Look and Act the Part: The Importance of Professionalism in One’s Career Development
By Christopher Smith, Ph.D., former Postdoctoral Fellow, now Postdoctoral Affairs Program Manager, North Carolina State University
Landing a dream job can be a daunting task for even well-seasoned scientists. However, with underdeveloped soft skills, such as effective communication and emotional intelligence, or an inability to act professionally in a variety of situations, this becomes significantly more difficult. The BRET Office of Career Development ASPIRE Program in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine offers many useful events, modules, and workshops focused on honing those soft skills that are necessary for career success. Programming ranges from dining etiquette covered in the Lab to Lunch event, ASPIRE Postdoctoral Cafes on job negotiation and the interview process, to modules focused on improving networking skills.
According to Kathy Gould, Ph.D., Associate Dean for Biomedical Sciences, ASPIRE professionalism programming grew out of feedback from trainee exit surveys regarding skills and experiences they wish they had while at Vanderbilt. What became apparent to the BRET staff is that trainees did not have a standardized set of professional experiences, and therefore do not necessarily know what is expected in various professional settings. Once these processes are demystified and trainees know how to interact with people at a networking event, or how to dress for an interview, they become empowered and more confident in their ability to navigate these situations.
Kathryn Trogden, a postdoctoral fellow in Cell & Developmental Biology, found that the networking pacing module helped her gain the skills and confidence necessary to approach and interact with colleagues. The capstone project “provided a real-world opportunity to network with professionals working in
biotech in Tennessee by attending the Life Science Tennessee annual conference in November 2018.” Teddy van Opstal, a recent Ph.D. recipient in Biological Sciences, also took part in the networking pacing module and pointed out that many jobs are found by those who expand their networks. “As scientists, we spend a very small amount of our time communicating with people outside our specific area of interest and don’t develop the necessary skills to build lasting networks with people we meet at meetings and conferences. The module trained me to introduce myself and discuss my research in a memorable, engaging way. I also learned to utilize social media platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter to set up meetings or conversations that connect me with colleagues.”
While the BRET Office offers many programs to help trainees act the part, ASPIRE Headshot days help one look the part. A professional headshot is critical for a LinkedIn profile, a necessary web presence for any potential job hunter. Approximately 45 trainees get headshots at each ASPIRE Headshot day and 3 graduate students and 3 postdoctoral fellow headshot sessions will be offered in the 2019-2020 academic year. Roslin Thoppil, a postdoctoral fellow in Cell & Developmental Biology, tells every trainee she knows to take advantage of this opportunity. “Putting up a quality photo helps make the right impression and maximize the number of people who view your profile on LinkedIn. Getting a professional picture taken is usually an expensive affair, but Vanderbilt’s headshot day is an amazing opportunity for Vanderbilt postdocs and graduate students to get one for free and the entire process is a breeze.”
Key to the success of ASPIRE programming is faculty support. Faculty across the School of Medicine are aware and supportive of the work being done through the BRET Office to prepare trainees, as evidenced in a recent survey across several institutions. “Faculty want to see their trainees rise to their potential and have a productive career after Vanderbilt, regardless of what field (academic, industry) they end up in,” according to Gould.
The professionalism offerings are certainly working to help in this regard. Lindsey Morris, a BRET
postdoctoral alumna and current director of data science at Axial Healthcare in Nashville, used networking skills learned through ASPIRE programming to get hired early on in the company’s lifecycle. Now, Morris routinely interviews candidates for data science positions at Axial. Some points she highlights that set successful job applicants apart are communication skills, emotional intelligence (i.e., eye contact in the interview, not disparaging a past employer), and reputation (being known for your work on a local/national level).
Professionalism and networking are a continual process. Justine Sinnaeve, a Cancer Biology Ph.D. candidate, noted that, “With every experience I learn at least one new way of approaching networking, building confidence in myself and my skills, and tips for maintaining a professional demeanor.” The key is to just get started. Morris elaborated on this point, saying, “Volunteer to organize and present at meetups and seminars in topic areas that interest you. By doing so, you will start to be associated with the career area you want to transition into.” The BRET Career Development ASPIRE offerings can give you valuable tips and a kickstart. It is up to you, though, to seize the opportunity, do good work, be positive and professional, and distinguish yourself from the pack. Eventually, people (future employers, colleagues, etc…) will notice.