Preparing for an Insightful Professional Life

Career development is a lifelong do-it-yourself project that, like home maintenance, can be a chore or a pleasure, depending on how you approach it, writes Victoria McGovern.

July 26, 2021
 
 
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Ph.D.s have been moving in significant numbers into other nonacademic roles for decades, but it is a recent suggestion that the Ph.D. degree, like a college humanities concentration, is a good grounding for a diversity of careers. If you have started graduate school open to many possible future roles in your chosen area, you should work throughout your training on becoming a well-rounded expert, familiar with many ways you can put your skills to use.

Your graduate school, your program within the school, the professional societies connected to your field, industry groups that draw on the skills you are developing and the organizations that fund work in your area are likely all interested in your career development. At most institutions, you will have access throughout your training to supportive programming meant to help you develop into an attractive job candidate, whether the job you seek is in academe or in another environment.

Career development is a lifelong do-it-yourself project that, like home maintenance, can be a chore or a pleasure, depending on how you approach it. Workshops and other formal career development opportunities are worth your time. You should take advantage of them. But that is not the only important extracurricular thing you could be doing to invest in your career future while you are working on your doctorate.

Grow Your Circle, Grow Your Options

Because it involves enrolling in school again, scholarly training can feel like an extension of adolescence. For those working in the sciences, laboratory hierarchy further enhances a sense of being not quite grown. But while you may be a neophyte when it comes to driving research in your field, that is only your status in academe. Biologically, legally and in social development, by the time you start graduate school, your trip through life is well under way.

Being asked what you want to be when you grow up starts early in life. I believe I landed on the perfect answer to that question in the seventh grade, when my stock response became “Taller.” It seemed to me with that as a goal, my odds of success were very good. As a child, I thought being a grown-up meant finishing high school, moving out of the family home and heading off to make your fortune. It did not occur to me that though my bones would be done lengthening soon, my aspirations were just going to keep on stretching.

Focusing on a job description is not the only way you should approach building your professional future. What do you really want to be when you grow up? Capable, respected, reliable, honest, happy, loved, genuine, upright, healthy, successful? So many of the possible answers are not about a job title. Half of them are about how those around you view you and the things you do with your labor. Aiming to polish the character attributes you hope others will see in you can also be a valuable way of developing your career.

One of the easiest ways to develop your reputation is to make sure your circle of friends and acquaintances includes people working in the many places where deep knowledge of your field is useful. Forming and maintaining real relationships around your professional interests gives you the chance to show the working world and yourself the content of your character.

Learning turns out to be a key to staying stretchy, but staying a classroom student forever is not as rewarding as putting your ideas into practice. You will be in good shape for getting a career-making job if you make sure that your worldview grows broader even as your dissertation work demands ever more focus. Think about the potential applications of your work. Understand the outlooks of the people who might apply it. Your curiosity, independence and understanding of different ways to approach related problems may do as much to determine the trajectory of your work life as your choice of advisers or dissertation topics.

Add a Little on to What You’re Already Doing

The beginning of school is a rich time for making new friends and trying new things. That is as true of graduate school as it was of kindergarten and later stages of education. Saying “I’m new here” does more than open doors. It gives you social cover for introducing yourself to strangers, admitting you do not know where you are going or seeking insight into how to navigate situations that you have not encountered before. While you are building connections with your classmates, faculty members and other helpful people around your program, you might as well reach further and make connections with those around you doing related work.

At most institutions, you are surrounded by people employed in activities related to what you will learn in grad school. Introducing yourself around related departments on your campus is an easy first step. If it is too overwhelming to do during your first weeks of graduate school, try it during weeks 53 to 56, when you will be an old hand and the new students in those departments will be working hard to get their bearings and meet new people.

You can help yourself even more if you stretch a little further and introduce yourself to those nearby who connect to your field from outside the academy or from your institution’s nonresearch spaces -- for example, tech transfer or public information. “I’m just starting my training, and I want to learn about how people apply this kind of thinking in the real world” is a good way to start. If you feel an honest connection with someone, ask if you can stay in touch.

Follow through. Let these alignments grow into real friendships, not just professional connections. Even if your relationship grows to be more about sports or hobbies than about work, you will naturally learn a little about how a person you spend time with thinks and works.

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Once you have made one or two real friends working outside academe on problems or issues that interest you, asking them for help in connecting to knowledge in their world will be easy. Friends like to help one another. They may be glad to introduce you into the local community of practice around ideas or skills that you’d like to develop.

The companionship, support and access to unofficial channels you gain from making friends beyond graduate school may be even more important than the benefits gained by being a thoughtful participant in the life of your academic department. If not, you will just have friendship, and friendship is a valuable thing all by itself.

Bio

Victoria McGovern is a senior program officer at the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. She aspires to be 5'9".

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