As part of a recent effort in my research group to engage in some career development activities, I made, or rather remade, my website. For those of you who may have found my previous site, allow me to apologize for the poor organization, lack of content, awful choice of colors, and all around meh-ness of my former site. To those of you who never saw the old one, it doesn’t exist anymore and you’re welcome for that.
As stated, my research group recently set aside some time to focus on doing what we refer to as “career development.” This is a term I have heard a lot since starting graduate school. There seems to be this huge push for making sure you’re setting aside time to “partake in professional and career development” as part of the “complete graduate education.” My use of quotes here indicates wording I’ve borrowed from presentations, talks, or conversations with mentors. Not having a lot of experience in this area, I figured I would take this seriously and listen to the guidance of those who, given their current employment and positions, must have successfully completed a large amount of these activities. I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect on my experience, detail some of my thoughts, and pose some potentially controversial viewpoints to consider and (hopefully) discuss with others more.
The early tasks I chose to undertake were very straightforward, simple things. Updating my Google Scholar page, updating my professional social media accounts (LinkedIn and Twitter), updating my ORCID profile, stuff like that. I devoted time to making sure I have a good online presence, something I have been told a number of times is important for success as a graduate student. These platforms allow individuals to connect from all over the world and discuss new science, collaborate on projects, ask questions about published research, find and secure employment opportunities, and generally build social networks.
Then came some more tedious work. Rebuilding my website was made a lot easier by building from a great template, but it takes time to build something even when a structure exists. Updating my CV took a surprising amount of time. The last time I had really made any changes was when I applied to graduate school approximately at the beginning of 2019. This told me two things: 1) I don’t really use my CV all that often, and 2) I’ve actually managed to do a lot in my PhD infancy. I also decided to take on the challenge of achieving inbox zero. Not something directly outlined as one of our activities, but I figured spending time learning how to organize emails and developing a system to continue to do so would be beneficial in the long run.
Then came the more challenging activities. I performed an in-depth self-assessment. What is this? I sat down and very critically reflected on my strengths and weaknesses. Normally, I think it is very difficult to do both of these things. Being negative towards one’s self is hard, and often times we are reluctant to call ourselves out on where we need to improve. On the other hand, we’re terrible at acknowledging our good aspects. We, being used as a collective for those in a similar position as myself, are notoriously bad at complimenting ourselves, taking compliments from others, or being told that we’re “doing really well” without immediately thinking about all the ways that we are decidedly not doing that. However, I find it’s much easier to think about the negative aspects of yourself than it is the positives. Some may call this imposter syndrome, others may call this perfectionism. Call it what you will, but this is not easy to do. Having done this, I’ve now outlined what I think my greatest areas for improvement are, what work I need to do to get there, and a better sense for how to do this again in the future.
Elevator pitches. Oof. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I love to talk. Often times, I love to talk too much. When asked what I do for my research, you’re either going to get a 10 second response along the lines of “I analyze data and work with computers,” or you’ll get a 30 minute monologue about all of the intricacies of my work. Concisely explaining my work to others is an area I need improvement in (which I had previously identified during my self-assessment even before attempting to write my elevator pitches). I think I struggle with this in particular because I lose to converse with people. Giving speeches and reciting from a script has never been a strong suit of mine because I prefer to speak naturally with others and follow the flow of conversation. Planning what I’m going to say feels so artificial to me. So instead of treating this as a script that I needed to recite, my elevator pitches (different ways of explaining and discussing my work depending on the audience) are a set of talking points with some specific wording that I’d like to use. I have no intention of memorizing this, rehearsing it in a mirror, and being able to recite it by heart on command. Rather, I will study this as how I would like to talk (and all I need to say so I know when to stop talking) and treat each instance where this is needed as an opportunity to converse.
The last activity I did was to conduct a long-term plan for myself. This process involves establishing our goals and visions for the next 1, 5, and 10 years. I think it was pretty easy to do this actually. My plan has basically always been go to college, go to graduate school, and get a job. In 1 year, I want to be done with my coursework. In 5 years, I’d like to be done with graduate school and established in an early career position in an industry/private-sector position. And in 10 years, I want to be more established in my career and still working my job. Boom. Done. But part of me feels like I’m missing something. Where are all the other milestones? What are the checkpoints that I should be looking for? Making a long-term plan like this that is comprised of a couple of bullet points seems incomplete. The difficult part for me has been struggling with this sense that I must be missing something.
Which transitions nicely into my main issue with this entire process: it feels like a bunch of academia rubbish. I’ll explain what I mean more. Throughout this process, I have had a number of conversations with my partner about what I am doing and what the goal of this all is. She works in the K-12 school system, so professional development (colloquially referred to in her circles as PD) is something she’s well versed in (especially in recent times where everyone in schools is figuring out how to teach at least somewhat remotely). In her experience, PD is all about going to trainings, learning new skills, and getting tangible new knowledge on something you may not have had before. It’s time set aside to hear somewhat talk about new ways of teaching students, or learning how to administer a new kind of assessment. Now, in most of this post, I’ve mostly been referring to what I have personally partook in as “career development,” but I want to clarify that the term “professional development” has been used interchangeably as well when we first decided to undertake this work. It’s been these conversations where I realized that this may be the most “academia” thing I’ve ever done.
First, I feel like I am completing this (approximately) week of effort with no new tangible skills. What have I actually learned? Updating social media and profiles is nothing new or difficult. Sure, I learned how to organize my emails a bit better, and I know a little bit more about how to build a github site, but I’m a data scientist/scientist at heart. I know nothing about new methods in my field. I don’t know anything new about making a CV that I didn’t know before. I have some talking points to help me stop from rambling, which sure, is maybe a new skill. But I feel like I have predominantly put a lot of effort into “looking good.” Almost all of this work has centered around my outward-facing presence. When someone Googles me, what do they find? When I publish a paper and someone has a question, what are they going to see when they look me up on Twitter? There’s this huge push in academia about how you “look” to the outside world. I use the phrasing “in academia” because I have a lot of friends who do data-science-related work in industry settings, and their exact words when I’ve talked about some of the things I’m working on as “career development” are “yeah, nobody cares about that stuff.” Correction to them: no one in their professional ecosystem seems to care about it. The more I think about it, though, the more I tend to agree.
For a professor with a research group and a number of publications and big grants to do hugely important work, I think everything I have been doing is very important. But I keep coming back to this thought of “who actually cares about a grad student’s profile?” If I publish a paper, what I imagine is actually going to happen is most researchers will just find the most senior author on a paper, look them up, and then get in contact with them. I know there are corresponding authors who should be contacted with inquiries or if someone wants to chat more about a particular topic or work. Even in my personal experience I’ve seen this foregone with questions like “whose lab did this paper come out of?” or “where are these individuals located at?” with the latter typically referring to the university. Ownership is so quick to be removed from the first authors unless the name is already known. Why? I can only imagine it’s because someone would look at a paper and say “who the heck is Nathaniel Hawkins?” at which point a Google search may reveal who I work with and then there may be some recognition. Perhaps I’m just jaded and unknowledgeable. Truth be told, I hope I am. But my gut feeling right now is that there’s this big push for graduate students to do all of this work to maintain an online presence when it kind of doesn’t seem to mean anything. And this was a hunch supported by the somewhat knee jerk reactions of my friends outside of academia. The phrase “nobody cares” may just reflect that this version of “professional development” is unique to the academia world.
Why then might my long-term plan have felt so empty? It caters to an academia world. In 1 year, you (or rather I) finish coursework. This typically takes 1-2 years, so depending on when one would do something like this, it may or may not match up like it does in my case. In 5 years, you finish graduate school and start applying for/working your first post-doc (maybe working 2-3 of these). And in 10 years, you’re done with your education and starting as a professor. Is it coincidental that this timeline matches up with the typical academia trajectory? Maybe. I’ve seen long-term plans outside of academia as well, so I don’t want to sound like the individual who just looks for conspiracies in everything. But this kind of a plan seems to have many more unique milestones and checkpoints compared to my plan of get a job and keep working said job.
Second, the aspects of this that I found most useful were all introspective activities. Learning more about how I communicate, acknowledging my strengths and weaknesses and thinking of ways to improve (something I’ve seen elsewhere described as a self-concept inventory), and developing new organizational strategies all benefit me in the long run. But I think how I went about doing them and what I actually took away from them was not part of the prescribed career development plan we had set out. It makes me think more about my partner’s experiences with PD and how all of those seem to be more introspective, learning more and building new knowledge, versus outward-facing (how you look when someone Googles you). Sure, I spent the majority of my time on these introspective activities, and if those are the things that I spent the most time on and they were the most helpful, then wasn’t the majority of this effort not, as I put it, “rubbish?” Sure, very valid point. But then my argument would be why waste any time on the other stuff? How does having a Twitter and actively posting interesting articles or updates on my work make me any better of a scientist? What new tools can I implement in my day to day research? In the 2 years my old website existed, it had 10 views. 10. And probably 8 of them were me just pulling up my page to show people I had a website. Why waste time putting together an online web presence when literally no one seems to care? The short of it is because I was told that it’s important, and that’s a narrative that I personally believe gets passed down through the academia ecosystem. You do because that’s “just what you do.”
This gets at a larger issue which I’ve had since I got to college. Academia is pushed so heavily. Granted, I’m literally in an academic setting, so the fact that it gets pushed so hard may not be so surprising. In undergrad, I feel like the only career option that I was told I qualified for as a physics undergrad was going to graduate school to do more physics. No one ever told me about other career opportunities for physicists or encouraged me to work internships during the summers. In fact, I was told a number of times that summer research projects with faculty were vastly more beneficial than working an internship with a company. Why would I have been told this? Because it’s true. That is, if you’re applying to graduate schools and want to work in academia. Then I finally get to graduate school (not in physics though), and now the assumption is that I’m getting a PhD so I can get a post-doc so I can be a professor someday. When you say something to the contrary, such as “well, I actually was planning on going into industry,” the response I’ve often gotten is “you don’t need a PhD for that, so why get one?” As someone who doesn’t really want to work in academia for the rest of my life, this consistent narrative that seems to prioritize going into academia as the only option, or at least anything to the contrary being seen as an enigma, can be frustrating.
Here’s a grade A example of me turning a short thought into a long-winded tirade. What do I want people to take away from this discussion other than I have strong opinions? I think more emphasis needs to be placed on learning new skills and developing new knowledge as part of the professional development process. In addition to that, I think that less emphasis should be placed on outward-facing facets. I look forward to thoughts and comments if individuals have them and would like to share.