CFP: Whittington Leadership and Innovation Challenge for Ph.D. Students

* Deadline: October 1, 2021 *

>Team up with other Ph.D. students to design and lead a change initiative<


The Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences prepares graduate students to become tomorrow’s leaders who engage in the highest levels of research, drive innovation, strengthen communities, and address complex problems as they improve lives across the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world. We are at the forefront of a national effort to reimagine Ph.D. training aligned with the aspirations of our students who pursue careers in the academy, government, industry, and the non-profit or social impact sector. Graduate students combine deep disciplinary training with developing strategic competencies such as communication, project management, collaborative work in interdisciplinary and cross-cultural teams, leadership, and entrepreneurship to make an impact as early career scholars and scientists, educators, and professional leaders across sectors. We thus demonstrate academia’s nimbleness and our relevance to the world beyond our campus.

Student-centered, inclusive, broadly-purposed, outcomes-focused, and career-diverse doctoral training offers students flexible pathways to degrees and career transitions. Ongoing student input and leadership are critical as we enhance the graduate educational experience and foster a culture in which the value of diverse, high-impact careers is broadly embraced.

The Challenge – Your Opportunity

Complementing programming offered by the University, the Dietrich School, and our departments, the Leadership and Innovation Challenge supports student-designed and student-led projects that will enhance the professional development and leadership skills of graduate students across disciplines. We invite teams of Ph.D. students to design change initiatives that you will lead with mentorship from graduate faculty and the graduate deans as you develop your leadership in collaborative, cross-disciplinary settings beyond the classroom and the lab.

This is an opportunity for you to take the initiative and lead on a project, to implement it, and to assess its impact. You will enhance your professional development and hone your leadership skills; shape your own graduate school experience; and forge your mentoring and professional networks. Each team co-leader will receive a stipend of $2,000.

We are looking for proposals that focus on specific needs related to student success in graduate school and beyond. Supported projects might include, but are not limited to, innovative approaches to:

  • student-facilitated programming on specific strategic competencies relevant across disciplines and potential career trajectories;
  • student-organized events with doctoral alums from employment sectors beyond the academy that advance our mission to render diverse pathways visible, valued, and viable;
  • partnering with non-academic campus units to support professional development and community;
  • projects connected with DSAS priorities: equity, diversity, and inclusion; global awareness and engagement; student wellbeing

Preference will be given to proposals that are put forward by teams including and targeting students from more than two graduate disciplines in the Dietrich School and that promise a sustainable impact.

Eligibility: All currently enrolled and registered DSAS Ph.D. students across disciplines who expect to graduate no sooner than summer 2022 are eligible to apply. Teams of three or four students from across at least two graduate programs can submit proposals.


Please submit your team’s application via email to by October 1, 2021:

In your email, please state the name, preferred pronouns, and Ph.D. program of each team member and the name and email address of each faculty mentor who will be submitting a brief letter of support.

Please attach to your email the following materials as a single .pdf file:

Project Narrative (max 3 pages, single-spaced, font size 12+, 1-inch margins all sides)

  • title of the proposed project
  • the issue(s) or need(s) to be addressed by the proposed project
  • the proposed approach, solution, and/or idea and how they will impact graduate education
  • implementation plan: define the intended audience and the proposed intervention strategy/strategies that will address the need; outline communication strategy to maximize visibility and participation
  • team: explain the role of each author/team member and how the experience will impact their professional and leadership development
  • timeline of implementation: when, how, where? – Projects can start as early as mid-fall 2021; programming/events must be completed and expenditures made by June 30, 2022 and evaluation must be completed by July 31, 2022
  • assessment plan: define how the intervention will be effective, how the proposed initiative will result in change, and what measurable outcomes you will be tracking

Proposed Budget [maximum total: $10,000]

  • budget $2,000 stipend for each team member [$6,000 or $8,000 total]
  • you may budget up to $2,000 for project costs; justify the amount of support required and provide a full breakdown of expenses
  • specify any matching funding (e.g. from departments) and whether requested or committed at the time of application

Condensed CVs/Resumes

  • two pages maximum for each graduate student leader
  • a mini-bio (brief single paragraph) for any other key participants (e.g., external speaker, panelist)

Faculty Letter of Support for Each Team Member

  • Faculty mentors should explain how a student’s co-leadership of the proposed project aligns with their academic and professional development objectives. Successful applicants will be asked to document reflections on their project in an Individual Development Plan (IDP).
  • Alternatively, these letters can be submitted separately by the same deadline to Student applicants are responsible to ensure timely submission.

Review Criteria

  • Proposals will be evaluated for the importance of the identified professional need and issues; creativity and innovation of the idea; feasibility of the approach to addressing the challenge/issue/skill; appropriateness of the team and budget; quality of the evaluation plan to define how the intervention will be effective and what measurable outcomes will be tracked.

Leaders of funded proposals will:

  • attend a leadership and project management workshop
  • implement the proposed project and evaluate outcomes
  • engage in on-going communications with other students and the Office of Graduate Studies
  • document reflections about their own leadership skills and their project in an IDP in collaboration with their faculty mentor(s)
  • highlight this experience in developing transferable skills and leadership in job searches

Interested? Here are some resources to help you develop your proposal

Interested but not sure how to focus your project or how to identify potential collaborators in other programs? Consider talking with your advisor, other mentors, your DGS. Feel free to reach out to Holger Hoock, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, at for an informal conversation via Zoom.

Looking to situate your proposal in the context of national trends in Ph.D. training?

For national reports and other resources on best practices in professional development, mentoring, and supporting the success of diverse graduate students:

Let Impact Stories Inspire Your Project Design

STEM Ph.D. Students Initiate Alum Connections

Seeking connections to careers that matched their interests and outlook, in 2018/19 the Association of Physics and Astronomy Graduate Students proposed a day-long event for co-sponsorship from the Dietrich School’s Graduate Student Professional Development Challenge: “Pursuing Success in Non-Academic Career Paths.” The student leaders were striving for supportive spaces and mentoring networks for them and their peers to explore post-doctoral career paths into government, industry, and business. Supported by faculty advisors and mentored by the graduate deans, student leaders raised matching funds and managed the budget, coordinated with multiple organizational units, and oversaw event planning, communication, and evaluation––competencies success-critical to careers within today’s academy and across other sectors. The exceptionally well-received event informed departmental consideration of more intentionally career-diverse approaches to doctoral training in STEM. Following their leadership experience, former project co-chair Dr. Daniel Perrefort serves as Research Assistant Professor and Consultant to the Center for Research Computing, University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Olivia Lanes is North American Team Lead for Quantum Education and Qiskit Community, IBM.

Humanists Engage During the Pandemic’s First Summer

Marshaling initiative, creativity, and resilience in the pandemic summer of 2020, an inaugural cohort of more than one dozen Ph.D. students collaborated with our A. W. Mellon-supported Humanities Engage project to pursue funded, mentored (virtual) immersive fellowships with not-for-profit social impact organizations across Pennsylvania, the US, and overseas. Students from across the arts, humanities, and allied social sciences deployed their high-level skills as researchers, writers, and communicators to support organizations that work with, e.g., immigrant and refugee youth, black girls, Latinx communities, survivors of domestic violence, and LGBTQ youth. The experience allowed students to integrate their professional development and career orientation with their passion for social justice. Students were able to practice grant writing, grant prospecting, and project management; develop their collaborative skills, adaptability, and self-sufficiency; and articulate their contributions in support of an organizational mission. The experience has informed doctoral research designs for students from English to Music. Among program alums, Courtney Colligan, Theatre Arts, was subsequently chosen as a national Humanities Without Walls Predoctoral Fellow (2021). Dominique Branson, Linguistics, is a member of the team representing Pitt in the ALCS Design Workshop for a New Academy (2021/22).

The second Humanities Engage summer fellowship cohort has just wrapped up their projects: see this flyer.