from Lena Dunham. My graduate training at Duke has “made me want to find a hole in the world in the shape of me and just fill it up.” My experiences in The Graduate School’s professional development programs have helped me understand and prepare for my professional niche. I am leaving Duke with not just an understanding of the content of my degree, but also an understanding of how I can use these skills and experiences to fill up my “hole in the world.”

Adapted from Rainey’s remarks to the Graduate School Board of Visitors on March 6, 2015


Courtnea Rainey, M.A.

Current Ph.D. Candidate

Courtnea studies the psychology of motivation and learning as a Ph.D. Candidate in the department of Psychology & Neuroscience. She applies this background to support undergraduate student learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).