A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 2: For Professional Careers in Academia

From its inception, this blog has covered a range of issues—publishing research and presenting at conferences and meetings, to name a few—facing graduate students. But no topic has garnered more posts (or web hits for that matter) than those on life as a faculty member. Posts on this topic have included “Beating the Odds: Graduate Alumni Share Advice for Landing a Tenure-Track Job;” “The First Year in Academia: What to Expect, What to Avoid, and How to Make it Through in One Piece”; and part one of this series, “A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 1: For Careers Teaching in Academia”).

But teaching is just one academic career graduate students can pursue. Higher education also includes deans (yes, many of whom are former professors); directors; managers; and a host of other professionals.

How diverse are the career options in higher ed? Look no further than our Tufts alumni who are working in areas such as athletics (Danielle Ryder, G10, head field hockey coach, University of New England); alumni affairs (Usha Sellers, J57, G58, program director, Tufts Travel-Learn); advancement (Amber Countis, G09, director of prospect research, Norwich University); admissions (Laurie Hurley, A91, G00, director of admissions, Tufts’ Fletcher School); career services (Linda Spencer, G78, assistant director/unit head, Harvard University Office of Career Services); student affairs (David Rivera, G03, assistant director of student affairs, Yale School of Public Health); technology (Will Hilley, E94, manager, information technology services web development, Tufts University); and marketing/communications (Gail Bambrick, G79, G90, senior marketing communications writer, Tufts University).

There is, believe it or not, a clear path you can follow when pursuing a career in academia. Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

While the steps to becoming a faculty member and staying productive are fairly clear (publish and present research, acquire teaching experience, serve on committees) the path to professional careers in academia aren’t that straightforward—or are they?

In this post, Tufts University staff members and alumni address this question, sharing how they carved out successful careers in higher education and how you can, too.

Opportunity is Everywhere

The truth, as Fox Mulder of the X-Files would say, is out there, and so are professional development opportunities in academia. For graduate students the key, like uncovering extraterrestrial life, is knowing where to look.

Opportunities to get experience in academia are "out there." You just need to look in the right place.

“I knew early on that I wanted to work on a college or university campus, but I wasn’t sure in what capacity,” said John Barker, dean of undergraduate and graduate students at Tufts University. “So I pursued my Ph.D. at a place, the University of Rochester, where I could get some real world experience. I gained managerial experience as a graduate head resident, and I worked with residential life and with the school’s McNair program. I did all of this while I was a full-time doctoral student.”

Laurie Hurley, director of admissions at Tufts’ Fletcher School, adds,

“Use your summers wisely by seeking internship positions that broaden and/or deepen your higher education professional experience,” said Hurley, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Asian studies and a Master of Arts in urban and environmental policy from Tufts in 1991 and 2000, respectively. “Also, engage with your undergraduate institution as a volunteer. This is a great way to find out how admissions, career services, alumni relations, and other university offices function.”

Anne Fishman, director of communications for the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts, adds,

“Volunteering can be a great move, especially if you want to pursue a career in communications and have a background in the humanities. Offices of communications, publications, and marketing are always looking for help with copyediting and proofreading, photography, or video editing, and if you are willing to learn the basics—either teach yourself or take a course—volunteering is a great way to apply what you learn and become proficient in producing marketing communications collateral and taking on other communications activities.”

The more you can learn about academia, the better candidate for future employment you'll be. Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

There are other ways students can develop their professional profiles. They can take on leadership roles in their graduate student organizations or serve on university committees which include students. Graduate students can focus their research on a particular aspect of higher education (admissions, advancement, financial aid) and reach out to offices at their colleges or universities. Becoming “imbedded” in an office is a great way to pursue graduate-level work—papers and even theses or dissertations—and learn how a particular part of academia operates.

This broad knowledge, as Dean Barker shares, can be an essential part of your professional toolkit.

“Learn every part of the administration from the ground up,” he said. “If you understand how the budgeting of a department works or how to write grants or how the admissions process functions you will be seen as someone who can adapt and step outside of your comfort zone. If, for example, you love residential life and that’s all you want to do, you’ll eventually want to be a director of housing or a director of student affairs. But if you have a broader definition of what you want to pursue, you will need to be familiar with all the different parts of a college or university.”

Information Matters

People in academia are some of the nicest and most helpful people around. This is a very good thing for graduate students interested in academic careers since these professionals are almost always willing to talk about their career trajectories.

There's no need to be shy. People in higher ed will usually talk with you about their work. Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“One technique I used in my job searches, but wish I had used sooner, is informational interviews,” said Laura Wood, director of Tufts’ Tisch Library. “These are opportunities to meet with professionals and ask them about your field of interest, the current trends, or other specific questions without asking for a job. The understanding is that you are looking for expertise, not help getting a job. In a couple of cases, informational interviews helped me rule out professional directions I had considered.”

Gina Siesing, director of educational and scholarly technology services at Tufts University, concurs, adding that,

“I’m a great believer in the informational interview. Whenever you have interest in a particular kind of career, or when you respect a particular higher education leader, ask that person whether they’d be willing to meet and talk for an hour. Invite them to coffee or lunch so you can ask them about their career path and learn more about their work. These are generally wonderful conversations, and they offer a terrific opportunity to reflect on how you might match your own talents, skills, and interests to the rich range of possible job types in academia.”

Hit the Road

Presenting at conferences is critical to landing a faculty position post graduation. These events are also the place to be if you want to make a name for yourself in the professional higher education world.

Whether by train, plane, or Aston Martin, you need to travel to conferences and make yourself known. Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Going to conferences is as important for someone who wants to go into administration as it is for someone who wants to pursue a faculty position,” said Dean Barker. “Every discipline has conferences that faculty attend and where you can present your work. You need to be at these events to shake hands and meet people.”

Adds Amy Ingrid Schlegel, director of the galleries and collections at the Tufts Art Gallery,

“Regularly attending conferences to learn about best practices and new approaches is key. In the museum field, the Association of Academic Museums and Galleries offers a five-day intensive leadership seminar, cosponsored by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. I was invited to participate in this seminar and it gave me many new insights on my own management style. I learned things—how to ‘teach’ leadership, create more buy-in from constituents, and other practical skills—that you don’t learn in a Ph.D. program.”

It’s also crucial to connect with professional organizations in your field.

“I encourage students to get involved with professional organizations as soon as possible,” said Laura Wood. “These organizations provide forums to network, ask questions, and learn. The sooner you can find a way to contribute—whether through presenting, volunteering on a committee, or joining a discussion group—the better.”

“In one professional organization that is core to my field, I moved gradually from helping organize one-day professional development events to serving on the Board of Trustees and its nominating committee,” said Gina Siesing. “Working with professional organizations is a great way to enhance your reputation and that of your institution.”

Keep on Keepin’ On

While making a name for yourself beyond the walls of your university or college is crucial, it’s also important to make a name for yourself within your academic institution. This reputation building can lead to more responsibility and, hopefully, a promotion down the road. How can you make this happen? As Nike says, ‘Just Do It.’

Volunteering for projects can broaden your experience and, in some cases, lead to a promotion. Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Volunteer for projects early in your career,” said Jillian Dubman, secretary of the faculty for arts, sciences, and engineering at Tufts University. “You’ll be seen as someone who does good work, is communicative, and is focused on the customer—all of which can help build your credibility within an organization. I’ve been in my current position since 2008, but I’m still learning every year because there are always opportunities for me to participate in new things. Last summer, I volunteered to serve as chair of the action planning committee for the offices of the president and provost. This was a growth experience for me because I had never facilitated a group like this. It gave me an opportunity to use my writing, communication, and facilitation skills in a way I hadn’t before.”

Jeffrey Rawitsch, A04, G09,  manager of music events and publicity for Tufts’ Perry and Marty Granoff Music Center, agrees, adding that,

“Establishing yourself as someone who exceeds expectations is the best way to show that you’re ready for the next step,” said Rawitsch, who earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts in child development from Tufts in 2004 and 2009, respectively. “When I say exceeding expectations, I don’t necessarily mean by leaps and bounds. Instead, go beyond the bare minimum required in any job, even if it’s just setting up chairs for a concert performance. There are always things that can be improved upon, like figuring out the most efficient way to set up a stage for a concert. By demonstrating that you can stay ahead of the curve, even if only in small increments, you will show that you are a person who cares enough about the work to complete it down to the last detail.”

By Robert Bochnak, G07, senior writer/communications manager, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences

We want to hear from you! Do you have advice for building your professional profile? Are there any best practices that we missed? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

Recent posts:

A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 1: For Careers Teaching in Academia

How to Recognize and Resolve Conflict in the Lab, the Classroom, and in Other Academic Settings

Coming to America: How to Make the Most of the International Graduate Student Experience

How to Make it Through the First Year of a Ph.D. Program in One, Albeit Frazzled, Piece

Grad Student Guide to Pursuing Research Abroad

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9 Responses to A Graduate Student Guide to Developing Your Professional Profile—Part 2: For Professional Careers in Academia

  1. Ang says:

    It’s nice to see some attention focused on the staff/administration side of the university. I have spent the bulk of my career in higher ed, so going back to school and working on my doctorate at this phase of life has been an interesting experience. I actually enjoy administration and would love to combine teaching with university leadership.

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