3 Strategies to Advance Your Career

 Marketing Director   September 1, 2021  Career Advice

Earlier this summer, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) hosted a Gender Equity Summit. A session titled “Skills, Strategies, and Lessons on Postdoc Career Advancement” was led by HERC’s own Training and Development Director, Jessica Wise, and featured three speakers. The goals of the session, as described by Wise, were for each attendee to think strategically about their spheres of influence and plan what their careers are going to look like, at the individual, community, and institutional levels.

Here are three strategies to help you advance your career:

1. Claim a professional identity

The first guest speaker was Camille Johnson, Ph.D., the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Success in the College of Social Science at San Jose State University. Johnson had three goals for the audience: to name their contribution and professional identity, to claim their professional identity within an institution, and to use their personal narrative to guide decisions.

Johnson encouraged attendees to claim their expertise early on with the simple phrase “Hi, my name is _____; I am an expert in _______.” She also asked attendees to identify ways that they want new colleagues or a hiring panel to describe them, which is a way of claiming how you want to be perceived, i.e., “I’m the one who is/who does _______.”

Johnson explained that once an identity has been established (I am an expert in _____, and I am the one who does _______, ________, and _______), then it could be used to guide academic activities and behaviors. Being guided by a professional identity also increases the resolution of activities or opportunities that should be avoided. In other words, if you know what you want to be, then you have a better idea of what not to do and when it is better to say “no”. Postdocs must value themselves and learn to prioritize because time and effort are zero-sum.

2. Networks require intentional cultivation

The second speaker was Claire Horner-Devine, Ph.D., the founder of Counterspace Consulting, LLC. The goals of her session were for attendees to name the role of community in their careers, develop their own growth network maps, and commit to one action to get what they want and need to thrive.

Horner-Devine emphasized that communities are important for personal and professional growth, but there are three key attributes of a successful network. According to Horner-Devine, each person’s network should be you-centered, needs-based, and requires self-agency. She encouraged postdocs to first identify what was missing that they needed (e.g., honest feedback, role modeling, professional development). The next step was to identify who (or what) would fulfill that need and how they would do so. While the strategy behind building this network is similar to that suggested for defining and identifying mentors, not all members of your network need to be mentors! Instead, there may also be peers, coaches, family, friends, training programs, or workshops.

3. Know what you need and what you can compromise on

The third and final speaker was Alicia Simon, the Dual Career Coordinator in the Office of the Provost at the University of Michigan (UM). Dual career couples, those where both partners are academics, face a difficult path to dual employment at a university. In 2018 and 2019 at UM, there were three dual career coordinators handling 242 cases with an average length of 11 months.

While universities want to hire and retain outstanding faculty (especially the opportunity to bring two exciting and talented individuals in a dual career couple), some departments are being asked to consider a dual career candidate they haven’t planned for and may not match their strategic goals. It’s important, then, that the dual career couple has a plan from the start.

The dual career couple should do their homework on each institution and understand the support and resources available. Simon emphasized that the levels of support and resources vary by institution, as do the faculty and/or staff that facilitate dual career support. To make the most of a dual career search, the couple should identify three things that they expect from an institution as well as three things that they are willing to compromise on. Remember to consider both work and life in the community.

Simon says that when the faculty partner (the partner who already has a relationship with an institution) applies for an appointment, the dual career partner should be preparing their application materials for the institution. The faculty partner should ask the search chair or department chair for dual career support as soon as they are comfortable.

Additional resources on dual careers are available from HERC and the University of Michigan.

Each session of the NPA Gender Equity Summit was recorded and is available to watch for free.

About the Author:  Dr. Ada Hagan is a microbiologist with a passion for making science accessible. In 2019, Dr. Hagan founded Alliance SciComm & Consulting, LLC as a means to use her strong background in communications and higher education to help make scientific concepts more easily understood and make the academy more inclusive to future scientists from all backgrounds. Her writing and research have been featured by BBC Radio 4, Science Careers, The Scientist, Massive Science, and the American Society for Microbiology.