4 Key Lessons Learned (Tips for Grads) Inside Higher Ed

Success in grad school hinges on planning ahead, seeking mentors and articulating your skills, write students Lydia Gandy-Fastovich and Kirby Livingston, along with their supervisors, Alissa Ewer and Eileen Callahan.

When we hire graduate assistants at the University of Wisconsin at Madison Graduate School, we expect them to do a deep dive into graduate education administration — but what often surprises students is how much the experience prepares them for future careers.

We supervisors, Alissa Ewer and Eileen Callahan, asked our graduate assistants, Lydia Gandy-Fastovich and Kirby Livingston, to reflect on their lessons learned at the Graduate School Office of Professional Development and Communications and offer advice to fellow graduate students. Together, Lydia and Kirby have written more than 120 “Tips for Grads” advice columns in the weekly all-graduate student newsletter that they also edit. In addition, they led more than 70 professional development programs for master’s and doctoral students. Their advice and reflections follow.

Lesson No. 1: Build a team of multiple mentors and establish expectations with new supervisors.

Lydia says: When I first started graduate school, I was under the impression that your academic adviser was your only mentor and you had to have aligned values and career goals to have a successful mentoring relationship. Well, a lot of those impressions are just flat out not true. Even if your adviser has a strong mentoring relationship with you, no one person can give you all the mentorship and guidance you will need. To encourage fellow graduate students to do the same, I wrote a “Tips for Grads” about reaching out to potential mentors.

I view it like friendships. You may have a friend that you view as your closest friend, but you also have work friends, friends whom you consult for relationship advice, friends who you know will be available for a spontaneous trip, friends who have made similar life decisions and are great listeners. In essence, you have a team of friends to meet your personal needs, and having a team of mentors is just as beneficial.

Kirby says: You should aim to have multiple mentors for different areas. For instance, you may have academic mentors, professional mentors and personal mentors. Graduate students can set themselves up for short- and long-term success when they identify mentors outside of their assigned adviser. Informational interviews can be a great tool for identifying potential mentors.

Seeing how intentional our supervisors at the graduate school were about our development taught me a lot. They took a lot of care in assigning a diversity of tasks and providing support where needed. They provided the right balance of freedom and creativity while keeping us grounded in the responsibilities of our positions and fulfilling the mission of the office.

Unfortunately, graduate students rarely have many options when it comes to funding and may feel compelled to take a position. That’s OK, but it will still help to set expectations and have a framework that allows you to ask your supervisor for more support or mentorship if you don’t think you’re getting enough.

Lesson No. 2: Being a versatile communicator is key to success in any career. Be intentional about developing in this area every semester of graduate school.

Kirby says: Writing our weekly advice column, “Tips for Grads,” was fun and engaging, and I developed skills for a new genre of writing. It made me more aware of the types of information that could be useful to graduate students, and I started to see those tips and tricks everywhere. My favorite columns were the ones for which I recruited a guest columnist and covered topics like inclusive teaching and effective grant writing.

Lydia says: One of my favorite “Tips for Grads” columns was about answering interview questions, another important communication skill. I’d add that making data-informed decisions is also key. I analyzed data on student engagement with our newsletter to allow for deeper understanding of when we should promote and hold workshops throughout the semester and year. Drawing from this data sets us up for success.

Lesson No. 3: To make the most of your time in graduate school, be proactive and plan ahead.

Lydia says: Think about the skills you’d like to attain and the goals you’d like to reach in graduate school, and be intentional about the folks you bring into your circle, as they are valuable resources. As part of our graduate assistantship, we were required to have individual development plans (IDPs). Developing such a plan helped me understand how to write specific and attainable goals — for example, breaking down larger goals into smaller, incremental ones. The process helped me identify new opportunities, engage in fruitful discussions with peers about their graduate school experiences and have successful meetings with my adviser, because I had thought about my goals and plans for graduate school ahead of time.

Kirby says: I created an IDP before presenting at a workshop on the topic for graduate students, and it served as a guide and helped me to maximize my limited free time to build particular skills. For example, creating an IDP helped me realize that I wanted to improve my ability to perform well in job interviews and gave me a framework for finding resources to build this skill set and track my progress.

Lesson No. 4: Reflect on your experiences, pinpoint the specific skills you’ve gained and develop language to talk about them with potential employers.

Lydia says: I’ve developed language to talk about the skills needed for success in graduate school and future careers. As a graduate assistant, I was involved in annual planning, being mindful of our office’s goals and the programming that prepares graduate students for success. I’ve developed project management skills through planning and carrying out small- and large-scale events; communicated with a variety of audiences, such as peers, faculty and professionals; and gained confidence in public speaking and written communication.

Kirby says: I developed and learned more new skills than I can count, including those involved in event planning, communications, software and evaluation. I’ve also learned how to package my new and old skills and communicate them to potential employers. When graduate students are considering assistantships to apply for, they should think about the skills that they want to gain and ask themselves, whenever possible, whether the position will help them to develop those skills. For those already in a position who don’t feel that they are developing their desired skills, I recommend talking to their supervisor to adjust responsibilities to better fit their professional development goals. Although this might not be an easy conversation, all graduate students should seek opportunities that offer a meaningful focus on professional development.