Organizing Your Personal and Professional OPTIONS

 October 9, 2018

In August 2016, I departed my home country of Colombia with my wife. We packed two pieces of luggage and chased our dream. After a decade of valuable professional experience, we had decided that it was time to undertake a new venture by pursuing our graduate degrees at Duke. Now, two years later, we find ourselves enjoying tremendous growth, both professionally and personally. The latter is easy to summarize: our family has doubled in size! First we added our Old English Sheepdog named Brownie, and recently we became parents of the most precious baby girl Hannah (believe me, I am not biased; she has her mom’s matchless beauty).

My wife Temis Coral (Duke MEM ’19), my daughter Hannah, and my dog Brownie.

With a substantial increase in responsibilities and commitments from our family expansion, how have I succeeded in balancing my professional goals and personal life? I won’t pretend to have found the “silver bullet,” but I want to share the strategy that allowed me to develop myself as a results-oriented researcher while enjoying the best years of my life. The key to maintaining a holistic development has been to follow a three-piece strategy: 1) identify goals; 2) prioritize; and 3) structure a plan.

Identify your goals: If you could talk to a future version of yourself, what kinds of achievements would you hope to hear your future self-describe? Would it be the publication of your dissertation research in a top-ranked journal, or being granted a utility patent? What is the first idea that comes to your mind?

When you have an answer to these questions, try to draft a clear statement of your goals. Take the time to actually write the statement down.

At this point, I want to emphasize that while finding mentors is essential for succeeding, you don’t have to mimic another individual’s path. Your own trajectory should reflect your unique identity, values, and goals.

Prioritize: Time, the most valuable resource, is scarce, and you have to invest it wisely. Which of your identified goals are most important to you? Also, which of them would allow you to accomplish the others in a more efficient and effective manner? When you discover the underlying relationships between your goals, you will find that there are some that should be prioritized over others.

For example, if one of your targets is to be awarded an external scholarship in recognition of your research contributions and another is to explore careers beyond academia, which one should be given priority? At first, one might think that the latter could be postponed as it is related to the successful culmination of your degree. However, for me, it turned out that prioritizing my professional development beyond academia actually strengthened my scholarship application.

By reviewing some of the Alumni Profiles Series entries from The Graduate School’s Professional Development Blog and attending events in the Careers Beyond Academia Series, I was able to learn more about the experience of people working in the energy industry. Following some of the recommendations I received in the workshops, I connected with Duke alumni and set up informational interviews. These gave me the chance to practice explaining my research in a more relaxed setting. During this process, I was able to identify some of the gaps in my research description. By listening to my interviewers’ feedback I was able to recognize ways to present my research in a clear, succinct way. As a result, I was able to construct a better research statement, which was a fundamental part of my scholarship applications. By uncovering a link between two of my goals I was able to construct a synergy between them.

When you have identified the hierarchical structure behind your goals, it is necessary to design an approach to address all of them. This is where a plan comes in handy.

Make a plan: Establishing a framework to achieve your goals can be challenging, in part because Duke offers a seemingly unlimited number of resources. By identifying available assets, you will be able to learn how some of the resources have been tailored to fit your needs. Then identifying milestones and dates for your goals should be a more relaxed process.

While establishing my own framework, I discovered a pre-built tool with information about the full range of university resources: Duke OPTIONS. This recently launched website allowed me to explore the diverse opportunities available here at Duke and construct my own development plan. The tool structures your development across three stages of your graduate experience and identifies six different competencies for you to prioritize. Additionally, the user interface allows the user to identify milestones unique to them and to set reminders.

When it was time for me to begin preparing for scholarship applications, I turned to Duke OPTIONS. There, I learned about a new fellowship program that was being launched. Sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and hosted by Duke´s Energy Initiative, the Energy Data Analytics was looking to train a next-generation cohort of scientists to apply a multidisciplinary approach  (including data sciences) to tackle one energy challenge. Because the application required a two-page description of the proposed research, I used Duke OPTIONS to identify all the university resources that would help me to refine my persuasive writing skills (one of the sections of the Communication competency). After learning about the variety of options (see Figure 2), I identified the Thompson Writing Studio as the most suitable resource. By working on my application draft with one of their consultants during two one-hour appointments, I was able to produce an improved version of the research statement. Without learning about this resource, it would have taken me far more time to improve my statement.

Available resources deployed by Duke OPTIONS when selecting one of six competencies (Communication) and one of the three stages (Build Awareness).

This is an example of how applying this three-part strategy and complementing it with the Duke OPTIONS tool has been valuable for me; however, there are many other skills and paths that could be useful for you (see Figure 3). In my case, it has allowed me to fulfill goals (I was named a member of the first cohort of the Energy Data Analytics Fellowship) while using my time efficiently.  Instead of spending multiple hours struggling with difficult or unfamiliar tasks (e.g., reviewing my statement alone), I have been able to devote more time to my family and maintain a healthy balance between my work and my personal life.

I invite you to replicate this strategy and give Duke OPTIONS a try. It could help you find some time to invest in your personal life!

Some of the Duke OPTIONS waypoints I completed during the last year.

I hope that by reading this you have learned a little bit about my journey. My next professional development post will explore my experience at the recent Duke Summer Doctoral Academy, where I was exposed to my first science communications and research computing classes.



Headshot of Edgar Virguez
Edgar Virguez

Ph.D. student, Environment

Edgar Virguez is a Ph.D. student in the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke. He is developing quantitative tools that support the transition to a deeply decarbonized electric power sector, by incorporating operations research, data science and geospatial analysis into a common framework.