Professional Development in Graduate School

Graduate students, no matter the discipline, have three overarching goals: publish papers, graduate, and get a job. Arguably, the latter is the hardest. A recent LinkedIn poll by Lou Alder suggests that 85% of new hires are filled via networking, which have been corroborated with another article from the Business Insider. [1,2] Networking along with other skills such as effective science communication, insight on external factors that influence science all are a part of one term: professional development.

With the overwhelming amount of resources for professional development, it can be an intimidating and time-consuming process for anyone. It should not, however, be delayed to the last minute as these skills can take years of practice. This article will share some of my personal “do’s” and “don’ts” to get you started.

Do: Build a personal brand

Developing a personal brand will force you to think about your value in the scientific community, increase your confidence, and grow your ability to self-promote your strengths and interests. In turn, this will also help you navigate conversations with complete strangers about yourself, a necessary skill that needs a level of mastery when building your network.[3] If you need more information from PROF, a previous blog post, authored by Matt Grandbois, discusses the importance of building a personal brand.[4]

Building your own brand will take time and effort, so start this like a homework assignment that was due yesterday. Once you have developed your “brand,” the next important task is implementation. How can you get your personal brand to translate into your resume/CV? LinkedIn? Cover letter? Research interests? Social media?

Don’t: Ask on the first meet about a job opportunity

When you are newly introduced to someone in a similar career you would like to pursue, it may be tempting to ask about future job opportunities at their company – resist the urge. It is likely that person you are speaking with does not have the correct information for you. Instead, focus on having a conversation that is informative about the company culture. In-depth conversations will help this person remember you longer and will help you feel comfortable at a later time. At that point, if you are interested in pursuing a job at their company/university, I recommend following the steps outlined in “How to ask for a job – without asking for a job.”[5]

Do: Attend local and national meetings

Attending research conferences at any level is a financial burden and time-consuming for young professionals. Still, it has the potential to bring sweeping changes and new dynamics for your network. Develop a strategy for conversations with others that work for you and practice, practice, practice. [6], [7] While COVID-19 has put a halt in-person meetings, virtual meetings have cropped up. While it’s not entirely the same experience, these virtual meetings are a great way to continue networking from the relative ease of your home (or workspace) without the hassle of travel costs.

Don’t: Expect your advisor (PI) to introduce you to their network

All research advisors are unique, and all of them tend to have a different approach to their professional networks. What are their expectations of you in different professional settings? Do they expect you to follow them around the conference and shake hands with their friends? Do they prefer you forge your own path? Can you speak to collaborators outside of the context of the joint project you are working on? Will their contacts help you reach your professional goals? If your career path branches away from your advisors’ career, then this will require networking in different circles. Don’t assume that your advisor’s network is enough.

Do: Prepare to face bias

There may come a time during a networking event, or at any point in your life, where you may encounter someone who has preconceived notions about details that define you. Unfortunately, race, gender, location, and age biases do exist and result in astonishing, off-handed comments that just make you want to drop your jaw to the floor. A web article from The Atlantic highlights the discrimination that minority groups face when networking.[8] When personal biases infiltrate your conversations with other science professionals, how you choose to handle those situations will become a part of your personal brand.

Biases have no place at a networking event, informal interview, or research conferences, but they do exist. Many societies, including ACS, have developed a member code of conduct,[9] and are exploring ways to file incident reports at national meetings.

Don’t: Stop enjoying your hobbies

Some of the most memorable conversations I’ve encountered with other professionals while building a conversation on scientific interests include discussion about shared interests and/or hobbies. These conversations make you much more memorable and bring a certain human component to light, meriting a better connection. It takes confidence to be able to network. Your mental health is a significant part to delivering that confidence to others and graduate students are most at risk for reaching a crisis point.[10] Graduate students can avoid burn out, overwhelming fatigue, loss of motivation, and chronic stress by maintaining a work-life balance.[11] Do something that brings you joy outside of the lab. In another PROF blog post, authored by Jarrod Cohen, he discusses mental health from the perspective of a graduate student working from home, which can often feel as solitary as working in a lab.[12]

Do: Follow up with new contacts

I cannot emphasize this enough – follow up with people you met! Your strategy is to get them to remember you, your joint conversation, to remind them of you (and your brand). When that next opportunity is presented, you want them to think of you as their first choice for the perfect candidate. Send them an email or LinkedIn message. Thank them for their time. Ask them if they have time for an informational interview. Ask how their technical talk went. It can be a simple follow up and check-in, or it can involve a further discussion of a topic you didn’t get to finish.

Do: Interact with the science community on social media

After the pandemic, all social events, including networking opportunities, may look different for conferences held at all levels. One way to work towards building your network during this time is to maintain a social media presence.[13] The top five social media accounts used by scientists for professional activities include ResearchGate, Facebook, Twitter,, and LinkedIn. Twitter has grown increasingly popular for scientists to communicate on a global scale in real-time.[14] AAAS has published resources for developing your own social networking strategies.[15],[16] One question I urge you to consider is – how does your social media strategy and content reflect your personal brand?

On a related topic, two ACS entities offer programming targeted for early-career chemists in ACS and are very active on their social media platforms – Division of Professional Relations (PROF) and the Younger Chemists Committee (YCC).

Division of Professional Relations:
Facebook: @acsprof

Younger Chemists Committee:
LinkedIn: YCC ACS
Twitter: @ycc_acs
Facebook: @ycc.acs

Hopefully you have some new ideas on how to move forward on your networking strategy. Graduate students have a lot of responsibilities on their plate, and keeping up with your daily responsibilities and working on your professional development skills are very difficult to balance. To stay on track, one suggestion is set aside a half-hour during the week to take a break from your routine and work on your professional development. This will help you chip away at a large task, without the pressure of mastering a skill all at one time. Some other great web articles that I did not explicitly mention within this post are listed below:


About the Author: Katherine (Katie) Johnson is a recent 2020 Ph.D. graduate and current postdoctoral scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno with a research focus on rare earth chemistry for luminescence and biological applications. Katie is the 2020 Younger Chemists Subchair for the Divison of Professional Relations, which has recently cosponsored a number of symposia and webinars including: “How to Get Your First Industrial Job” and “Mental Health in Graduate School.” Katie is also an active Younger Chemists Committee member where she is the Subchair of the Governance, Interface, and Outreach subcommittee, and is passionate about helping early-career chemists learn how to advocate for science policy, the importance of networking, and navigate their path through graduate school and beyond.


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