Get Over the Guilt

So you are a grad student or postdoc who hasn't visited the career center? Michael Matrone tells you how to get ready.

March 9, 2015

When I began my position at the Scripps Research Institute, I consistently observed one thing about the career training and professional development programs I administered: the low percentage of trainees in attendance relative to the total population. Among a population of hundreds of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, only approximately 10-20 percent, at maximum, would attend any given career event.

At first, I thought I was responsible -- a fresh-out-of-postdoc scientist now giving career advice and instruction to my former colleagues. But with time and experience, and with unchanged attendance numbers, I began to ask questions. To those I rarely saw at career events, I asked, “Why do you not attend?” More often than not, the answer revolved around two themes -- guilt or apprehension -- guilt for taking time away from their daily responsibilities, or apprehension concerning their supervisor’s perception of attendance to a career-training event.

Though anecdotal, the consistency of these answers indicated to me that importance of career and professional development was not being conveyed effectively to the community at large. After all, graduate and postdoctoral training is just that -- training. Trainees need to learn to communicate concisely and effectively, to lead others efficiently and fairly, and the skills specific to the careers they wish to pursue. More often than not, these skills are gained away from the lab bench or library. If guilt and apprehension are common reactions to leaving the bench or library, but leaving either is required to gain new skills, then clearly a culture change is required.

Fortunately, such a change has begun from the top.

In August 2014, the Council on Financial Assistance Reform, a group formed by the executive branch’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released a clarification of its Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards. The clarification extended to postdoctoral scholars the dual status of both trainees and employees, a status previously afforded to students. With this clarification, the government expects that students and postdoctoral scholars supported by federal awards “will further their training and support the development of skills critical to pursue careers as independent investigators or other related careers.”

So that these changes trickle down, what can we do?

National organizations, such as the National Postdoctoral Association, can continue their work to advocate for the importance of career training programs and create language for academic institutions to adopt. University and institute administrations, from graduate programs to postdoctoral affairs offices, can incorporate this dual-role classification into their institutional graduate student and postdoctoral policies and communicate these policies to their faculty. With knowledge and awareness of the dual role of students and postdoctoral scholars, faculty supervisors have the information they need to support away-from-work training. Some may even choose to incorporate the dual-role classification as part of a trainee’s key responsibilities when advising a new student or hiring a new postdoctoral scholar.

But before any culture change occurs, what can you do in the short term to avoid feeling guilty or apprehensive about attending a career event? To work from the bottom up, you can:

1. Communicate. The key to any relationship, personal or professional, is communication. Whether you are at the beginning of your training appointment or many years into it, communicate your intentions clearly to your supervisor, preferably well in advance. Specify the training you’d like to attend, why you feel it will benefit both you and your work, and how you intend to make up for the time away from work.

2. Complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP). Many graduate programs and postdoctoral appointments now require, or at least strongly recommend, the completion of an IDP. These plans are based on the discovery of your own skills, interests and values. With knowledge of the skills you need to gain, you can be more selective with attendance to trainings you feel will be of the most benefit. Once you have a complete IDP, see #1.

3. Adopt a time management system. Undoubtedly, your primary responsibility as a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar is your dissertation or project, respectively. Any time spent on career training programs will clearly detract from the time spent on your project. In order to maximize your productivity, you need a well-defined time management system. Tracking and understanding how you spend your time and what distracts you will allow you to make changes in order to better utilize your time, meet your goals and allow you to attend that career event without feeling that you’re skirting your responsibilities. Many time management models exist, as do many books written on the topic, and finding a system that works for you will... well... take time. But it is time well spent.

4. Cultivate additional mentors. Career training does not need to occur exclusively in a formalized classroom setting. Aside from your primary mentor or supervisor, identify individuals who possess skills or experiences you admire, such as keen communication skills or a career track in which you’re interested. Speak with those individuals, seek their advice and even ask them to be a mentor. The relationship need not be in person -- it can be via phone or via e-mail; thus, maintained on your own time.

Hopefully, you will find beneficial some or all of these points; however, the best piece of advice I can offer is this: you are the best advocate for your own career. As long as you are a valuable and productive contributor to your group, you should not feel guilt or apprehension for fulfilling your own career goals. And then, perhaps, I’ll see more of you at my next career event.


Michael Matrone is career and postdoctoral services program coordinator at the Scripps Research Institute, in Jupiter, Fla. He also serves on the Board of Directors as treasurer for the Graduate Career Consortium. In April, he will be the new postdoctoral affairs officer at Oregon Health and Science University.


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