Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking responsibility for your professional development

The price of greatness is responsibility

- Winston Churchill

As PhD students our primary focus often tends to be on final products and bottom lines. We ruminate about what the thesis will be like, how to get more publications, and other external indicators of quality. In this pursuit of end goals, it can be easy to lose sight of other important factors in our education, like professional development. By professional development I mean things that don’t necessarily contribute to the final product of the thesis or a particular publication, but that contribute overall to making us better researchers. Like the famous quote goes: it’s the journey, not the destination that’s important.

There are many ways to develop as a researcher. It may involve learning new statistical or methodological skills, or attending workshops, conferences and summer schools (which I’ve posted about previously). Whatever the form of professional development, I believe the key is that students take responsibility for their own development trajectory. While a lucky few people may benefit from a supervisor who goes out of their way to mentor, guide, and shape them as a member of the research community, not everyone can expect such treatment. Ultimately, it’s up to each of us individually to take advantage of development opportunities where they exist and create them for ourselves where they don’t.

At UQ we’re very lucky to have an environment that supports professional development. Weekly seminars for RHD (Research Higher Degree) students are run on topics as varied as advancing statistical know-how to time management and achieving work-life balance. We also have an annual RHD day that celebrates the research of postgraduate students and offers an opportunity to present in front of a friendly audience.

But there are also countless opportunities for professional development outside your research institution. Attendance at conferences is an absolute must. Not only do you get great ideas from hearing others talk, there are often round-table discussions or pre-conferences dedicated to key professional development topics. Consider travel in and of itself as a professional development opportunity. There is something about seeing the processes of different labs that broadens your research perspective. Not to mention the opportunity to discuss your research with people who know nothing about it.

Oftentimes professional development requires stepping outside your comfort zone. It involves putting yourself in a position of admitting that you don’t know everything. Developing often means talking to and asking advice from people who scare you a little. Don’t forget that the benefits of professional development – that make you a better, more connected and impactful researcher – will ultimately far outweigh the temporary discomfort of putting yourself out there. The key thing to remember is that only you are truly responsible for your professional development. It’s through this responsibility that we can each achieve our own modest form of greatness.

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