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

The way you present yourself—how you dress, the way you speak—can help you land that postdoc or tenure-track post. But outward appearance is only one element to meeting your professional goals. The way you present yourself as someone worth paying attention to is also important; it can be the difference between getting your “foot in the door” and being on the outside looking in.

Like chess, developing your professional reputation requires a good strategy. Photo by Artemis Photo/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

But how do graduate students capture the attention of fellow students, faculty members, and other academics? It almost goes without saying that there’s a lot of research, writing, and presenting involved. But all this labor may be for naught if a graduate student doesn’t strategically approach the development of his or her professional profile.

In this post, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences faculty members and alumni, and faculty from the School of Engineering help answer the question above, sharing strategies that every graduate student can follow to stand out in the world of academia.

Publish, Publish, Publish

It’s never too early for students to start thinking about their academic trajectory—where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. Therefore, the earlier graduate students publish their work the better.

If you want to be a professor having a Ph.D. is just one piece of the puzzle. You also need to have a strong publishing record. Photo by bplanet/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“It’s critically important to publish your research if you want to teach at a research university,” said Lynne Pepall, dean of Tufts’ GSAS and professor in the School of Arts and Sciences Department of Economics.“Your future colleagues are interested in your scholarly impact, and a good publishing record as a graduate student is a strong indicator that you’ll be productive as a tenure-track faculty member.”

Adds Richard M. Lerner, the Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science at Tufts,

“Prepare early for an academic career and work to keep your options open. I have produced more than thirty Ph.D. graduates and have trained them to be programmatic, productive, networked, and flexible. I advise them to get at least two entries on their vita for each year they are in graduate school (chapters, presentations/posters, and, of course, refereed articles) and to publish in their area of dissertation research as early as possible.”

Elliott Sclar, who earned a Master of Arts and a Doctor of Philosophy, both in economics, from Tufts in 1966 and 1972, respectively, counsels students to really think about their dissertations.

“You need to be strategic about choosing your dissertation topic,” said Sclar, a professor of urban planning at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. “Your dissertation will serve as the basis for your job talks. You want prospective colleagues you meet to see you as someone who’s addressing important contemporary questions or controversies in your field. Although you may want to sink your teeth into some enduring, larger debate in the literature of your field, put that off until later. The place to start preparing your job talk for that sought after tenure-track position is in the choice of your dissertation topic. I give this advice to all of my doctoral students.” 

Get Out There

Not every academic can be a household name like Cornel West or Stephen Hawking, but it’s possible to stand out in your field. How do you capture the attention of your target audience? Like with fishing, go where the fish (um, academics) are.

“It’s important to position yourself in academic circles by attending conferences and following up with people who are in your field and who are interested in your work.” said Dean Pepall. “The people you meet at conferences may be the same people who are reviewing the articles you hope to publish in peer-reviewed publications. It’s important to develop these relationships.”

Business cards (like finely tailored suits) never go out of style. Make sure to hand out plenty of cards when presenting at conferences. Photo by Imagery Majestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“Bring business cards to conferences and meetings and, more importantly, send a follow-up email to every person you meet—no matter what their academic rank is—since you never know how your paths will cross in the years ahead,” adds Richard Lerner. “Also, explore post-doc opportunities and/or community-based or industrial positions, but only if they afford opportunities for you to publish and to remain part of a network.”

Presenting, of course, is just part of the conference experience. In order to get people talking (and to keep them talking) about your work you need to be able to “sell” it just about anywhere.

“Networking is important in graduate school and good advice can come from many places,” said Benjamin Carp, associate professor in the School of Arts and Sciences Department of History and author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, in response to a blog post titled “Beating the Odds: Graduate Alumni Share Advice for Landing a Tenure-Track Job.”Become accustomed to talking about your research and practice how to come across well. If you can convince a stranger at a conference that you and your research are interesting—from behind a podium, in an elevator, at an impromptu dinner gathering—you’ll be more likely to pull off the same feat when it counts, at a job interview.”

Show Them Who’s In the Driver’s Seat

By the time graduate school is nearing its end, a student will have developed into an independent researcher deeply engaged in his or her work—presenting at conferences, copublishing papers with an adviser, writing up a thesis or dissertation—and preparing to hit the job market. The world “independent” is key here since, as Dean Lynne Pepall shares, future employers and colleagues want to see that seasoned graduate students do, indeed, own the keys to the (research) car and know how to drive it.

Future employers want to see that you, not your adviser, is the one driving the (research) car. Photo by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

“It’s very important to present your work so that colleagues can see that you—and not your adviser—were the driving force behind the research; this will also be attractive to future employers who are looking to be convinced that you know what the next questions are and that your research can continue forward,” said Dean Pepall.

Sergio Fantini, a professor in the School of Engineering’s biomedical engineering department, concurs, adding that,

“It is critical to really own your project, know it well, be familiar with the scientific literature, understand the short-term and long-term objectives of the project, be able to articulate its true potential and intrinsic limitations, be familiar with all experimental, theoretical, and computational techniques associated with it,” said Fantini, who is researching how optical mammography can be used in the treatment of breast cancer. “This is a necessary foundation on which to build on. Secondly, make every effort at learning how to write a solid scientific article, how to prepare a well-structured technical poster, how to give a good scientific talk, and even how to structure a good research proposal. Thirdly, work hard in the lab to generate data, and think critically to interpret the data and let them guide next directions. Finally, publish and present at conferences as much as possible. If the work is really solid and you know it well, it will show in your written and oral presentations, and this is the best way to build a reputation.”

Also, remember that your audience has an agenda, too…but it’s one that can be mutually beneficial.

“In academia, it’s rarely about ‘who you know.’ It’s about your scholarship and the impact it can have on society,” said Dean Pepall. “Faculty will be interested in your work, in large part, because of the impact it can have on their work. If your colleagues see research they can learn from, they’ll want to have a professional relationship with the researcher.”

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:

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

Graduating Students Share What’s Next, Advice for New Students


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments