Fireside Chat: Best Advice From Alumni

When I was in graduate school, I never miss an opportunity to ask a question of an industry leader, a Dean, or an academic leader on campus.

My favorite question was,  “What’s the best advice you would give me?” I continued to ask that question in some form or another throughout my career. At times it became a bit more specific other times more general.  Now, I ask that question of alumni, industry leaders, and faculty members on behalf of graduate students.

Recently, I had the privilege of meeting with a group of 20+ alumni over lunch. They ranged in age and experience from recently hired to having a long career in industry. I asked them to share a bit of wisdom for those of you thinking about a career outside the academy.

I have taken their comments summarized them, included some direct quotes, and grouped them into four categories: 1) Your brand, 2) An open mind, 3) Jump in, and 4) Skill set for the “tool box”.

YOUR BRAND. “You are always your own brand.”  It’s important to have your talking points together.  You need to have your 2-minute spiel ready at all times. You want to be able to communicate the value you add to the company. Sometimes you may find yourself in the elevator with a VP and they ask you, “So, what do you do?”  Now you’re ready with your 2-minute talk.

Another important part of your brand is your credibility. “Your credibility is earned, not given.” An important part of that credibility and your brand is ethics. “Ethics are important.”

OPEN-MINDEDNESS. “Don’t be afraid to try something you didn’t think you can do.”  “Never limit yourself.”  By trying new things, you may give yourself a different perspective and be able to add more value to the company.

“Figure out how to connect the dots to get you to the final place you want to be.”  This may mean starting in one position and looking for opportunities and networking to open doors.  It’s about figuring out how to build your value so you can move to that next position.

Trying something new can lead you and prepare you for future opportunities. It’s important to be open to try something new and get new experiences. As one alumnus put it, “Don’t be afraid to try something you might not like because you may find out you do like it, or you can use that information and experience as fuel for your next job.”

JUMP IN.“Just Do it!” This alumnus was adamant about getting in there and do the job – especially for women in industry. You can’t be timid.  It’s important to keep an open mind.

“It’s okay if you don’t know – be humble – be open to learn.” Don’t sit back or you will miss out on opportunities. Even if you don’t know- just get in there and give it a try. Women too often think they are not prepared…they make great leaders. The key is to quiet the inner critic and move forward, even if it is just a tiny step.

“You can’t rely solely on the academic information you learned.”  Industry is changing.  “There is rapid change.”

TOOLBOX SKILL SET. In your tool box you will need a set of skills on which you can rely. “Networking is key if you want to advance.”  “You need to network to build connections” not only for advancement, but also for the projects you are working on.”   You need people in other parts of the company to assist you in solving or working on your project. “You can’t do it alone.”

Teamwork is important.  You may find yourself leading a group and it’s “critical to understand the group dynamics. You need to know what motivates each member.  You also want to see how you as the leader fit into the group.”

It’s important to “develop the skill of telling stories” and be comfortable at it. Storytelling is a great way to get your message across.  People always remember the story.

Don’t forget to look up.  “Need to look up and see what’s going on in the company. Lift your head up. Understand where the company is going and where the changes are.” You want to understand where the company is changing. “It’s even better if you can predict where the company is going.  You will be able to adapt more quickly and be on board with what’s coming down the road.”

“If you are running a race you can go real fast, but if you are going in the wrong direction, you will never cross the finish line.”  Bill Coed, ASHRAE President.

Each person talked about the excitement and challenges of their work.  They said to really enjoy what you are doing and if not, look for what’ next!

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My experience as the chief academic officer and administrator charged with providing vision and leadership in planning, guiding, and coordinating all aspects of graduate education from admission through graduation at two major research universities provides the foundation for our fireside chats.

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