Personalizing Your Career and Professional Development

 October 24, 2018

Image of Laptop with Post-It Notes

When it comes to exploring different career options and growing professionally while in graduate school, there’s a lot of information. Too much information, really. It can be difficult to sift through everything to find that great insight you needed or that particular resource that suits your interests.

Fortunately, there are ways to separate the signal from the noise. The following tools can help you find clarity. Not only will they assist you in finding the information you’ve been looking for, they can also give you the information you didn’t know you needed.

Customize what you receive from the Duke Career Center

All graduate students are automatically signed up to receive emails from the Career Center, so you may have seen a message come to you that looks like this.



You can now tailor the information in these emails based on your interests. At the bottom of these emails is a link (circled below) that allows you to choose the categories you’re most interested in. There are dozens of categories to choose from, including humanities, data science, government and policy, museums and galleries, engineering, environment and energy, postdocs and VAPs, networking, search strategy, and many areas of diversity. Content is delivered to you to best match all of the categories you choose.



You can also choose when and how frequently you want to receive these newsletters. And the Career Center is responsive to student interests, so if there are careers or topics you want to know more about, let me know.

Explore careers and make a plan

Many graduate students ask themselves, “Is academia the right fit for me?” It’s a healthy question that we should all ask in our endeavors. Take a moment (or a day) to check in with yourself to see if what you’re doing really is a good fit. Many times, the answer will be “yes” and you can keep moving forward with confidence and clarity. But sometimes the answer is “maybe not” or even “no,” and you can begin exploring what other opportunities may exist. Even if you decide to stick with academia, you’ll know more about what you’re doing and why it’s your best option.

There are online tools for you to examine different career paths and how they suit you. Each of these starts with self-assessment for you to better understand your skills, strengths, and interests. From there, the software will show how much different careers might be a fit for. IMPORTANT: there is no computer program or test that can tell you what career best suits you. Each of these tools presents you with some options, and you can then consider how you react to the recommendations. You often learn more from your reaction than from the recommendation itself.

After this initial exploration, the most useful part of these tools is the ability to craft an Individual Development Plan (IDP). An IDP, in essence, is committing to specific professional and career development goals, setting deadlines for yourself, and finding mentors and peers to get an outside perspective. For graduate students in the humanities and social sciences, you can use Imagine PhD. Chemistry graduate students can access ChemIDP from ACS. Other students in the sciences can use myIDP from AAAS, which also comes with a series of articles published in Science to provide some guidance.

After you have some clarity on the skills you want to build in grad school, there are way too many programs and groups at Duke to keep track of. Duke OPTIONS is a tool for PhD students to help you focus on the ways you want to develop professionally. You can sort through the different options, identify interesting opportunities, and create a plan for accomplishing your goals. You can read about Duke OPTIONS in action from the perspective of Ph.D. student Edgar Virguez.

Dive deeper and try out different careers

The Career Center has a number of career guides for graduate students. On the Explore Careers portion of our website, on the right side of the page is a section called “Specific Industry.” This growing collection of career information currently includes information on public health, consulting, science writing, tech transfer, and many others. Soon there will be a section on careers in the arts as well (in a collaboration with DEMAN), so keep checking back for updates.

If you’ve missed any of the events from the biannual Academic Job Search Series or Careers Beyond Academia Series, videos of these panels and workshops can be found on the Duke Postdoc Services YouTube channel. These can be a great way to hear advice from professors and professionals about what different careers look like, how to gain experience, and how to get that first job after grad school.

While most of your time may be spent in class or conducting research, there are still ways for you to gain experience and try out some different career options. The InterSECT Job Simulations present activities to expose PhD students to different types of work. You can build your skills and see what it’s like to be a freelance writer, clinical trial coordinator, entrepreneur, or policy analyst (to name a few).

Tools for international students

One of the primary questions we hear from international students is about which organizations sponsor visas. The good news is that there’s a searchable online database of H1B and green card sponsorship data. Myvisajobs allows you to search for different employers or industries to see which companies have a history of visa sponsorship. Within each organization, you can also see what types of positions they sponsor for.

Overall, these tools can help you take a lot of guess work out of your professional and career development. They are especially great places to start if you’re short on time or you want to make some progress on your own.


Headshot of David McDonald
Dave McDonald, Ph.D.

Associate Director, Graduate Student Career Services

Dave joined the Career Center in 2015 and oversees Graduate Student Career Services, counseling master’s and doctoral students across disciplines. His goal is to help students explore their academic and non-academic career options, identify relevant opportunities for development, prepare their application materials, practice interviewing skills, and transition to their next position. Dave received his Ph.D. from the Duke University Program in Genetics and Genomics.