Tuesday, October 23, 2012

7 Tips for Negotiating Your Graduate Career

Two weeks ago, I had the privileged to be invited by Women Of Influence (Website/Twitter) to attend one of their Young Women Of Influence Evening Series, if I would blog and tweet about it. And a privilege is exactly what it was, their invited speaker, Evelyn Ackah, one of Canada's top 40 under 40, gave an inspiring speech on negotiating career success, relating it to her own path to success as a lawyer with her own firm here in Calgary.

She presented the many young women in attendance (a heterogeneous mix featuring ladies from banking, real estate, advertising, students, photographers....) with 7 Career Tips for Negotiating Success...outlined by Emily Rack over at Avenue Magazine. And myself, ever the student, took copious notes. Afterwards I had the opportunity to thank Evelyn, commenting that although she spoke from her perspective as a lawyer, her advice was widely applicable to any field, and particularily to myself, striving for success in academia (a male dominated feild where you often have to create your own learning/mentoring opportunities).

So I've decided to outline her advice as it might apply to the young female graduate student. Hopefully you may find this helpful, I certainly did.

7 Tips for Negotiating Your Graduate Career.

1. Dream big, and share those dreams with other people.
Only 10-20% of PhDs will eventually get a tenure track position in academia. Is this what you want to pursue anyways? Do it! Don't let unfortunate statistics hold you back this early in your career. If that's not for you, have eaqually big goals no matter the path you plan to take, as Evelyn said "you need to dream big, even if you don't get 100% of the way there, 80 or 90% will still be remarkable." And the most important thing to do if you want to achieve your goals, tell people. Tell your supervisor, I want the kind of position you have, or as Evelyn told one of here first bosses "Hello Liz, I want your job." Tell your supervisor, committee and mentors... this will "help them to see you differently, and lets them know what's driving you and how they can help you towards that."

2. Be open to unexpected opportunities or circumstances.
Sometimes success is about being in the right place at the right time, but when opportunities present themselves you have to be willing to take the risk. As a young scientist, this may mean moving you project down a totally unexpected tangent when a curious result keeps happening. (Penicillin for instance was discovered when bread mould from a sandwich got on some plates, and killed all the bacteria). If your too focused on one path, or too unwilling to risk working on something because you're not familiar with it, then you might miss out on something big. Evelyn says "the biggest strength she has is being flexible when it comes to change."

3. Know who you are and what you really want from your career.
This can be really hard early on in our careers, in fact I asked Evelyn, what advice would she give to someone at the beginning of their path, who really isn't certain where they want it to take them.  Her answer reflected back to number 2, but also suggested that if you don't know what you want at the end of the day, you probably know what you want right now. Building an academic career is really a series of choices, and less a arrow straight to a target. But it is still important to "discover your values and let them direct and drive you." Is teaching important to you, pursue effective TAships. What is the work/life balance that you are comfortable with, success in science is often related to hours in the lab, however, personal time can keep you grounded (read sane). "Doing your personal work now will help you to develop professionally."

4. Be prepared to work hard.
This goes without saying, however there is a caveat here. "if the quality and results are not there you can't expect to advance." Its not the number of hours, blood, sweat and tears that will make you succeed at the end of the day, its what you can produce with them. And the world's not fair, sometimes people will get high impact publications with minimal effort, while you will sacrifice weekends all semester to publish in a journal no one's heard of.

5. Recognize that sometimes you have to move out to move up.
This is a tough one for the young PhD, you can't just up and leave your lab very easily. However this does apply to your project, for instance you might know I had been having a whole world of failures this summer with my project, there's a wall, and I cannot for the life of me find my way over/around/through it. So, I sat down with my supervisor, and came up with something totally different to work on for a while, so I can keep moving forward. "Sometimes that's the only way to move forward if you feel stuck." On the other hand, Evelyn, quoting the Kenny Rogers song, the Gambler, says you have to know when to hold em too. So that project I put on a shelf, I didn't throw it out, the results will be worth it once I trouble shoot it, so I'm still working it on the side.

6. Don't underestimate the importance of relationships and community involvement.
The ones applying to med school all know this...as they frantically pursue every connection and volunteer opportunity to get ahead... yet many grad students don't bother. Networking is always important, sometime this means sacrificing drinking with the other students at TGIF or a conference to hang out with the profs and hear hours of their stories of back in the day. You will make an impression, develop relationships that could lead to collaborations or post-docs, and you will have lots of fun (and probably get your drinks free). Additionally get involved, with your grad student government (have input in decisions related to your education) with organizing symposia, or student run publications. I do all these things, and have benefited directly from all of them. All this will help you "build up a professional network.... success does not happen without support."

7. You must be resilient.
Academia is a world of rejection. No your paper didn't get accepted without revisions, no you didn't get that grant the first time you applied, no your abstract didn't get you a speaking presentation and now you just have a poster in the corner. You will forever be frustrated by reviewer number 3. Evelyn's advice, which I wholeheartedly agree with "have a glass of wine then bounce back and move forward."

Hope you found this helpful, what other pieces of advice would you offer to a new grad student (besides run the other way)?

I'm back from my travels and grant apps so expect more regular posting round here!


  1. I do find that 10-20% statistic in the first point pretty difficult to deal with some days. But I'm still here so I guess I'm willing to dream big some times!

    And definitely know what you mean about Reviewer #3!!

    1. reviewer number 3 is always the worst..... he either wants way too many revisions or doesn't recommend your paper for acceptance but doesn't give a reason why.

      And keep dreaming big! I had an appointment with my faculty adviser and told her I want to have a professorial position one day, and could she recommend any new young female faculty for mentorship.

  2. I love this!! Thanks for sharing.

  3. This was such a fabulous blog. Thanks for sharing these words of wisdom. I am only now beginning my nursing career at 30, but I have big dreams and serious ambition!! Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. it was great wisdom when Evelyn shared it with us, so it deserves to be passed around! thanks for dropping by and good luck with the nursing career! way to go after it!


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