Finance burdens, anxiety about finding a job, and the uncertainty of the world in general can create a lot of stress for students and graduates embarking on new careers. Times may have changed but one thing that hasn’t is your need for supportive colleagues and mentors. Don’t let your anxiety blindside you from building the supportive network that you need to succeed in your career.
As a psychology professor, I’ve worked with dozens of students in my research lab in over 20 years and written hundreds of letters of reference for students applying to graduate school and seeking psychology-related jobs. I see students make some of the same mistakes I did when I was finding my way in the field of psychology. Here are some tips that I’ve learned along the way that have been useful to students and new graduates aiming to build their professional network.
1. Keep self-focus in check. Psychology professors typically receive numerous inquiries and offers from students wanting to work in their research lab. One reason why these offers are not always considered is that the writer discusses, often in great detail, how working with the professor would benefit them. They’d learn in new methodologies, they’d learn how to do research, and then they’d get a letter of recommendation on a prestigious letterhead. All true, but they don’t bother to consider how working in the research lab would benefit the project. Instead of approaching a possible mentor with a request for help or a sales pitch, try offering something of value. Think about what’s important to your mentor or potential employer. Having a realistic vision of the part you can play on a team is often key to making a good first impression and landing a good position. If you don’t have a sense of what your role might be yet, try asking questions about the project and find out what kind of help is needed and think about ways you might contribute to it.
2. Don’t overestimate your abilities or experience. Research in social psychology shows that people who are extremely confident about their abilities are actually less competent that those who have a more modest (and more accurate) views of what they can do (called the Dunning-Kruger effect). Instead of trying out awesome others, when asked about your abilities and experience, consider highlighting one thing that you do really well that’s highly relevant to the position, then mention 2 or 3 skills that you’re gaining proficiency at and would like the opportunity to get more experience, and then name one thing that you really aren’t great at and probably never will be. This shows discernment, humility, self-awareness, and maturity – which are very desirable qualities in themselves.
3. Think long-term. Many students want to work in a research lab for one semester or season and then move on and get other kinds of experience. They see this as positively building the length of their resume, but they should be focusing on building depth too. Long-term involvement in a project and sustained interest in a topic signal maturity and perseverance to potential mentors. From the mentor’s point of view, when students work in a lab for one semester then move on to another research lab, it hasn’t been a good investment in their time and attention. If a mentor takes the time to teach you specific skills and as soon as you’ve learned them, you moved onto do something else and then come back later and want a letter of reference, the mentor won’t be able to say much about your commitment to the project. If you’re only planning to stay in the position for a short time and/or to learn a specific skill, be honest about your intentions. That way it your plans can be taken into consideration.
4. Maintain your bridges. Sometimes after students get their letter or reference, I never hear from them again. I don’t take it personally – but I’m curious what happened to them. Sending a simple note of thanks and/or a quick update is all that’s needed to maintain a professional contact with a supporter. Don’t be shy about checking in with simple update: “I got into x, y and z university and decided to go to z. Thanks again for writing a letter of support.” Or “Just finished my first year of graduate school – so glad I learned about xyz in your class, it really came in handy.” It’s great to receive some honest appreciation that isn’t front loaded on a request. When re-connecting consider asking about the project that you worked on. Drop a note to thank a professor or former employer when you used a skill that they taught you. These little things really go a long way with people – and build a professional network.
5. Follow your bliss. It might sound cliché, but if working with a particular person, or going to specific graduate school program, or taking that position doesn’t fill you with joy and excitement — at least more curiosity than fear and dread, maybe it’s not the right thing for you. Take a pause and consider your options. Try doing what’s right in front of you that captures your interest, get practical experience, and make connections. Opportunities can organically arise from doing what you love most. Don’t accept the job or the position or the slot in the graduate program if it doesn’t feel right to you. You won’t be doing anyone a favor – least of all yourself!
Remember you’re playing a long game – stay connected to your supporters as you go forward.
Kruger, J.; Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.
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