Leveraging relationships and expertise to further your career development — University Affairs

Strategies and resources for grad students and postdocs to increase the relevance of word-of-mouth referrals and internet-based research.

As a graduate student or postdoctoral scholar, especially a new one at a new institution, it can be daunting to find the professional, career, academic, or personal development resources you need. No two research institutions are alike, but all are similar in the complexity of their structures and politics as well as their frequent reliance on tacit knowledge to navigate those processes and relationships.

There are two common pathways that new grad students and postdocs take to find personal, academic, professional and career development resources:

  • Internet-based research
    • Advantages: familiar leverages research strengths developed in upper level undergraduate and graduate courses; and private.
    • Disadvantages: difficult to attain and parse the tacit knowledge of jargon and acronyms used in professional, career, academic, and personal development fields and offices at each institution; hard to find precise, up-to-date resources amidst all the advertising and search results; and can be challenging to assess reliability and relevance of source content.
  • Word-of-mouth referrals
    • Advantages: specific and relevant recommendations to services, resources and programs; ability to ask your source clarifying and follow-up questions.
    • Disadvantages: requires a level of vulnerability both to ask and offer referrals; the referrer may not have extensively reviewed the options with the same parameters and considerations as the requester.

Happily, there are tools and strategies to maximize the advantages and reduce the disadvantages of both approaches.

Leveraging relationships

One of the emerging trends and best practices in graduate and postdoctoral development is partnerships between campus services and student and postdoctoral groups. Some of the most rewarding and impactful work I have done over the past decade has been partnering with groups to design and deliver customized career sessions. The advantage for a service provider is an assured audience of engaged participants; for the participants, the benefits are a customized session delivered at a time and location convenient to them. If the partnership is initiated by an elected student or postdoctoral representative, and there is sufficient handover or succession planning in that group, then it can be an ongoing and mutually beneficial partnership.

Leveraging expertise

Practitioners are often happy to share their tacit and professional knowledge of resources and their favorite theories and practices with any postdoc or grad student who connects. It is a good strategy to review their websites, peer-reviewed publications, or gray literature to familiarize yourself with how they describe themselves and their approach to their work. Because these fields of graduate and postdoctoral development are also areas of academic and professional study, all the same best practices of checking references and citations apply.

Below are five specific trustworthy sources to begin research in any postdoctoral or grad student development.

This column, Responsibilities May Include, is written and overseen by the members of a Canadian professional association dedicated to graduate and postdoctoral development (the Graduate and Postdoctoral Development Network), and edited by trained journalists. These articles contain a mixture of career advice, programs the network has developed, and profiles of career trajectories. This is a great place to start for both articles and references to additional source materials. Many of us also write for our sibling article series, Carpe Careerscurated by a peer professional organization (the Graduate Career Consortium).

GPDN has a mandate and vision to advance the field of graduate and postdoctoral development nationally, and one of the activities is an annual career symposium. It’s an opportunity to take workshops with facilitators from other institutions – we all have different approaches and theories and practices that we leverage towards the same goal. The 2022 symposium is scheduled from Oct. 25-27 and features keynote addresses by David Mendes (from Papa PhD), and Daniel Munro and Craig Lamb (from Shift Insights).

Mitacs is an organization that partners with research institutions across the country to provide professional development sessions for students and postdocs, and they provide forms of work-integrated learning and launching pads to industry or entrepreneurship.

Finally, the forthcoming report “Graduate and Postdoctoral Development: Toward a National Strategy” includes a table of resources that various institutions across Canada have made available not just to their own students and postdocs, but publicly for anyone to use. Many of those resources have been, or will be, profiled in Responsibilities May Include.

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