Fostering Career Development Proactivity in Ph.D.s

Taking initiative about your future direction correlates with greater career success and satisfaction, and it's a skill that, with training, can be nurtured and strengthened, writes Diane A. Safer.

August 24, 2020
 
 
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It has been recognized on both the national and institutional level that career and professional development for Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scholars is an important part of their training. On a national level, the National Institutes of Health recently funded grants for the development of innovative career and professional development programs, called Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST), as part of its overall Strengthening the Biomedical Research Workforce program. On an institutional level, a growing number of institutions and organizations provide career and professional development via graduate career offices, and membership in the Graduate Career Consortium, an organization comprised of higher education graduate career professionals, has seen very significant growth in the last five years.

But trainees’ career and professional development faces many challenges. Foremost among these is that many people, including the trainees themselves, view these efforts as less important than their primary academic pursuits and as distracting from their laboratory work. As currently designed, the entire academic training experience for trainees is set up to guide, mentor and direct them to academic and research success. Throughout a Ph.D. program and during training as a postdoctoral scholar, trainees must abide by specific schedules and constant deadlines to ensure that success. From thesis time frames to journal article submission dates to grant timelines, an agenda runs students’ and postdoctoral scholars’ training efforts.

This period is also the time for trainees to grow professionally and to explore the myriad possible career options available to them. But career exploration and professional development don’t follow specific timelines and are more self-directed than the academic and research efforts. In addition to requiring time and attention, they also require the trainees’ initiation and self-motivation: trainees must be proactive in these areas as well.

Scientific trainees in the biomedical sciences are the epitome of proactive. They anticipate future issues, consider urgent needs and are ready to make any necessary changes to figure out a way forward … when it involves their research. But when it comes to their own personal career and professional development, trainees’ effort and initiative are more limited. It doesn’t necessarily occur to them to apply the same skills to their career development that they do so effectively to their academic work.

Research in the psychology literature finds that proactivity or taking initiative about your future direction is positively correlated with greater career success and satisfaction about a career. The great news is that proactivity is a transferrable skill that trainees have already developed for their academic work. Furthermore, it is a skill that, with training, can be nurtured and strengthened. In the psychology literature, development of proactivity is often linked to three key concepts: self-belief, growth mind-set and future focus.

Because proactivity is connected with career success and satisfaction, focusing on fostering proactivity might be of great value. Strengthening these three underlying concepts to develop and encourage proactivity may change the whole atmosphere of training, with positive results for trainees’ success. Imagine supplementing traditional approaches to Ph.D. training by incorporating the following concepts into current programs.

Embedding proactivity development in graduate or postdoctoral programs.

  • The idea of growth mind-set could be introduced right from the start, beginning with orientation, when the concept could be taught and programs could include messages that encourage flexible thinking.
  • Initial onboarding for all trainees could include workshops that teach resilience.
  • Lessons and activities to build self-confidence and foster growth mind-set could be part of the regular graduate school curriculum, incorporated into first- and second-year graduate courses.

Involving mentors in proactivity development.

  • Research mentors could be coached how to use messages that prime flexible thinking and then empowered to use these messages throughout lab meetings and mentoring sessions.
  • Research mentors could encourage their trainees to envision their future self and plan goals far beyond their current training program.

Instilling proactivity development as part of career center workshops.

  • Professional skills workshops could incorporate exercises and activities to strengthen self-efficacy and to inspire trainees to visualize their future work self.
  • Career panels and other speakers could encourage a growth mind-set and share how flexible thinking affected their personal career paths by sharing not just their success stories but also their struggles and failures -- and what they ultimately did to succeed.

Merging proactivity development into institutional or organizational wellness programs.

  • Activities for mental or physical health programs could include confidence-building sessions and messages to stimulate flexible thinking.

By collectively developing additional initiatives to foster proactivity, we may be able to enhance current career and professional development programming even further.

With the availability of many useful and informative career and professional development programs and events, including expanded online offerings as a result of COVID-19, we’ve never seen a better time to find and participate in career and professional development activities. However, merely making these programs available is not sufficient. It may be time to start determining the next step to increase efforts to foster proactivity in Ph.D.s. Our ultimate goal will be that trainees feel the need to take charge of their own career success during their graduate or postdoctoral training program.

Bio

Diane A. Safer is director of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, N.Y. She is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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