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Katie Shives recently completed her PhD in Microbiology at the University of Colorado and now works in industry as a production scientist. Her writing can be found on her digital portfolio site,




Just about anyone pursuing graduate school has had to answer that awkward “what do you do?” question about your studies. This can be difficult to answer, as grad school is a sort of transitory zone between being a student (undergrad) and being a professional (work). Are you a student, professional, or some sort of professional student?


There are two camps when it comes to graduate school: those who see it as an extension of undergraduate studies and student life, and those who see it as pre-professional position. During my PhD I struggled to find what constituted “professional” behavior for a graduate student and what exactly I needed to do for “professional development.”


Working conditions for graduate students don’t help with this dilemma, as many of us don’t work a traditional 9-5 shift. Instead, many grad students cobble together erratic schedules that consist of teaching, research, and writing that often bleed over into our personal lives, further confusing the definition of our work. Sometimes it can be really hard to feel like a professional and not a student when you’re coming into the lab at 10 p.m. on a Friday night in your sweatpants to harvest cells, knowing that you’ll be back Saturday morning at 10 a.m. to look at the very same cells in the very same sweatpants.


However, despite the individual confusion we can feel about our professional status, as a whole, graduate students are very much in professional roles. A recent court ruling decided that, in cases where grad students teach or conduct research for the university, they are indeed university employees and entitled to the same protections as employees, even if they do wear sweats into the lab on Saturdays.


Treating graduate school as the professional experience it is requires development of your sense of professionalism. Professionalism matters for graduate students because it gives us a way to prioritize and organize our working lives and take pride in the work that we do. This will help you get the most out of your graduate experience so that you’re ready for whatever comes after graduate school, where you most definitely will be in a professional role. Having recently completed my PhD, I can clearly see in retrospect how cultivating professionalism was a key part of graduate school and was a major asset in transitioning into a non-academic position after graduation.


Three Key Areas to Master for Professional Grad Students


Time Management and Prioritization: You may not be getting paid much, but your time is incredibly valuable as a grad student and even more so an employee. As grad students we can get used to long hours watching cat videos on YouTube while the centrifuge completes a run, or taking frequent coffee breaks to get away from the lab during our 50+ hour workweeks. There’s nothing really wrong with this, as the flexibility of many students’ schedules allows for it, but it can make for a very difficult transition into work if you’re not used to hard deadlines and limited hours of operation. While in grad school, if I didn’t manage my time well and an experiment went too long or if I wasn’t done with writing I could stay as late as I needed to complete the work or come in on the weekend to catch up with plating cells. This is not the case as an employee, as now I have to contend with standard hours of operation, fixed deadlines, and collaborative projects that require me to finish my part on time or the whole project stalls. Thankfully, as a grad student I was ruthless about maintaining strict deadlines for myself and limiting my hours to 8-5 so the transition was not too difficult. Start building the habit of treating your time as precious and not something to waste and you’ll be well prepared for the professional transition.


Setting Your Standards for Independent Work: One of the great transitions graduate students undergo is becoming an independent professional and not a passive consumer of information. Part of that will be learning how you generate original work and how to set standards for yourself along the way. It can be a difficult adjustment after years of studying for the test in undergrad or just writing enough to get an “A” on an assignment. Suddenly being faced with the open-ended concept of what is “good enough” can be unnerving and lead to perfectionism or sloppy work if you’re not used to setting independent standards for yourself. Ask yourself  “What does good work in my field look like?” and work toward that. Set high but realistic standards for yourself so that when you do become more independent (either as an employee or postdoc) you know how to complete professional work with little to no input from those around you. Intellectual independence is the whole point of graduate school, so embrace the transition early on and learn to take control of and pride in the quality of work that you produce.


Embracing Professional Criticism: Learning to stand up for your research or scholarship can be difficult when first starting out. Mastering the art of presenting and defending your ideas in a rational, reasoned matter is a useful skill wherever you go, so make the most of your committee members for this reason. They are excellent trainers for learning to take an independent stance on your work and learning how to deal with conflicting opinions in a professional setting. On the interpersonal side of things, remember that while professional criticism of your work is to be expected, you are entitled to all of the professional respect due to anyone working in a more traditional 9-to-5 setting. Report abuse and harassment, whether from peers, students, co-workers, or professors. If it shouldn’t happen in an office setting it should not be happening in your lab, classroom, or field site. Don’t fall the trap of thinking “I’m just a student, so this behavior is acceptable.”


This student attitude is, in fact, my greatest regret of graduate school; I wish that I had learned to stand up for and demand the professional respect that myself and others deserved earlier. I eventually learned how to do this after having to deal with some seriously disrespectful behavior, but it is clear that I would have benefited from getting over the “but I’m a student” mindset the minute I set foot on campus as a graduate student.


Closing Thoughts


Professional development is not just the sum of the skills that you have or your number of published papers. It includes how you approach your work, structure your time, and interact with your colleagues. Make the most of your graduate education by learning to approach your studies not just as an extension of school where you are a passive student, but as a professional student actively participating in your profession.


What professional skills do you think benefit graduate students the most as students and in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


[Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Jackson, used under Creative Commons License]

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