You chose a great lab in a great graduate program, you work around the clock to get data, you know the literature like the back of your hand, and you have regular meetings with your boss to assess your progress. You are doing everything you can to start your career on the right foot, right? Well, maybe there are a few more things that you should do.
Being a scientist in academia, as well as in industry, nowadays, is one the most competitive professions. Even though your high-profile lab and prestigious publications are important ingredients for success, you need to do more to increase your competitiveness and set the right foundation for your career. This is true whether that will be in academia, in industry, or wherever else you might chose.
Read below for a few easy ways to work on career building while you are still in graduate school.
1. Think and Present Yourself as a Budding Professional, Not Just a Student
Self-perception determines the way we carry ourselves and sets the tone for the way we are treated by others. It is, therefore, important to adjust our self-image to match our aspirations. While the word ‘student’ is in your title, you are not just a student, especially after you pass your comprehensive exam. You are a researcher and a candidate for a higher degree. So, think of yourself as a young professional and graduate school as the beginning of your career. That perception will positively influence your decisions. It will also dictate the way you are treated by your colleagues and any potential future employers you meet.
2. Start Working on your Professional Network as Early as Possible
During graduate school you will meet more people than you anticipate. Aside from fellow students and postdocs, you interact with visiting speakers, collaborators, fellow researchers in conferences, sales representatives in trade shows, and so on. Use every opportunity to talk to people, to inquire regarding their career path choices and to ask for advice, if appropriate. Also remember to follow up the introduction with an email and a LinkedIn request. You will get interesting information regarding professional choices that might help you adjust your career path right now. In addition, you will create contacts that might be useful to you down the road.
3. Market Yourself in Addition to Your Work
As a scientist, you are probably taught to be modest and use “we” instead of “I” when you talk about your research. Even though there is something to be said about a modest demeanor, don’t overdo it. Focusing on your research and generating high quality data is important. However, if you want to establish yourself as one of the authorities in your field, you will have to spend time promoting yourself.
Whenever you have the opportunity to go to a conference, write a review, or give a presentation, take it. Spare no time or effort in creating the best poster, giving the best talk, or writing the best review. Do not be afraid to take credit for your work. As long as you do so respectfully and professionally, people will remember not just your research but also the brain behind the work: you. Making a good name for yourself might be the best professional move you will ever make in graduate school.
4. Learn a Marketable Skill
During graduate school, you could learn a skill that will help you with your research and also be handy for the next step in your career. For example, if you are using next generation sequencing for your research, then you could take the opportunity to learn database management or how to code. Both of these are useful skills when it comes to handling large datasets.
Don’t limit yourself to skills strictly related to your field; learn something that simply interests you. You could take a course in finance, management, marketing, writing, electronics—the list is endless. Although all of these skills might seem unrelated to research, they will they give you an edge when you are competing for your dream job in industry and will also help you do a better job in academia. For example, doesn’t the fate of a grant application depend on how efficiently you market your research or how well you present your ideas in your written proposal? Moreover, learning a new skill may reveal a talent of yours that will intrigue you enough to pursue further. As for the extra time that this requires, you will no doubt find it if you manage your time wisely, and you will thank yourself for doing so down the road.
When you volunteer you acquire additional skills and knowledge. Volunteering also shows that you are motivated, hard working, selfless and kind. Employers seek out these qualities in academia and outside of it. Volunteering also provides the opportunity to take a break from your everyday engagements and devote your energy to help others, which—research shows—makes you happier and more productive. Finally, volunteering gives you the opportunity to acquire experience in your developing skills: i.e., you can improve your teaching skills by tutoring children in low-income areas. You help others while improving yourself, in other words a win-win! Similar to learning a new skill (see above), you have to master time management, so you can make time for volunteering.
6. Keep Track of Your Progress
Your mentor and your committee members are hopefully keeping you on your toes regarding the progress of your research, but the ultimate responsibility for your professional advancement lies in your hands. Set aside some time every six months and assess your progress. Ask yourself: what have you done right? what have you done wrong? and what adjustments do you need to make? Update your CV, add any new skills and knowledge acquired and touch base with some of your key professional contacts. Finally, make a road map for the next six months; set some distinct goals and a timeline for achieving them.
With just a few attitude and behavioral adjustments, graduate school can be the stepping stone to the bright career you dream for yourself. You just have to keep an open mind, expand your horizons and treat yourself with the respect you deserve.
Please share with us below what professional moves you made during your graduate school years that served you well later on.
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