5 Things Grad Students & Postdocs Should Do Right Now to Build Successful Academic Careers

As a grad student or early career PhD, how can you build a successful academic career?

The answer to this question might not be clear. When we enter graduate school, we usually have orientation programs and meetings with grad advisors to get us started. Departmental handbooks also tell us what exams and paperwork we need to complete to advance to the next phase of our program. But beyond that, you might not know how to find the necessary resources to guide you on your academic career path after grad school.

Academic career experts agree that grad students, postdocs, and PhDs need ongoing professional development and support to navigate the challenges of research, publishing, funding, and work/life balance. Especially as Covid-19 has made higher ed even more restricted, you will need to reevaluate current strategies and set feasible goals to achieve academic success.

Here are five things every grad student and postdoc should be doing right now to not only survive but thrive in your academic career pursuits.

1. Build a PhD Mentor Network

Networking is a valuable, yet forgotten strategy in academia. We tend to associate networking with non-academic spaces, where job searchers meet at events and exchange business cards. Yet networking is so much more than that, and you should be actively growing your professional network while in grad school.

As an academic, a network of peers and mentors can support you in different areas of your work, life, and career. Your network might consist of classmates from seminar, colleagues in a lab, fellow scholars you met at a conference, or even an undergraduate advisor with whom you stay in touch. Whoever you choose for your network, they should be people who are reliable, supportive, and safe to talk to as you advance in your academic career.

Dr. Caleb McKinney (Assistant Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Training and Development, Georgetown University) notes that finding a mentor is all about value alignment. Try mapping out your personal values and priorities for research, work/life balance, and career goals. Then, turn those priorities into questions you might ask a potential mentor. Questions like “How many hours per week do you expect a successful trainee to be in the lab?” or “Do you have any experience working as/with a PhD student parent?” can help you determine if you two will have a good working relationship.

Remember that you should also diversify your mentor network. Even if you have a supportive mentor, one person cannot be everything all the time. Cultivate different perspectives on the various aspects of your work and life. Get as much advice from trusted people as you can so that you make well-informed decisions about your career.

With that said, mentors shouldn’t be the only contacts in your network. Reach out to peers who can support you on your academic career path. Dr. Joseph Lutz (Director of Postdoctoral Affairs, University of Kentucky) recommends peer mentoring groups for grad students and postdocs to stay connected. Begin a writing circle with other grad students who want to improve their academic writing, or create a monthly reading club to keep track of new literature in your field.

Both mentors and peers are invaluable sources for productivity accountability and emotional support during these challenging times.

2. Get Feedback Early and Often

As a grad student or postdoc, it can be scary to share your writing with more experienced scholars. Imposter syndrome is a real thing, and it can present a major barrier to improving your research. That’s why it’s crucial to get feedback on your academic writing as early and often as possible.

There are a number of key benefits to sharing your writing in its early stages.

Adeline Boettcher, PhD is a scientific editor and writer who says that getting feedback on your academic writing can help you move in a different, better direction than if you wrote in isolation. Your work will always be imperfect in the initial stages of any project. Why not get another point of view on how to hone your methodology or theoretical framework BEFORE you commit to an unproductive path?

When receiving feedback, it’s important to keep in mind that it should be constructive and not tear you down. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case when we submit a paper for a grade or a manuscript for publication. The Reviewer #2’s of the world will never have the kindest things to say about your academic writing. But there are ways to approach feedback without feeling overwhelmed and personally attacked.

Whenever you get feedback on a draft, give yourself time and space away from it. When you return, organize the feedback in a table with the corresponding page number. You might also include a detail for how you plan to address the feedback in revision. Developing a guide like this to approach your feedback with clarity and structure will help feel motivated to move forward with your project.

3. Hone Your Writing and Research Skills

We often hear that publishing, securing grants, and finding postdocs and fellowships are important facets of any successful academic career. But how do you approach these tasks when you haven’t done them before?

If you’re a grad student or postdoc who wants to publish, researching popular articles and books in your field is a good first step. Look at the PDFs saved in your desktop folders or books you’ve collected so far on your shelves. In which journals or presses are you finding top scholars? Once you have a list of potential places to publish, look up their websites and read through their requirements for manuscript submission. Then, familiarize yourself with the style and formatting of the journal or press by reading and taking notes on works that have been published there.

Are you thinking about turning your dissertation into a monograph? David Congdon, PhD (Acquisitions Editor for University Press of Kansas) says it’s best to not rush into the publication process. Instead, devote your time to publishing journal articles from your dissertation project before submitting publishing inquiries to book presses. Doing so will demonstrate to editors that your academic research already has value and impact in the field.

Applying for grants, postdocs, and fellowships can also fine-tune your academic skillset. When preparing documents for these applications, you’re forced to clearly and concisely describe your project or research to a specific audience. Ben Arenger, PhD (Project Manager, Rutgers University) advises that proposals should avoid jargon (or at least define specific terms) and identify the significance or impact of your work.

4. Grad Students and Postdocs Should Strive for Progress

You probably know the saying, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither.” Prolonging the academic writing or research process of any project until it achieves perfect standards is not only impractical but impossible. It’s okay to hold high standards of your work. But if it starts to get in the way of advancing your career, you may need to reevaluate your work strategy.

Graduate Career Coach Stacey Satchell (Vanderbilt University) recommends that grad students and PhDs should strive for progress, not perfection. Your goal should be to aim for “first draft quality.” This mindset will help you see your academic research and writing as works in progress and that nothing is perfect on the first try.

The need for perfection in academia is toxic, not to mention draining. It can also interfere with your ability to manage your time and productivity, creating an unhealthy balance in your work and life. Dr. Sarah Glosson (Director of Arts and Sciences Graduate Center, College of William & Mary) emphasizes focusing on what you can do when you’re stuck. When feeling “can’t,” what can you do right now? Maybe you need to learn something new about your research before you begin writing your dissertation chapter.

It’s important to take time to reflect on what’s getting in the way of your progress. It could be anxiety, insecurity, boredom, or frustration with your current work environment. Identify the barrier to your productivity and reroute yourself to move forward.ia

5. Work/Life Priorities Derive from Purpose

How do you define success? You should always have this question in your pocket as you make decisions in your academic career. Not every academic will define success in the same way. Think about what your special priorities and expectations are and how they align with your values.

Jennifer Askey, PhD (Leadership Advisor, University of Alberta) suggests mapping out your priorities, goals, and tasks on paper and determining how they line up with your ideas of success. Do they work harmoniously together, or do you need to adjust somewhere? Check in with yourself once a week or month to see if your work schedule is actually helping you work towards your career and life goals.

Using a tool like Google Calendar or Trello can be useful for blocking out time to complete tasks like your academic research, reading, and writing. We make appointments for doctor’s visits and phone calls, why not do the same for academic work?

And if you didn’t meet your work goals for the week, don’t be too hard on yourself. Every week is going to have different challenges. Try identifying which roadblocks were within and outside your control and how you can adapt for next week. Reflect on what is within your power to change and avoid self-shaming. We’ve all been there, and you’ll be able to do better next time.

As you advance in your academic career, make note that professional relationships, continued practice, and self-compassion will be the hallmarks for your success as a PhD in academia. Expect to build on these tools over time, and you’ll start to create positive habits that support your values and goals, both in your career and in life.

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