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As a graduate student or postdoc, you have probably been encouraged, if not pestered, to take advantage of the career resources at your institution or organization. Career resources for graduate students and postdocs vary greatly -- from specialized graduate school-based offices offering events, programs and other services geared to graduate career education to specialized career services individuals based in campus career centers who focuses on graduate career development.

Whatever the situation at your institution, if you choose to do only one thing, we recommend you meet one on one with a graduate career development adviser or specialist. This valuable opportunity for personalized information and guidance is a powerful catalyst for moving graduate students and postdocs forward in their career development because the focus is 100 percent on you and your future. This type of meeting can be quite transformative and will accelerate your career journey.

As trained career services professionals with backgrounds in education and psychology, along with many years of professional graduate career coaching between us, we have extensive expertise in career development and counseling with students in all levels of higher education. We now work exclusively with Ph.D. students and postdocs, and during our individual meetings with advisees we have observed consistent patterns in the way they present their career questions and concerns. We view these personalized graduate career conversations as essential to the process of graduate career development, and we want to share our thoughts about structuring your focused time with a graduate career educator. If you are prepared to enhance your one-on-one meetings, you can turn a basic transactional meeting into a transformational experience.

In a purely transactional career meeting, the focus is generally on the organization and mechanics of career development. We might review your fellowship or academic application package, give advice on creating a résumé from a CV, review a cover letter, or offer pointers to improve a LinkedIn profile. We might talk you through how to find alumni for informational interviews or assist with resources for a targeted job search. Those practical, technical career development activities are concrete, designed to be helpful, and the advice we offer is generally consistent across individuals’ backgrounds or future focus.

Of course, there will always be differences in these conversations, such as content of the reviewed materials and specific career goals, but our overall guiding advice principles are standardized. Such meetings usually do not lead to extended conversations to determine goals or targets, as you may have already done that work. Transactional meetings are action-based. They serve a specific purpose, and we welcome the chance to help you create stellar application materials or work purposefully toward a determined career goal.

A transformational career meeting, however, looks very different. In those meetings, our role as graduate career professionals is primarily to listen and guide. We help you self-reflect on skills, strengths and values; consider available opportunities or paths; and create plans for taking next steps. We can guide you in clarifying direction or purpose, and we facilitate conversation around whatever issues and concerns matter most to you.

We are also aware that such meetings can often encompass emotional issues, and we work to identify and address underlying anxiety factors for graduate trainees, from stress about an upcoming thesis defense to concern about loss of principal investigator funding -- or just the general worry that there are no jobs for Ph.D.s. Graduate career anxiety can also come from feeling overwhelmed by too many options or the realization that a chosen career path is not going to work out. We understand the distinct concerns and issues that Ph.D.s face.

Often a student or postdoc sets up what they believe will be a quick career advising meeting to get whatever information they think they need to move forward. The meeting may initially seem transactional. For example, the first statement from a trainee might be, “I want to create a résumé from this CV.” After asking some in-depth questions, we realize there is need for deeper discussion, such as when the conversation turns to: “because I need to leave my lab immediately.” We recognize the more complicated factors underlying the decision to create a résumé, and we work with the individual to understand what is happening and how it is affecting them. Our goal is to have the graduate student or postdoc leave our offices not only with plenty of resources to create a great résumé but also the intent to begin to personally examine areas of concern.

Whether your career development needs are transactional and action-based, or you need more in-depth guidance and seek a transformative career discussion, here is what to expect during a meeting with a graduate career professional.

  • To begin, we will spend time listening and learning about who you are and why you have come for a meeting. Our job is to ask questions to get right to the heart of things. As a trainee, you should come prepared to be forthright and open to the process.
  • Commonly, a second step is to have you engage in self-reflection activities like career assessments or to ask you to reflect on the results from self-assessments you may have already completed, such as an individual development plan. As a trainee, be willing to honestly and thoughtfully answer the self-assessments. The more you know about yourself, the easier it is to focus on future career paths.
  • Although meetings may seem long -- usually 45 minutes to an hour -- we must manage expectations on what can be accomplished in our time together. As a trainee, understand that one meeting is rarely enough for a truly transformative discussion. Be prepared to commit the necessary time this process will take.
  • Thoughtfully and thoroughly complete any action steps or activities, and proactively schedule additional follow-up meetings.
  • When you no longer need these transformative career conversations, plan to return for any necessary transactional meetings -- for example, to create or polish materials or to dig deeper into specific occupational resources.

It is important to understand bigger-picture constraints and the short window of opportunity in any personalized career meeting. As graduate career professionals serving many trainees, our time for one-on-one career advising meetings with Ph.D.s is usually limited. That means when you get the chance for a conversation about yourself and your career thinking, aim to maximize the time. Our institutions, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, offer one-on-one career advising, but demands on staff time mean limited capacity for individual advising appointments and wait times of at least a week (usually more) to see a graduate career professional.

UT Southwestern has launched a peer-advising program, with trained graduate students and postdocs addressing initial career concerns. That gives trainees the opportunity for a transactional meeting to get started quickly with career concerns through short discussions with peers. Peer advising also serves as a primer for a longer advising session with professional staff. Therefore, if you have the opportunity for any peer mentoring, take advantage, as it will only enhance more personalized professional career advising meetings to follow.

In these one-on-one personalized career advising meetings, we focus on you and your personal journey. We share your goal of having you move forward in your career development. We are there to help you transform your journey into a proactive, productive and successful endeavor. We, and our graduate career colleagues, look forward to seeing you!

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