UC MEXUS-CONACYT Doctoral Fellows Symposium

Three generations of Mexican fellows pursuing their doctoral degrees at UC campuses gathered at UC Riverside on March 23, 2012 for the 3rd UC MEXUS-CONACYT Doctoral Fellows Symposium. Students in attendance came from the ten UC campuses in academic areas as diverse as anthropology, bioengineering, computer science, law, linguistics and physics. Held every three years, this symposium seeks to provide Mexican doctoral students funded by UC MEXUS and UC MEXUS who are in their 3rd, 4th and 5th years of study with a unique opportunity to form ties with program alumni and their peers from other campuses, meet accomplished Mexican researchers and leaders of key Mexican institutions, and engage in discussion about topics of special concern to fellows nearing completion of their doctoral degrees.

• Mexican Government Praises Fellowship Program

María Dolores Sánchez, Director of Graduate Programs at Mexico's National Research Council (CONACYT), opened the symposium with praise for the University of California and the UC MEXUS-CONACYT program, noting that the UC doctoral fellows constitute one of the largest groups of students supported by CONACYT outside of Mexico. She also discussed resources available to graduating fellows returning to Mexico through CONACYT's repatriation program and highlighted the strong impact of CONACYT's national and international graduate fellowship programs, with 86% of fellows securing employment in less than one year of completing their degrees.

• Top Mexican Social Scientist Describes New Political Order in Mexico

In her keynote address, Professor Cristina Puga of the Center for Political Science at the National University (UNAM), one of Mexico's top political scientists, spoke about the new social and political order broadly reflected in the country's shift from political authoritarianism to democratic pluralism. She pointed out that whereas in the past power was held primarily by the President (with legislative and judicial branches playing more subservient roles), Mexico's current system is characterized by an increased distribution of political power, economic privatization and weakening of hegemonic notions of nationalism. With this transition, however, new problems have emerged such as increased social fragmentation and greater demands for political attention by previously unrecognized social groups. In its current state this new democratic order is best viewed, she said, as fragile or as an "imperfect democracy" that will continue to evolve and respond to the needs of a changing society in years to come.

• Eminent Mexican Biologist Addresses Challenges in Mexico’s Higher Education

Keynote speaker José Sarukhán, former President of UNAM and current President of Mexico's innovative Biodiversity Survey (CONABIO), highlighted a number of troubling issues facing Mexico's universities and noted that while Mexico has one of the oldest university systems in Latin America, only a handful of its higher educational institutions are research-based. Also, relative to other countries, only a small percentage of Mexico's population is college educated with less than one in five students who enter primary education continuing on to college. Yet one of the most serious problems, he argued, is the view of higher education as a "tunnel" entered and left strictly for the purpose of obtaining a diploma without teaching young scholars how to become truly creative thinkers. This traditional model, reflecting a 16th century European approach to science and education, is inconsistent with important social, demographic and productive changes that have taken place in Mexico. "We are at an important moment for change and need students who are well-trained to solve these problems," he said, adding that he remains optimistic about the future of science and higher education in Mexico.

• UC MEXUS-CONACYT Graduates Offer Practical Advice to Current Fellows

During the second-half of the day, the focus of the symposium shifted to discussion of opportunities for employment. Following a networking lunch in which fellows were seated together with their UC counterparts and Mexican researchers in similar disciplinary areas, former fellows who participated on the "Alumni Panel on Post-Graduate Employment" spoke about their experiences securing employment internationally. Alumni gave advice about the academic, public and private job markets in Mexico, the U.S. and elsewhere. They also offered numerous suggestions to current fellows, identifying various resources available to recent PhDs and strategies for making their job searches successful.

Former fellows assured current students that opportunities are available globally, though not always in the places that they would expect to find them. As former fellow and current Associate Professor of UNAM Roberto Gomez Vilchis pointed out, "I was at this symposium as a student exactly three years ago with the same concerns and same questions that you have. But if there's something I'm convinced of it's that whether you come from Davis, Berkeley, Irvine or any of the campuses, you will find an opportunity." He and other fellows emphasized the importance of being open to applying for positions in places they may not have otherwise considered such as smaller public universities and in foreign countries where learning the language would be necessary. "Take a chance," encouraged Salomé Gutierrez, a former fellow whose own academic path took several unexpected turns before he was offered his current faculty position at the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology (CIESAS).

• Building an International Research Career

The last panel of the day, "Building an International Research Career," featured a group of prominent Mexican researchers with strong international ties. They provided valuable advice to young scholars seeking international research and funding opportunities. Panelists began by sharing stories about their own personal and academic development and emphasized the value of taking an international or multinational approach to their research. Working collaboratively with teams of talented investigators, they noted, enriched their work and lives. They also highlighted specific advantages to forming international linkages such as having access to some of the best labs in the world and producing work with a more global vision and impact. As Gabriela Vargas, Professor at the Autonomous University of Yucatan, explained, "Academia, science and knowledge are international. You can't think in terms of knowledge as national…Instead, make new friends because the border is always open." From a practical standpoint, panelists encouraged young scholars to begin collaborating now when they have more time to dedicate to the creation of new networks. They also advised that the best collaborations are ones that are equal. "The idea is to grow. Create collaborations that complement each other. Everyone wins that way," said Daniel Campos, Professor at the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi.

Mexico in Perspective: Fellows’ Response to the Symposium

Fellows who attended the symposium said that it not only met but exceeded their expectations. "It went beyond my expectations," one fellow said, "getting to know and hear the stories, difficulties and successes of all of the professors was inspiring and motivating…This gave me a complete overview of the situation in Mexico and other countries related to research and funding." Fellows found the keynote addresses very informative and interesting. "I have been outside of Mexico for seven years, so the topics helped me to put the political and educational situation in Mexico into perspective," one explained.

Most attendees concurred that the panel sessions were of greatest value, as was the unique opportunity for face-to-face interaction with other Mexican students at the UC (including those from their own campus) and with well-known researchers. They praised the diversity of the panelists and the "panorama" of their experiences. With respect to the alumni employment panel, fellows said that they particularly valued the advice from former fellows on what was described as "the real fears" that people have just before graduating but not addressed in graduate school. Regarding the research panel, they expressed great appreciation for the selection of researchers from diverse fields and institutions as well as panelists' sincerity in discussing "the ups and downs of research at the international level." They also valued the concrete advice researchers offered for seeking out and building collaborations. One fellow concluded that the panel "was very inspiring and really changed my view as to how I can contribute to Mexico's research."

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