When people talk about ‘professional development’, they tend to emphasize the ‘professional’ part. The type of capital P professional development, that in many people’s minds, is a formal process with a defined beginning and end. People assume it goes something like this: you identify a specific skill or area of knowledge you want to attain, you find some professional course or text on the subject, and once you’ve gone through the course or read the material, the end outcome is that you now have the skill or you have some certification/documentation of the skill. You have experienced “professional development.”
But this type of thinking minimizes the ‘development’ part, which is really where the growth takes place. Professional development isn’t an outcome, it’s a process. It’s continuous. And it includes any growth that contributes to your success, including in an academic context. If you are learning, applying, and honing skills continuously, you are growing professionally.
To make the most of your experiences in graduate school, you’ll want to be mindful of how you’re developing and take time to reflect along the way. When I talk to students about how to do that, here are some of the concerns that tend to come up and suggestions for how to approach your professional development.
Do I have to know exactly what I want to do long-term to develop professionally now?
In the same way that professional development doesn’t necessarily have to be structured, it certainly doesn’t have to be connected to any super-specific or long-term career goals. You don’t need to know what kind of job you’ll have 5 years from now to develop professionally. We hear a version of the same story over-and-over again from alumni, that you find a way to use and apply skills learned in grad school in surprising ways, even when you dramatically shift your career path.
So even if you don’t have a long-term target, consider how short-term growth can keep you moving forward with purpose or intentionality. Focus on trajectory rather than a set destination. You can always change directions later on and build on the skills you’ve developed in new ways.
One trick for finding that forward momentum is to consider how you can target your professional development beyond narrow technical skills. Competencies like interpersonal communication, adaptability, collaboration, and even emotional intelligence are highly valued by employers across all industries. Whatever you end up doing, being able to build effective teams, explain complex concepts, and navigate ambiguity will be useful. And these skills are actually among the hardest to develop, so starting early really pays off.
But I want to stress something that I think is critically important: graduate school isn’t separate from your career. It is part of your career. You aren’t preparing for this abstract, outside “real world” but are already, in many ways, a member of a profession.
How can I figure out what skills I have and what skills I need?
Start by identifying what skills you already have and what you’re already doing that will develop them. A useful exercise is to start up a journal or daily log to track and reflect on your work. Think about “work” broadly, as in, don’t assume something only counts if it is part of your formal duties in a workspace or classroom. Then look for patterns in your log, noting the number of “contact hours” you spend using various skills. You can use the Graduate College’s skills worksheet to get started How much time do you spend collaborating with others on a weekly basis (across all roles and projects)?
After getting a better sense of what you do, and identifying skillsets you’re using, do a gut-check assessment: What works and what doesn’t? Where do you feel most confident in your work and where do you struggle? Are there things you could learn or improve on that could make your life easier? Are there things you will do in the near future that will require learning something new?
You can also consider what particular skills might be useful for the different career options you are considering. I recommend checking out occupational databases online (onetonline.org), reading job ads, and talking to people who do the work. Those are the best resources to identify what skills it takes for someone to both land and be successful in that area. Then you can compare what the desired skills are with your own inventory and decide where to add or improve.
How can I develop these skills? Does professional development always mean adding more stuff?
Not always. Like all grad students, you’re likely already doing a lot. You may not have any more time and energy at the moment to add a bunch of new stuff to your schedule. But there are ways to use what you’re already doing to intentionally develop without taking up too much more time and effort.
Take project management, a highly sought-after competency by employers in all lines of work. Now, you could sign-up for courses and get professional certifications. But again, that requires a huge effort which may outweigh the value of that credential for your goals.
Or, you could approach the work you’re currently doing with a new purpose tied to “project management.” There are, for example, many free online platforms that provide systematic ways to manage your work. Try one (or more) on your next small-to-medium-sized project, the next course you have to teach, the next chapter of your dissertation, or your next data collection effort. Maybe one of the systems will transform your work process or maybe none will really fit your needs. But either way, you’ve developed skills in implementing and evaluating project management strategies, which you can use to improve your current work and take with you into the future.
After reflecting on what you’re already doing, you may decide to add more things to your schedule in order to deepen your development. Once you decide to concentrate on a specific area, know that those skills will be valuable no matter which long-term direction you choose to take beyond graduate school.
If I want to try new things to support my professional development, where should I start?
The benefit of being a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is you have access to so many resources. There are opportunities to learn and grow everywhere in the form of workshops, training, guest speakers, and free tools. As exciting as being surrounded by so much can be, having all those options can also be overwhelming. Be purposeful and intentional when deciding what you want to pursue and be strategic in finding opportunities that best meet your needs.
If you want to find out more about the available resources on campus, the Graduate College hosts Professional Development Week, featuring workshops and events dedicated to helping students succeed in grad school and beyond.
So, whether you know exactly what skills you want to develop, or don’t know where to start, Professional Development Week is a great place to start. Use it to discover new opportunities, as a catalyst to get motivated, and a real opportunity to make time for your professional development.
Mike Firmand is the Assistant Director for Employer Outreach in the Graduate College. He works with employers to connect University of Illinois graduate students to new opportunities and promote the value of graduate education. He previously worked for the College of Business at Illinois State University and has held positions in insurance, marketing, banking, and retail and event management. Mike holds a B.S. in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in Communication from Illinois State University.