Don’t let success be seasonal – make time to celebrate it all year long!

The end of the calendar year often gives us all a little more time to reflect upon what has been happening over the last 12 months. They say that time flies when you are having fun, but in reality it seems to fly by whether fun is had or not. When it comes to self-reflection, it is important to approach this as optimistically as possible. Over the last 12 months, you have likely experienced challenges with your research, with your advisor, with you lab-mates, and with friends and family beyond Penn. These challenging experiences will be easy for you to recall as you think back, but it will be equally important to think about some of the challenges that you overcame too. They may connected to some of the same big ones listed above, but they may be small ones. Perhaps you finally got through to a challenging student in a class where you are a TA. Maybe you learned to use a new feature in a software package that makes it easier to do your research (even if the research itself isn’t giving you the results you hope for). And from a career perspective, you might have learnt about a new career path, made a new contact, or discovered some helpful career-management skills from a webinar or workshop.  

Academia tends to be an environment rich in critical feedback. Grant applications, article submissions, and even discussions with your advisor all give other people the opportunity to critique your research questions and methods, your findings, and more. All this “helpful” feedback can leave you feeling a little worn down after a while. It is always very refreshing to get some positive feedback and positive reinforcement from time-to-time. If you don’t get this from your advisor, then look for other opportunities to hear about what a great job you are doing. Outside of your teaching and research pursuits, look for opportunities to join student/postdoc run groups, and to get in involved in activities that can have tangible benefits to your personal and professional growth. These experiences can build your career readiness skills – sought by employers from diverse career fields – and give you the chance to use the broader range of skills that you have that don’t always get used in your research. 

The other place where you can get positive feedback is from you! Using the Peter Fiske model of professional development (the 80:10:10 rule), you should aim to spend 80% of your active work time (think 9am-5pm, rather than 8am-11pm) doing the best work you can with your research. For 10% of the time you should be focused on your own professional development. This can involve learning new skills, expanding your network, learning about new career options, becoming a better presenter, practicing negotiation, and so on. And the final 10% of the time should be spend telling people what a great job you are doing with all of this. Yes, this sounds strange, but it is always useful to be able to help people to see your value. So, if you get to spend some time with family over the break, don’t get bogged down trying to explain why your research is so complicated and why it is taking so long. Instead, tell people what you have succeeded in doing, and why this is important. Practice the process of helping people to see your achievements. You’ll be doing this in job interviews at some point, and so it is worth practicing this as early on as possible. In fact, you can start right now – write down five successes (big or small) that you have had over the last year, and then find an opportunity to tell different people about them. Hearing yourself talk about your successes is a great way of putting you in a more optimistic mind-set. 

Here are my five successes:

  1. I have successfully adjusted to my new role at Career Services that I started back in January, and I have been enjoying the new focus on strategic program planning, as this aligns nicely with my skills.
  2. I have met with several students who had been given my name by Penn alumni I had met with a couple of years ago. I appreciate that they remembered me, and I am glad that they felt that I had something useful to offer current students!
  3. I finally put art up on my walls in my office. I have plenty of animals featured, including cows, ducks, chickens, dolphins, and fish. Since I have a PhD in animal behaviour, this makes me feel quite at home!
  4. I borrowed the “vision board” approach my wife uses at her work to highlight upcoming goals. Rather than listing tasks, you list the outcome you hope to achieve. There have been several successes so far. I am currently looking at one vision that says “…book proposal submitted”, and I am confident this will happen before the end of the year!
  5. I presented on our PhD externship program at a conference in St. Louis, and successfully managed to squeeze a lot of content and far too many slides into a 5-minute presentation that actually came off rather well – if I do say so myself!

Author: Joseph

Joseph Barber is a Senior Associate Director at Career Services serving graduate students and postdocs. He has a PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, and continues to teach these subjects as an adjunct professor at Hunter College (CUNY).