Ensuring Professional Success

To advance you must interact with others, and the manner in which you do so affects your professional reputation, writes Michael A. Matrone.

May 23, 2016

In January, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, I attended a small conference for the Graduate Career Consortium’s Southern Regional members. Among the engaging discussions, the conversation turned to professionalism. By professionalism, I refer to professional behavior in the workplace, not ethics or the responsible conduct of research, although the two are intimately intertwined with professionalism. During the discussion, a conference attendee from Vanderbilt University School of Medicine informed the group of their professionalism policy, a series of “recommendations regarding what it looks like to act professionally.”

The policy got me thinking about how we learn professionalism. The dictionary defines professionalism as “the skill, good judgment and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” What struck me about the definition was “expected.”

Are we expected to know what constitutes skill, good judgment and polite behavior for our work environment and profession? After all, the transition from student and trainee to professional can be a culture shock. Are we expected to know implicitly and abide by adages like “Do unto to others …” or “If you don’t have anything nice to say …”? If so, then our expectation is that professionalism is experiential -- learned by observation, role modeling or from our own mistakes as we make them. In my opinion, one cannot rely solely on experiential learning, as without an explicit and consistent curriculum and standards of measurement, expectations of professionalism become assumptions of professionalism. And as another adage goes, “Never assume, because when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

Anecdotally, my own professionalism education, from undergraduate to postdoctoral, was purely experiential. Professionalism was not in the course catalog, nor was I was told explicitly what was expected of me. And I admit, most likely as a result of my temperamental and uninhibited Northeast upbringing, I learned purely through trial and error -- i.e., the hard way. In one instance, in graduate school, I replied to a departmental email with what I thought was great wit and humor but was in reality poor judgment and impropriety. Needless to say, I offended my colleagues, landed in the department chair’s office, made a formal apology and now know better.

Perhaps in response to trainees like me, didactic training in professionalism may be the new normal. A cursory Google search reveals many online and classroom-based seminars and courses designed to teach you how to act professionally. Similarly, according to the National Postdoctoral Association, which lists the fourth of six core competencies for postdoctoral training as professionalism, 59 percent of higher education institutions offer training in interpersonal skills, as reported in its Institutional Policy Report 2014.

Graduate medical education seems to be following a similar trend. For example, the University of Washington employed a competency rating form to evaluate professional behavior among their urology program residents before and after a professionalism training lecture. Participants scored higher and more consistently following the intervention, “suggesting that residents were more consistent in their professional behavior and/or the faculty observation of resident professional behaviors was more focused.”

How do you, as a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar, gain the professionalism skills you need? Clearly, one way is to seek out didactic professionalism training, perhaps specific to the field you wish to pursue. But what if your career path is yet to be defined or you do not have access to such focused training?

My suggestion is to treat professionalism not as a set of behavioral expectations to be learned, but as tools to advance your career. Though career planning is a personal process, it is not accomplished in isolation. To advance, you must interact with others, and the manner in which you do so affects your professional reputation. You can acquire behaviors associated with professionalism by training in the skills used to relate effectively with others. I recommend that you:

Enhance your emotional intelligence to interact professionally. Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your emotions and those of others, often measured in terms of your emotional quotient. Emotional-intelligence skills involve harnessing and regulating your own emotions, allowing you to apply them toward specific tasks. Such skills can also help you identify the emotions of those around you, influencing your interactions both personally and professionally in matters of collaboration, conflict resolution and leadership. To learn more, refer to the work of Daniel Goleman, a psychologist and foremost authority on behavioral science and emotional intelligence. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he has written extensively on emotional intelligence in the workplace.

Adopt a time-management strategy to plan professionally. Regardless of the career path you take, the ability to allocate your time wisely will allow you to fulfill your obligations and complete projects in a timely manner. It is important to remember, however, that a time-management strategy must also consider how your actions affect the time of those with whom you work. As some of the components of this strategy, you should:

  • Treat all of your commitments with equal importance. Whether a one-on-one with your supervisor or a training session led by an instructor, treat equally all meetings to which you have committed to attend. The party with whom you are meeting may have invested considerable time in preparation. Not attending or canceling without notice is not simply disrespectful -- it may disqualify you from being invited or included in the future.

  • Renege with dignity. It is a given that unexpected events occur that may affect our commitments -- we get sick, our cars break down, flights get canceled. If you find yourself in a situation outside of your control that requires you to renege on your commitment, take responsibility. Send a note expressing your regret that you are unable to fulfill your commitment.

  • Know when to say no. As you manage your career, you will set short-term objectives and long-term goals to help you advance on your career path. Undoubtedly, new opportunities will arise, and you will need to determine those that will guide you on your path and those that will deter you on it. If the latter, it is much more gracious to decline than to commit to something in which you may not be completely invested.

Participate in communication training opportunities and then practice communicating. In order to embody professionalism, you need to communicate like a professional -- both on paper and verbally. The best way to become a better communicator is to practice communicating. Writing about and presenting your research at a conference is one obvious way, but many other opportunities exist, such as joining a Toastmasters club or attending networking events to learn the language of a field in which you are interested. Universally, some sound advice that you should consider is to:

  • Use business-appropriate language. Consider my story as the cautionary tale and be aware of how the reader may interpret your written communications. The written word lacks inflection and audible tone, so be sure that other people won’t misinterpret your message. In addition, not everyone will share the same sense of humor; in fact, what is humorous to you may be offensive to others.

  • Be clear and concise in your requests. Many people approach making requests by building a case or argument first and then asking their question at the end. The best piece of advice I’ve ever received for such communications was to reverse that order. Ask first, to be clear about what is being requested, and then build your case or argument, if necessary.

  • Be aware of your nonverbal communication. Just as your words must convey a professional tone, so too must your appearance and body language. Regardless of the attire that your workplace requires, keeping a clean and well-groomed appearance ensures that colleagues notice you for your expertise. In addition, your body language may convey more than you intend. Though I do not believe that one body position conveys one specific meaning (e.g. folded arms as a sign of frustration), be aware of how your body language conveys your overall demeanor.

The core of the Vanderbilt professionalism policy is that positive professional interactions gain respect and rewards, helping you advance in your career, whereas negative interactions limit future opportunities, holding you back. Seeking training in professionalism will help ensure the former, but didactic training may not prepare you for every situation. If you find yourself in unfamiliar territory where you question how to act, simply ask what is expected, or seek advice from peers, in order to turn the implicit into the explicit.


Michael A. Matrone is the postdoctoral affairs officer at Oregon Health & Science University and the treasurer of the Graduate Career Consortium.


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