Bridging the Gap: Building Connections for Graduate Students

By Fatim Lelenta posted 10-27-2020 07:17

October 27, 2020

Fatim Lelenta is the assistant director of graduate student development in The Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University. 

How Graduate Students Differ From Undergraduates  

The graduate student mindset and career development needs differ from undergraduate students and are constantly changing. While accepting this change can be challenging, as career coaches, we need to be prepared to help graduate students navigate the world of work and craft their professional identities. It is important to acknowledge that while graduate students may be familiar with how to navigate their academic programs, they also require additional support and guidance as they begin their professional journey. Understanding the unique challenges they encounter, the experiences that shape their careers and how to help them communicate their skills with people from other disciplines and fields is an area within career development that requires attention and further exploration.  

Coming to graduate school is usually a pathway to gain a greater opportunity for their future careers. Prior to entering graduate school, students have done extensive research on their programs, faculty, and how this will enable them to begin their careers early. As assistant director/career coach specializing in graduate student career development, I meet with graduate students from a variety of different programs and backgrounds. In one day, I can meet with a master's student who is transitioning straight from undergrad and is enrolled full-time, a Ph.D. student who is changing careers, or a part-time student who is working full time to support their family. Regardless of the point in time in which they decided to pursue a graduate degree, all students are generally looking for the same thingto increase their professional value.  

With students selecting graduate school for a variety of different reasons, it is imperative that career coaches understand what makes graduate students unique, how they already have possess skills employers are looking for and support them as they prepare for different career options.   

Why Are Graduate Students Unique? 

While graduate students have already obtained a previous degree prior to beginning their programs, there is still a cultural shift that takes time to navigate. Graduate school is often highly structured, fast-paced, and short-term. During graduate programs, students typically have a clear idea of what to expect each semester, what classes to take, and ,an end date in mind. Engaging in career exploration and developing a professional identity takes time and occurs at a slower pace. For career coaches who work with graduate students, helping to normalize this is imperative. As we continue to guide graduate students throughout the career exploration process, we must also ensure that we provide support and tailor our career practice to keep students engaged and resilient.   

Graduate Student Strengths  

Over time, I have learned that graduate students enter their programs with a unique set of strengths to impact how they navigate the career development process. Throughout my experience, I have had the privilege of working with a multitude of graduate students and I have learned the important skills and attributes they bring and the importance of creating space to help them identify and name their strengths.   

  • Focused: Graduate students are highly focused and dedicated to their profession. Most graduate students are balancing their studies, research projects, conference presentations, personal responsibilities, and internships all in one semester. Their ability to persevere and dedication to their studies is notable and one quietly I encourage students to reflect on.   
  • Motivated: Graduate students are highly motivated and involved on campus. Throughout their academic career, graduate student can be found preparing a curriculum for their teaching course, applying for an research fellowship, or pursuing a leadership/service opportunity. Outside of academics, they are also searching for new opportunities to network and socialize with fellow students, alumni, or faculty members. After meeting with a graduate student for coaching, I am always excited to see them come fully prepared with thoughtful questions and set follow-up appointments to go over the feedback provided. As career practitioners, we can tap into their strengths and help them articulate this with those outside of the university.  
  • Diverse: Graduate programs attract students from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences. This allows them to build upon different skills and strengths they have developed throughout their careers. I always enjoy helping students pull from various experiences and discuss the transferable skills for a new role or career path.   

What Can Career Coaches Do?   

Building ConnectionsNo one gets to where they want to be alone. When meeting with graduate students, I always encourage them to speak with new people, make meaningful connections, and create new experiences. Graduate school should not only prepare them academically, but it should also prepare them to be engaged and to venture out.    

  • Peer-to-Peer Networking: The relationships students form in school can have a profound influence on their experience inside and outside of the classroom. Networking and sharing experiences amongst peers are a critical part of developing your personal and professional identity. There are certain experiences that graduate students share and a prospective they can provide that other students benefit from. Speaking with a peer can normalize that feeling when imposter syndrome creeps up, provide an internal connection to an organization, and can be a source of support as they juggle multiple responsibilities. Peer-to-peer networking allows students to receive and learn about resources from someone who is like them and deepen their local network. Overall, getting an advance degree requires hard work and dedication, but becoming a successful graduate student also requires a great deal of work within and outside of the university  
  • Internships: Internships can play a crucial role in graduate student professional development. They create an opportunity to gain relevant experience and a realistic perspective of what it’s like to work in a given field. For graduate students, summer is a great time to try something new and receive the kind of exposure to a field that can make a difference if they decide to seek employment in this area.   
  • Mentorship: A mentor provides a student with tools, knowledge, and support throughout, and often beyond, an academic career. Having a mentor is vital to one’s career growth and professional development journey. I encourage students to join a formal mentoring program where they are matched with a professional or build a relationship informally with someone they admire.    
  • Career ExplorationGreat resources I recommend for students who are exploring careers are ImaginePhD and VersatilePhD Imagine PhD is an online career exploration and planning tool for PhD students. This tool allows students to assess their career-related skills, interests, and values to map out their future steps. VersatilePhD provides a space for graduate students to review resumes, cover letters and discover the application process for industry jobs. Additionally, there is a supportive web-based community which encourages conversation and communication with fellow graduate students as they explore careers.   
  • Reflect: As I reflect on my own graduate experience, I recognize that I hold a deep soft spot for graduate students specifically, as I intimately recognize some of the challenges, but also the rewards of finding a career that I enjoy and thrive in. Having personally worked with many graduate students, I believe it is important to encourage students to take moments throughout their career journey to reflect back on their experiences. Through self-reflection, students can learn about how far they have come and trust that they have the tools to get through challenges they may face. This process can be extremely powerful and transformational as they approach new (and exciting!) steps in the career development process.   
  • Deciding a Career: For many students entering a doctoral program, one of the biggest decisions they will have before graduation is whether to pursue a career in a chosen industry or academia. Like any career question, the choice is up to the student. I believe that as career coaches, we are to encourage students to use the above-mentioned techniques to help them decide and make new connections with people in both fields. With our guidance and encouragement, all graduate students can thrive and be successful if we create more—and broader-- opportunities to explore possible careers  

Graduate career development continues to expand and I am excited that I get to be on the front line to find new ways to help students bridge the gap between their academic and professional identities.  If we help graduate students find and build meaningful relationships, we can help them have a transformative graduate experience and become influential professionals in their chosen field.