Developing your Professional Identity

Published: Tues., July 9, 2019

During your graduate education, you may find yourself between two identities. Depending on the context of your experiences, you may feel like a professional and an amateur at the same time. While you are a graduate student is, in fact, the ideal time to start to change your perception and define yourself as a professional. You are not simply a biology graduate student or a history graduate student you should start to consider yourself a biologist or a historian.

Not waiting until you are ready to graduate to begin defining your identity as a professional allows you to refine the identity you claim. It is sometimes difficult for individuals to think about their own identity and skills. The following suggestions may assist you in becoming the professional you want to be.

    1. Assess your skills

    Developing a professional identity includes assessing who you are and what you have to offer. What do you want to do once you graduate? In response to the answer to that – what skills do you have? What is your interest or focus area? Use your goals to define who you want to become. What kinds of skills or activities do people in that field have or do? If you do not already have those skills of experiences, start looking for ways to develop them.

    2. Package your skills

    What will make you stand out? Think of a memorable, concise way to speak about your skills. Now is the perfect time to develop an “elevator speech.” As you start to think about how you want to package you skills, you may identify skills or experiences you need. For example, if you are interested in working with diverse populations, find ways to show that commitment in your work. Words will only get you so far; actions will always speak louder than words.

    3. Be the best you can

    Showing yourself as a hard-worker now can have a dramatic effect on your reputation. Not only will be doing good work, but often the people who are hard-workers are the ones who are given additional opportunities. Always aim for quality and be productive.

    4. Avoid toxic workplace behaviors

    Gossip, cursing, and other inconsiderate behaviors can mark you as immature, irresponsible, or disrespectful. Or maybe you are perpetually checking your cell phone during meetings or posting inappropriate things on Facebook or Twitter. Remember your professors will be your future colleagues or will be writing your recommendation letters in the future. These are your future colleagues and you want them to see you as someone they would want to work with. Also, remember your future colleagues may search for you online and you do not want them to find a post that might insult your colleagues or students. Do you want your future colleague to think of you as a difficult person to work with?

    5. Be purposeful in your networking

    Go to meetings (on time and with your work done), speak up, volunteer when you can, and collaborate. Show that you want to be there and be a part of it. No matter what career you are planning in the future, networking, and getting involved is beneficial. It shows that you are collegial and want to support the community. It also will help you build useful skills for the future careers and helps you connect with your future colleagues.

    6. Develop communication skills

    Send professional emails to colleagues. Edit an email before you hit send. Practice speeches. Find resources that will help you improve and practice good communication habits (Toastmasters can help). This will help make sure that your message is getting through in the way you want it to.

    7. Keep organized not just in your schedule, but also in your workspace and tasks

    Being organized assists in being productive and doing quality work. Show your colleagues that you are organized and prepared. This may lead to additional professional opportunities. This also shows them that you are on top of your work and responsibilities.

    8. Behave and dress to show that you take pride in being a part of the team

    Look to the professors and professionals in your field for cues. How do they dress or behave? If you want to be treated as a professional, one step can be making sure you look and act the part. Consider this: if you teach or mentor undergrads, do you look unrecognizable from them? If so, then others may treat you as a student rather than a professional.

You’ll find that many of the above suggestions overlap – that while you are doing one, others are also being used and developed. Remember that while you are progressing to your goal, you will also need to stay focused on the goal with your education but also your actions. Behave like a professional, believe in yourself, develop your networks, and make your identity a positive one.


Lo, Mika. (2017). How to develop a professional identity. Retrieved from

Fisher, C. (2017). Tips for professionalism in the workplace.