Career Advice There Are Many Paths – Who Knew?

As an undergrad my senior year, I had an inspiration or a thought that I might like to “teach” college. As a first-generation college student, I had no clue what professors really did.  I only saw them in the classroom.  So, I asked a question. “What does it take to be a professor at a university?”

What Do Professors Do? Photo of a professor assisting 3 diverse students working together on an assignmentI wasn’t ready for the full answer or complete picture, so my mentor said “Well, you will need a Master’s degree.”  She knew it took much more, but a Master’s Degree was a good starting point.  Ok, I thought to myself, someday I will do that.

I also knew that I wanted to have industry experience to bring real life experiences into the classroom. It was clear to me that I wasn’t ready to do “that thing called a thesis”. I heard how hard “it” (writing the thesis) was.  I was in classes with grad students and in awe of them. All the work they had to do – I had doubts – could I really do that? A thesis? All that work? Research? I knew I wasn’t ready, so I focused on getting a job in industry.

That was the best decision for meat that time – to find a position in industry.  In my industry position, I learned so much and began to work with a mentor.  We did exciting research together; published papers; presented at conferences. They did not have undergraduate research programs when I was an undergrad – or – I was unaware of them.  It was only after our third publication that I knew I was ready for Grad School and a thesis.

What I didn’t realize at that time was that there are many paths, turns, and bends that my career would take. But I kept asking along the way for direction and then decided on what was the best next step for me at that point in time.

Picture of brown hills with a winding road going off into the distanceMy message is this – “A career is seldom a straight line to a goal.”  Careers today usually follow a series of “branching decision points” – more so than when I started – although my career path did have its branching decision points as well.

Those branching decision points lead you to a path that provides valuable learning experiences or as I call them “tools” for the tool box.  You may not realize how important those experiences are, but in time, you will see how valuable they are for your career path and you will be pleased to have that experience, knowledge, or “tool” to assist you in your career.

Today I see many career paths needing a balance between breadth and depth/specialization.  Too much of either is not good.  You need specialization to know your field and you need breadth to see beyond your discipline.  There are important skills to learn that come with each – Breath and Depth/Specialization.

Through my journey, I discovered that I was unique and so are you! We all have our distinctive gifts; that’s why it’s important NOT to compare yourself to others.  That’s why it’s important not be a clone. You don’t want to be a clone of your professor – you are unique and so are your life circumstances.  It takes a lot of courage to follow your own path.  In the end, the journey will bring you great satisfaction.  Mine has.

Look for mentors who can provide encouragement and share their experiences.

How do you do that? Take the first step and …

  • Talk to alumni
  • Use your professional meetings and network
  • Ask key people along the way as I did, “What best advice would you give me?” or “How can I get that experience?”
  • Use your Grad Student Organizations, Career Fairs, Research Symposia to network with peers and others especially industry or faculty leaders.

You never know from where your next leading will come. It’s all about networking.  Talking to others about their experiences is key.

Finally, remember you are on a journey.  Your career is a continuum.  At every level you want to learn as much as you can and network.  You are investing in you and you are in it for the long-term – not just for short-term results.Shows people walking on different curved paths. Message important Not to compare yourself to others

See each step as a long-term investment in your life’s work!

Before you know it, you will be sharing your story about your career path with others!

Fireside Chat: How to Prepare for One-on-One Meetings with Your Faculty Advisor

Daunting– that’s the word I could use to describe my first meeting with my faculty advisor – Awkwardis another – Why? Being a first-generation grad student, I was unprepared and/or unaware of how to make my meetings with my major professor efficient, effective and successful.

Over the years I have been a student of what makes successful meetings and to this day, I have faculty who will gladly come to any committee meeting I hold.

Why? I am prepared, focused, effective and efficient – I don’t waste their time nor mine.  Faculty members just like grad students are busy with lots of professional and personal demands on their time.

Preparing for your meeting is an important step for success in getting to the finish line – graduation.  Being prepared also reduces conflict and misunderstanding.  The key is to start early.

Before your meeting you want to send a short email with 1 or 2 sentences describing the major objectives of your meeting – notice I said your meeting.  You need to take control if you want to graduate. You can’t be passive. You want to be active.Person typing on computer sending an email

Use the subject line of your email to catch your advisor’s attention.  If you don’t hear back within 5 to 10 days, send your email again.

In that email send any materials or documents you need your major advisor to read and review.  They need it ahead of time – so they can think and reflect. Not the day before – their schedules are tight so allow at least a week or several days.

Prepare an agenda complete with action items and questions or topics for discussion. Have 3 or 4 main topics/or questions to discuss.

Send minutes and a reminder email. This is helpful. Of course, you have figured out the date, time and location and you have included that in the email.  The bottom line is – come well prepared – if you do, you will find that things move forward more efficiently. There still will be hurdles and challenges to address and you will be in a better position to do so.

Clock showing 3pm and Be On TimeDuring the meeting make sure you show up on time. Follow your agenda and ask clarifying questions. You will want to bring concrete things for your advisor to provide feedback.

Think about how your advisor might assist you. If there are professional as well as any personal issues that may influence how you complete the milestones – keep them informed.  You don’t have to reveal your personal life and at times we all know that “life happens” (funeral, flu outbreak) and it is important to inform your advisor and not just disappear. Keep them informed.

Remember to ask questions. Your questions help them to be better teachers of you.

Focus on what your advisor is saying.  They are providing feedback to assist you.  Ask clarifying questions about the feedback. If they are giving you directions be sure to follow them.  Nothing irritates an advisor more than to provide constructive feedback and directions and they are ignored.

Agree on the milestones you can meet. Record action items. Who is doing what and by when.Note pad and Pen taking minutes and recording action action items

After the meeting post minutes.  Even though you and your faculty advisor each took notes, it’s important to have minutes. You can send them out with the next agenda as well. By sending the minutes or a quick recap of the meeting, you can summarize action items.  You can summarize the deliverables as well.

The Key to all thisis to start early.  Have meetings even if they are only for 10 minutes.  Meeting 1 x a week for 10 minutes can make a difference and move you closer to the finish line – graduation.

When in doubt ask even when not in doubt ask.  You may find you have discovered an unclarified point.

Maintain on-going discussions about expectations with your advisor and yourself.  Take home to reflect on your expectations and goals.  They do change over time.

Remember you are preparing yourself to contribute new knowledge to your field.  You are giving shape to a “new” you from consumer of knowledge to producer of knowledge. The adventure of discovery and meetings should assist you in that process.

Finally, remember your advisor is not a manager.  It’s important to see your advisory as a catalyst and a facilitator.

You are in control of shaping your own graduate career. It’s up to you to get to the finish line and you will.

PhD comic strip about meeting with a professor where you did'nt do your work and he forgets about is as he is distracted

Fireside Chat: A True Story About a Home Run

“You can’t hit a homerun unless you get up to bat.” I am not the best baseball player.  In fact, if you were picking your team you wouldn’t select me.  But I did learn that I can hit a homerun. Let me tell you a story about how I hit a home run out of the ball park.

I was applying for Graduate Dean Positions.  I had served as an Associate Dean and then Interim Dean.  I knew it was common practice at many universities, although not at all, that the internal candidate is passed over. Partly because faculty know where your “warts” are or “you can’t be a prophet in our own backyard.”  It was clear to me that I better hedge my bets.

My campus was searching for the Dean of the Graduate School.  As Interim Dean, I knew I had a shot at the position.  I also knew that I better look for a position outside the university.  I began applying for positions.  It takes a lot of work to apply for an administrative position (but that’s a story for another fireside chat.)

There was one position open at a major research university. I had been on that campus to recruit grad students for my campus at the time.  I was so impressed by the people I met and the beautiful campus.  I could feel the positive energy of that campus and I knew I would love working there.

While I was there recruiting, I met with the Dean of the Grad School.  He told me that he was never going to retire.  I got depressed thinking “that’s too bad for me”.

Shortly after my recruitment trip, that position came open.  The Dean didn’t retire, he was promoted to VP for Research and that left a vacancy.  A vacancy that I knew I wanted and that all my male colleagues and then some would want as well.

As I made applications to other schools, I thought about that one position I really wanted. I kept thinking that I’d never get that job.  I was listening to the “self-doubt mind gremlins”.  Did I have enough experience? Could I do the job at a large research university?  Would they even consider my application? Those were the self-doubt and lack of confidence issues I was facing.

I also knew there exists gender and implicit bias that women may not be able to lead a male dominant large research-intensive university.  The biases affect the decisions that we make such as – not to apply.  They limit us. Or a I say, they become ingrained as part of our limiting belief systems.

It’s wasn’t uncommon for me at that time to feel that I didn’t deserve the position.  “I’m not as prepared.”  “I need to do more before I am worthy of such a position.” I find these thoughts to be a common theme among many high achieving women.  Studies have shown this as well; “I’m not deserving.”  At times it’s difficult to internalize your own accomplishments.   It’s easier for others to see them before you do.

That’s why mentors (peers included) are so important. They can make a difference.  They see in us what we can’t or don’t see.

So, I hope you get the picture.  I wanted that position and I was letting my limiting beliefs get in the way. I thought, “All the guys will apply, and I won’t stand a chance.”  Then I had another thought, “Yes, they all will apply, but if I don’t – I will never get the job.”  That’s when I realized that if you want to hit a home run, you have to get up to bat!

I did get up to bat.  I put in my A+ game.  I paid attention to every aspect of that application process. Did my homework and then some.  I was ready.

You know what? I hit that home run. I hit that ball out of the park.  I got that position. I was the first female to serve in that position. I was the first person from outside the university they hired for that position. In both cases, it only took 93 years to accomplish that. I served in that position for 12 years and loved every minute.

So, the next time you let self-doubt creep in, remember – You can’t hit a home run unless you get up to bat.

Fireside Chat: What Do I Know Now – Advice From Grad Students

“What do I wish I knew then that I know now?”

This is a question I ask graduate students as they are finishing up and getting ready to graduate. They have great insight and wisdom to share. Here are a few pointers from several students with whom I spoke recently as well as other thoughts that I have shared with my students. The direct quotes are from the students with whom I spoke.

Before I begin, people always ask me so what is graduate education? I reply, think about your experience as an undergraduate or someone you know. Undergraduates are consumers of knowledge and graduate students are producers of knowledge.  If you hold the thought that graduate students are producers of knowledge, then these remarks may make more sense for you.

More is expected of you. More than what was expected of you as an undergraduate. I mean, much, much, more.  It took me my first semester to figure that out.”

It’s not like being an undergraduate. More is expected, and you can’t expect people to hold your hand.” “They will not feed you information like – telling you want’s going to be on the test. It’s no longer appropriate.” You are a professional now and the faculty expect you to behave and perform as a professional.

It’s up to you to figure things out.” Take initiative, read and learn on your own. While it’s more demanding, there is life after graduate school so work effectively and efficiently now and get to your goal.

It takes longer than you think. Things don’t always work out the way you think they will nor in the time frame you’re expecting them to.” “Not everything goes as expected.”

One student told me that as she entered the Master’s program, she thought she had all the time in the world to figure out her topic of research.  She took her time the first semester or as she said, “I later realized that I needed to get going at the start of the program that first semester because I found myself behind at the beginning of the second semester.  It goes by faster than you think.”

As I tell my students, your time here is limited. You are not here to earn tenure. Before you know it, we’ll be at fall break, then winter holiday, and when we return there are only weeks before spring break, then graduation. Each year seems to go by a little faster, which can be overwhelming when you have to meet deadlines.

Right now, you have the luxury to focus on one research topic or one project. Once you leave the university you may not have that luxury again as there will be many more demands on your time. Enjoy the process and the gift to focus on the one project now.

There is a need for patience and persistence.“I didn’t realize that I needed to be resilient.”  “Things wouldn’t work out as I expected in my research. I learned that it was ok to fail. Through failure I learned to get up and try again and again.”

I always told my students we expect that things will not always work as we expect and if it weren’t for the failures we wouldn’t have the discoveries and innovation that we do today. The key is to “fail early” rather than later.

Take advantage of every opportunity. There is so much to be gained.  Go to conferences, attend seminars, meet speakers.  “I found the Grad School workshops on teaching and writing to be valuable not only while I was there, but also now that I am in industry. I use what I learned everyday with my team.”

In their own way they each told me, and I know as well, that graduate education is a transformative process. A transformation takes place from the time you enter until the time you leave. You sharpen your problem-solving skills. You develop and enhance your critical thinking skills that last a lifetime. You become a lifelong learner and create knowledge that we all benefit from in the process.

Remember that completing a graduate degree might appear to be a big job, but in fact “it consists of a million small chores” Haggerty & Doyle. Organize those million chores and ensure that you check them off on you way to that Big Goal – completing your degree!

Finally, never forget that you are giving yourself a gift – a gift of education that will last a lifetime and benefit your family, your community, and the world.