How to talk to a professor about your career

I've long been interested in the mentorship aspect of higher education, not least because I have had many excellent mentors over my career in biology, as I described to Dr. Marie McNeely in a People Behind the Science Podcast.  Plus, I've had lots of opportunities to be a mentor, and I take this part of my prof's job very seriously.

This post is inspired by recent conversations with a current graduate student, and a young scientist who completed a graduate degree. Both were, essentially, seeking mentorship advice. They had heard that I would be a good person to talk with about:

  1. Research ideas.
  2. Next steps in their science career pathway.

Once again, I was struck, as before, from conversations with upper-year undergraduate students, by how little consideration these young people appeared to have given to the so-called soft-skills side of science. By soft-skills, I mean the skills acquired along the journey of doing a science degree. They differ from the course content information that students learn in lectures, and are tested on. Some soft skills are technical, while others are social:

  1. Technical skills include a thorough understanding of common software packages such as Word, or familiarity with instruments such as microscopes or how to use wordpress, and run a blog. These are practical "how to" things.
  2. Social skills include understanding what a good resumé and cv look like, being comfortable introducing oneself to strangers and introducing other people to each other. These practical skills must be practiced -- even if you're a total introvert, good manners are something you can learn.

So, by soft-skills, I'm talking about politeness, courtesy, general knowledge, and also practical skills: AKA life skills.

This isn't to say that students aren't thinking A LOT about their future lives and careers. They're all, quite rightly, anxious about them. But, at the same time, I've observed that many students simply aren't taking advantage of the supports and opportunities relating to career advice that are available at the university.

This means that students aren't thinking about "life after university" in either a strategic or tactical fashion. This is a scary thought, because it WILL happen and, newsflash, some of your fellow students ARE thinking about this, and getting prepared.

In the same way that I advise colleagues participating in interdisciplinary meetings and panels to look at what their fellow team members have done by way of research and teaching, I suggest the same for students seeking productive meetings with professors.

As well as doing some homework on the prof. you think can provide some mentorship, you should ask yourself why you're seeking a meeting with this particular professor. It may simply be that this person is a more approachable prof: something I commonly hear from students. I work hard to be an accessible and approachable faculty member. BUT,  if you got my attention and some face time, this doesn't mean that I have unlimited time to spend with you.

By doing your homework about my area of expertise and experience, you can come up with targeted and specific questions that will make the most of our meeting. If you truly don't know what targeted and specific questions look like, then do the homework on me, and tell me that you need some help navigating how to talk to a professor. I can help you with that.

People whom I met with in my last 2 meetings were surprised at what I appeared to know about their research interests -- because, they hadn't done the basic homework on me to discover that my book with Judy Myers, Ecology and Control of Introduced Plants is all about the ecology of invasive species: this knowledge is only a click away.

It's easier than ever to find out about your professors. Google scholar, scopus, web of science, or a simple google search will turn up information on the research and teaching experience of professors, and you'll find media coverage and blogs by or about them.

Beyond that, here's my list of basic advice to science and environmental studies students and grads:

  1. Tend to your professional electronic footprint:
    1. Launch a blog on wordpress.
    2. Make a LinkedIn account.
    3. Reach out to people you admire on Twitter.
  2. Read up about mentoring and mentorship.
  3. Find the career advice blogs for your field.
  4. Don't look surprised when I sound like I know stuff about the stuff on the front page of this website! #DoYourHomework.

Now that I don't have to spend meeting time telling you that, we can talk about more interesting stuff. Like: "What do you think of Ada Lovelace Day?"