How to get what you want out of graduate school: lessons from the business world

Academic training teaches ECRs how to design, run, and analyze experiments, but often overlooks soft skills such as interpersonal and organizational skills. In this blog post, Rachel Meade shows you how to develop these skills and become a more well-rounded scientist.


6 min read
How to get what you want out of graduate school: lessons from the business world

Graduate school is an excellent place to gain the expertise, skills, and experience necessary to identify and pursue a target career. However, graduate programs do not always teach soft skills such as decision-making, organizational skills, and stress management. In the business world, these soft skills are considered the keys to success as they increase professional efficacy and facilitate upward mobility in a chosen career path. In the world of research, the importance of these skills is passively acknowledged yet they are considered subsidiary to conducting experiments, composing articles, and seeking out funding. This failure to build professional competencies can leave trainees blindsided as they advance (or fail to advance) in their careers. Further, trainees of historically underrepresented cultural, racial, and ethnic backgrounds in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) are often presented with less quality educational and professional opportunities and mentorship, impeding the development of skills necessary to enter or advance towards a successful scientific career. Individuals with mastery of these soft skills are highly sought after by the NIH, NSF, and U.S. government programs, signifying the importance of developing these skills prior to entering the job market in any employment sector, be it academic, industrial, government, or nonprofit. To support your career, here are suggestions and resources to support the development of soft skills that will make you more effective in your research endeavors and more desirable to employers.

Time Management

Graduate school and postdoctoral fellowships can feel as though they will last forever, yet time is truly an early career researcher’s most valuable resource and should be utilized accordingly.  This includes blocking off time to think about your long-term career goals. You should start this as early as possible. Perhaps contrary to intuition, recent work studying biomedical graduate students across ten institutions shows that spending time on professional development does not significantly lengthen the time to degree.
If you don’t know what you want to do, read books, discuss with colleagues, reach out to institutional alumni with careers that you are interested in, and attend career development events at your institution. I highly recommend Career Opportunities in Biotechnology & Drug Development by Toby Freedman, Ph.D. and Next Gen PhD: A Guide to Career Paths in Science by Melanie Sinche as starting points for career brainstorming.
As you begin to solidify your career goals, identify skills that are necessary for these careers but will not naturally develop during your training. Budget time for activities that will support the development of those skills, such as online courses, workshops, or internships. Keep your academic advisor and any other faculty mentors in the loop about your goals so that they can keep an eye out for opportunities and, perhaps more importantly, not be blindsided by your choice to spend time working toward these goals. In addition, learning to budget your time is an essential skill for avoiding burnout in the face of multiple projects and competing priorities. By establishing reasonable time blocks early in the week for essential tasks, including times to eat, sleep, and care for yourself and any dependents, you can begin to learn what expectations of yourself are reasonable. Research demands ebb and flow, but additional investments in professional development and self-care will pay dividends.

Teamwork

When working in a collaborative research environment, functional communication of expectations and obstacles is both a valuable skill and a way to resolve problems more quickly. From tag-teaming experiments to collective troubleshooting of lab reagents and machinery, the ability to group together and solve a problem speeds up research and fortifies professional relationships. One way to do this effectively is to implement a LabScrum meeting system, which utilizes four types of meetings throughout a time period called a “Sprint”: (1) a “Sprint Planning” meeting to set the priorities and agenda for the Sprint, (2) “Stand Ups” to briefly communicate progress and setbacks, (3) “Sprint Reviews” to share results like in a traditional lab meeting, and (4) a “Sprint Retrospective” at the end of the Sprint to evaluate the process to improve and adapt over time. This process can cut down on total meeting time for the mentor while facilitating teamwork and communication within a group. Should setbacks materialize as interpersonal conflict, which is less readily handled in group meetings, it is important to learn the art of healthy conflict management. Often conflicts arise due to a lack of communication. The ability to identify an issue, share how the issue affects you, and work with others to find a mutually beneficial solution is a highly valuable skill. Learning to manage both logistical setbacks and interpersonal conflict can greatly support success in any walk of life.

Running meetings

Between planning experiments, sharing results, and composing collaborative grants and reports, meetings are a core element of life in academic research and are central to almost any collaborative work environment. The ability to plan and run an effective meeting can play a pivotal role in mobilizing large groups of people toward the same goal in the most optimal way. No one wants to waste time, and coworkers might resent attending a meeting that could have been an email. Before calling a meeting, establish your goals for the meeting, and ask yourself whether a well-crafted email could more efficiently resolve the issue. If the answer is no and a meeting is needed, start with planning. Compose a minute-by-minute agenda to address your goals, and be sure to limit to three or fewer goals per meeting, as more goals may warrant a second meeting. Include 5-minute buffer times at the beginning and end of the meeting for attendees to arrive and depart for both virtual and in-person formats. Set aside time for discussion at the end, and if there is not enough time, you might consider planning more than one meeting. Free online meeting schedulers offer flexible group scheduling (Doodle Poll, when2meet). When proposing potential windows for a meeting to a group, offer a variety of times and weekdays, and make it quick and simple to respond. Before the meeting, share the agenda with attendees to ensure that they understand the purpose and flow of the meeting and to offer the opportunity for feedback. During the meeting, have someone take detailed notes, which can act as a standing record of the meeting and can be shared with individuals unable to join. After the meeting, send a summary to attendees with the minutes, a list of residual questions, and action items. Listing action items is especially helpful as a summarizing action for any meeting, as it communicates exactly what is expected of the meeting participants and leaves the door open for further discussion and clarification. Practicing these tenets in both small and large meetings will streamline the meeting process, reduce frustration, and ensure that attendees feel their time is valued and productively spent.

Self-promotion

Researchers in all career stages should work to frame themselves in ways that poise them well for their next career goal. Self-promotion is the act of publicizing your skillset and accomplishments with the goal of advancing your career or projects. As an early career researcher, self-promotion can take many forms. In addition to cultivating a public and online presence through which to pursue your career goals, it is also essential to advocate for your personal and professional needs within your research group. A senior graduate student once shared with me the mantra, “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” If you need something from an advisor or collaborator, such as a recommendation letter, support for a professional endeavor, or even a personal leave, do not remain silent. Rather, communicate your needs and collaborate to ensure that they are met. Failure to communicate needs can breed resentment and ultimately harm your professional relationships. One great way to practice self-promotion is to “mentor up” to your recommendation writers by sharing accolades and accomplishments that you would like them to highlight and sharing resources to prevent unconscious bias in the letter. Regular self-advocacy in a research setting can build confidence and establish connections that will assist in your pursuits of more widely recognized forms of self-promotion, such as preparing an elevator pitch, developing a personal brand, building and maintaining a personal website, and cultivating a presence at conferences and on #AcademicTwitter. You might even consider designing a business card with your name, affiliation, and website URL. Practicing these methods of self-promotion will enhance your professional network both inside and outside of the lab, keeping you ever-prepared for unexpected job opportunities and making you a more attractive candidate for future positions.

Early career training can be like choosing your own adventure. It is the perfect time to invest in your skills and experiences, putting yourself on a path to become the professional that you aim to be. Learn from others’ experiences but forge your own path. No two are alike and learning professional skills will lead to smoother collaborations, intentional professional development, and a more productive overall training experience.

Cover image by krakenimages on Unsplash


About the authors:

Rachel Meade  is a doctoral candidate in the Smith Lab at Duke University and a member of the Communication & Outreach Subcommittee of the Genetics Society of America (GSA)’s Early Career Leadership Program. The Communication and Outreach Subcommittee aims to bridge the communication gap between scientific disciplines, as well as between scientists and the public. Follow Rachel's personal website, or connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn .

The following members of the GSA’s Communications and Outreach Subcommittee contributed to this blog post:
Carla Bautista Rodríguez, M.S. (@CarlaBautistaRo)
Rachel Fairbank, M.F.A. (@rachel_fairbank)
Elisabeth Marnik, Ph.D. (@lizmarnik)
Stephanie Mohr, Ph.D. (@smohrfly)
Karyn Onyeneho, M.S. (@Karyn_Oh)
Caitlin Simopoulos, Ph.D. (@caitsimop)


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