In debriefing with some colleagues about my recent trip to Montreal for Qualitative Health Research 2012, we agreed it would be a good idea for me to post my summary of a fantastic talk given by Prof. Mary Ellen Macdonald. She focused her talk on career planning for qualitative health research graduate students, and based the key points on an e-mail poll she sent to 26 qualitative health research professors across Canada.
I was particularly excited by Dr. Macdonald’s talk because I’ve been writing about professional development for years – starting with posts about my own professional development, and moving on to posting about career advice for Arts grads, resume writing, and, more recently, academic PR (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).
What I found particularly salient about Dr. MacDonald’s talk was her outline of the ‘unofficial curriculum’ for qualitative health research graduate students. I’ve taken her advice and structured it into 4 career planning tips for qualitative researchers: graduate student’s need to foster mentorship, develop communication skills, be good citizens, and stay on the radar.
Career tip #1: Fostering mentorship
A graduate students’ success is directly related to the mentorship structure they receive from their supervisor. I have seen students suffer in highly dysfunctional research supervision relationships. To avoid this, before beginning any graduate program a graduate student should select their mentor first and their topic second.
Your research topic will not matter if your supervisor is not working with you to develop other crucial professional skills. Don’t expect every supervisor to be a strong mentor; mentorship is a mutual process, with formalities that should be respected by graduate student mentees.
Dr. Macdonald recommends students take a proactive role by establishing a supervision contract with your mentor. This contract could state that a discussion has taken place identifying the frequency of individual and committee meetings, the nature of verbal/written feedback, the funding that is available for conference travel, research assistantships and stipends, and the appropriate timeframes allotted for feedback and letter writing.
The ability to communicate your ideas is as important as the ideas themselves. For example, writing well is an overlooked skill for graduate students, and most programs provide no formal writing instruction. Are you struggling with your writing? Hire a tutor, join a writing group, or research online. In a career where written communication in the form of peer-reviewed articles is crucial to career success, graduate students must write well.
Strong public speaking skills are also an important skill for graduate students who want to make a mark. Spend time learning to design effective slides. Practice your talk before you get up in front of an audience. Learn to be a good public speaker (consult with toastmasters if need be).
Further, your CV can be a powerful communication strategy. Dr. Macdonald recommends that you keep your CV up to date. She also recommends you maintain two versions of your CV, official and unofficial. Your unofficial CV is sometimes called a dossier. Researchers keep sanctioned, conventional achievements in their CV: employment history, publications, and conference presentations. But why not keep everything you do in your unofficial CV? Dr. Macdonald recommends recording ALL contributions to your research community: important meetings, rejected research papers, and even unsuccessful grants. You worked on those tasks, so why not record them?
Career Tip #3: Being a good citizen
Citizenship is behavior based on the duties and functions of a citizen. So what does it take to be a good citizen of your graduate program or research centre? One way to be a good citizen of your graduate program is by being a strong representative at conferences. Good conferencing means more than presenting research talks/workshops/posters. Effective networking is a must! Attend others’ talks, meet new people, greet colleagues, and ask GOOD questions (these are questions that make the speaker look good; not, as some folks would have it, questions that make the speaker look good.) Further, do as much as you can to show off your work and the community from which you come. You will look even better if you are current in your research area when chatting with your peers.
Career Tip #4: Staying on the radar
Stay on the radar with your supervisor. While your research project is, or at least should be, your most important occupation, the same is not true for your supervisor. Keep copious notes when you meet with your supervisor; it is your job to remind your supervisor about things you established during past meetings.
Stay on the radar with important people you meet as well. Along with being you supervisor’s keeper of memories, work with your supervisor to develop an “elevator pitch” – this is the 20-second description of your research project when you find yourself in an elevator next to the Dean. But you might need different pitches for different audience: nurses, physicians, policy-makers, etc.