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Brady Krien is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature and an MLIS student at the University of Iowa where he works in the Grad Success office. You can find him on Twitter at @BradyKrien and at his website.

At the beginning of this semester, I started a new position with the Grad Success Center at my university, working with other graduate students as they apply for fellowships, explore career options, and prepare materials for job applications. Despite what some critics claim, there are a lot of graduate students who are interested in preparing for a wide variety of jobs both inside and outside of the university.

Often I work with grad students who are further along in their programs – those applying for jobs or dissertation completion fellowships – but one of the most interesting conversations I had was with a PhD student in her first semester who asked me what advice about professional development I wish that someone would have given me when I started my program. This question took me by surprise, and I’ve finally figured out my answer. This is the professional development advice that I wish I had been given my first semester (and reminded of every semester since).

Be Strategic

The best professional development advice for graduate students at any stage is to create an Individual Development Plan (IDP), an action-oriented document that focuses on both academic and career goals. Though this can be related to one’s plan for life after graduate school or a five-year plan, an IDP has a much greater emphasis on self-assessment and evaluating one’s own values, interests, and priorities. The more important part of an IDP, in other words, is not the final document, but the process of creating it. Sitting down and reflecting deeply on the types of work that you enjoy, the things that are most important to you, and the path to building a fulfilling career is essential and can serve as the basis for conversations with your advisors, searching for jobs, and planning out the rest of our graduate career whether you are in your first semester or nearing completion.

Use Your Resources

There are several great IDP resources that can help you through the process. MyIDP (for STEM) and ImaginePhD are two free resources for planning out your graduate career and can be used to plan for both graduation requirements and other experiences, skills, or opportunities that you want to pursue along the way. While both of these platforms have a system for creating IDPs, their greatest strength is that they provide a wealth of resources to help users think about different types of careers that are available those with graduate degrees in particular fields. I  also suggest checking in and sharing your IDP with your advisor and mentors at least once a year – it can be a great way to maintain a mutually beneficial conversation about your career goals and options. As with any type of advising, having a document with goals and a plan in front of you as you discuss often leads to a more fruitful conversation.

Be Intentional

When developing your professional plan, it’s also important to consider the outside opportunities that you will pursue. While meeting graduation requirements should always be your first priority, many jobs will require more skills than you will acquire during the course of your graduate training. It’s often a good idea to “try on” careers and experiment with different types of jobs before you settle on them as your ultimate goal. I’ve worked with several students who have told me about side experiences in publishing or technology jobs that either confirmed their passion for that area or let them know it wasn’t for them. Carefully pursuing outside opportunities to develop necessary skills can be a huge boon when it comes to the job. Informational interviews, for example, can be a good way to learn more about both the skills you need and the best way to pursue them. Opportunities to develop skills like leadership, grant writing, budgeting, teaching, and public speaking and to learn about different job options can make a huge difference in both your career goals and your ability to achieve them.

Collaborate with your Department

Your advisors and mentors ultimately want to see you succeed, and though faculty within your department may not have a lot of expertise about pursuing jobs outside of academia (if that’s where you decide you’d like to go), I’ve found that many faculty will do what they can to help can to support your job search, whether it is helping you to pursue opportunities to build skills across campus or finding a cool assistantship or fellowship that will help you accrue the types of skills and experiences that you need to get an eventual job.

With all of these things in mind, I think the most important thing is to remember that it’s your degree program. We all obviously need to adhere to department policy and listen to the advice of your faculty and other graduate students, but never for forget that the ultimate purpose of your graduate education is to help you achieve your goals and put it to use in a way that you find meaningful.

What advice do you wish you would have gotten during your first semester of grad school? Feel free to share in the comments below or with us on Twitter.

[Image by Unsplash user Tabea Damm and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]

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