Three Keys for Graduate Student Success

Published: Tues., August 9, 2016

The following article features an interview conducted with Rick Reis of the Tomorrow's Professor blog offering some of his best advice to help graduate students prepare for their time after graduate school. Adapted with permission from an article written by Chris Golde for Grad|Logic: Navigating the Ups and Downs of Graduate School.

You need to assume that the demand for you will be less than you like
and supply of people like you will be greater than you like. Act accordingly. Rick Reis, PhD Higher Education Consultant

That is the career preparation advice that Professor Rick Reis — known around the world as “Tomorrow’s Professor”—offers to grad students and postdocs.

Reis has a broad overview of graduate students’ professional development, particularly for academic careers. He has published the “Tomorrow’s Professor” e-Newsletter for nearly 20 years. He has given a lot of thought to how grad students are prepared for faculty careers, and has a view of what is changing.

During our interview he broke down “Act Accordingly” into three specific pieces of advice:

  • Start early and develop multiple options
  • Think next stage
  • Cultivate breadth-on-top-of-depth

1. Start Early and Develop Multiple Options

The worst case scenario, says Reis, is when students start to consider their career options only when they are finishing their PhD. Expecting to put in two months of work, even full time, and end up with a job is unrealistic. It leads to disappointment and tears.

Start early. Develop multiple options. You can prepare concurrently for careers in academia, government, and industry. Keep all these possibilities in mind. Actively explore all your options.

At the start of your PhD program go to seminars, meet people, and connect. Network. Create a database of people you come in contact with. These are potential future colleagues. Some of them could become advisors.

Rather than leaving the job search to the very end, start your career exploration early. Take mini-breaks from your studies to talk to people, shadow them, and do short internships. Interweaving these experiences intentionally will expand your options and skills. Taking a break from relentless research can rebalance you and reconnect you to your “table top.”

Reis rejects the advice that those who want faculty careers should go “All In” and engage only in activities that might have value for an academic job application. To the contrary, no effort and time spent developing other skills and actively exploring non-faculty opportunities is wasted. Even for those who choose the faculty path, spending a year or two in industry or government gives you more information, more resources, and more connections. In science and engineering, at least, industry connections are a plus.

Over the years, Reis has seen increased acceptance by faculty of a variety of career tracks. There is noticeably less push back when students proactively develop multiple career options.

2. Think Next Stage

Think ahead, look ahead, and act ahead of the stage you (and your future competition) currently occupy. Do the activities—initially in small practice ways—that will be expected at the next professional stage.

The job market, regardless of where you want to be, will be competitive. So you need to be better prepared than others. Doing the things that will be expected of you—teaching, grant writing, supervising younger students—demonstrates not only your willingness, but also your readiness, to assume the position you are seeking.

However, when it comes to teaching, he cautions against doing too much. Try different kinds of teaching experiences: mini courses, lectures, sections, labs. Avoid repeating the same TA roles, if possible, as they can suck up a lot of time with diminishing returns.

Once again, Reis sees noticeable change over the last two decades. There is no longer much push back from faculty on the idea that students and postdocs should engage in professional development.

3. Cultivate Breadth-on-Top-of-Depth

Reis offered the model of a table as way to think about your intellectual interests. The broad surface of the table top represents the broad field that initially grabbed your imagination, such as marine life or climate change or solar power or medieval literature. As a grad student, you are focusing on a narrow problem area: one leg of the table.

As you continue your career after your PhD and into a postdoc and beyond, you will explore other legs.

Return periodically to thinking about the broader field—the table top. Connecting to the breadth of your interests places your developing expertise in a broad context. Pull out and look for connections. This shift of perspective—from the leg to the table top—has three advantages.

  • You will remember what got you excited about your field in the first place. Sometimes can get into your “leg” so deeply that all you can see are the frustrations and obstacles.
  • You will see how your leg fits with the table top. This helps you make a compelling case for the value of your contribution. Over time, you will be able to develop related areas of depth—exploring new legs—as a postdoc or faculty member. But you will always see the big picture.
  • You will recognize connections between your work and that of others. How might your expertise have application or connection to another leg at another part of the table top? These questions can lead to collaborations in the future.

“Enjoy yourself.” That was Reis’ concluding thought.