What Professional Development Looks Like in a Pandemic (Hint: You’re Already Doing It)

 May 6, 2020

Garden path

As we all adjust to a new normal, our priorities may have shifted radically. Maybe your time spent on commuting is down near zero, but the amount of time you spend making your biweekly menu plan and grocery shopping list has jumped way up. Professional development, which may have once seemed important or even urgent, may feel less so now as you deal with pressing immediate concerns, such as checking in on the wellness of far-flung family members, comforting friends grieving losses, or performing the intricate dance of balancing childcare or crisis homeschooling with remote work. It might even feel like you can’t consider professional development at a moment like this.

Yet there are many ways in which your day-to-day activities right now are skill-building experiences that aid in your professional development. If you don’t feel like you have time to participate in a workshop or webinar—that it’s enough just to get through the day right now—here are some ways to think about, and talk about, the skills that coping with the COVID-19 outbreak may be helping you build.

Teaching online. If your spring semester included work as a TA, you likely had to make an abrupt transition to online teaching to support your students. Together with faculty colleagues, you learned through trial and error what strategies might work best to move classroom learning to a virtual space and reframe assignments for a remote format where physical research resources like labs and libraries were unavailable. Since many other colleges and universities already offer substantial proportions of their classes and degrees online, they will seek digital pedagogy skills in new faculty;  if you’re considering a tenure-track career, you’ve already gotten a taste of what your future institution may need. And if you’re ready to learn more, look for a series of Teaching Ideas workshops this summer about this increasingly important topic.

A new project. Perhaps you have volunteered to deliver groceries and other critical supplies to seniors, shared your expertise with high-school students whose teachers are eager for high-quality remote learning experiences through programs like Skype a Scientist, leveraged social media to promote wellness resources for researchers, crafted a meditation on the challenges of a destabilized writing practice, or launched your own YouTube channel to promote science to your community. Whether your passion project leverages your depth of expertise as a researcher, your capacity to learn a great deal about a new topic very quickly, or your ability to communicate to a wide audience beyond your discipline, it can help you demonstrate skills that employers value in their hiring processes, when they begin hiring again.

Journaling. Whether you’ve taken up journaling as a way to record for future generations the experience of living through a global pandemic or are capturing your thoughts daily as a way to make sense of the swirl of information and emotion clouding the world these days, you’re building communication skills with an important audience—yourself. A key component of emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately identify your feelings and act on them constructively, and the process of reflection and articulation builds that skill. Strong emotional intelligence (or EQ) contributes to sought-after professional behaviors such as teamwork and collaboration, self-motivation, and empathy. EQ researchers such as Daniel Goleman have argued that EQ accounts for the greatest difference in leadership capacity between professionals with similar technical skillsets—up to 90% of the difference. EQ skills can position you for leadership and make you a more collegial coworker, too. 

(Re)building connections. As we all figure out how to create virtual community in isolation, you may have reached out to old friends from undergrad, a previous graduate program, or even high school. These are people who have known you for some time, and they may offer different perspectives on your abilities and strengths than your graduate-school colleagues—a valuable chance to reflect on how the world beyond Duke may see you. While you’re meeting your needs for social interaction during the crisis, you’re also reactivating connections in your network. Spend five minutes a week inviting these personal friends to connect on LinkedIn; you never know when you’ll be in a position to help them through your own network of contacts. And while they may be able to help you when you’re searching for a job, it’s even more likely that the people in your friends’ network will help to uncover an opportunity for you.

Identifying your values. Have you found yourself more sharply defining your priorities and your time investment over the past few weeks? You’ve likely been identifying your values. You may emerge from this time with a more well-defined sense of what’s really important to you. This process will help you make good decisions about how you invest your time moving forward, including as you seek career alignment and job fit. For example, has proximity to family become more important during the crisis, leading you to focus on a more narrow geographic range in the search for your next job? Or have your interests shifted from basic research to translational science? Were you inspired to create a new process or product that addresses a pressing need in this situation, or are you contemplating ways to share your research with a broader public?  As you’re ready to think more about your values, consider using free online tools such as ImaginePhD (for humanities and social sciences) and myIDP (for STEM) to engage in a more structured reflection —and shape your plans for investing in further professional development, whenever you’re ready to re-engage.

The past several weeks have been extraordinarily challenging for us all. No matter how you’ve spent them, you’ve likely grown in your professional development—even if you were so busy you didn’t realize it. I hope you can take a moment to celebrate that growth—we all need chances to celebrate these days—and recognize what you’ve already accomplished.


Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.
Melissa Bostrom, Ph.D.

Assistant Dean, Graduate Student Professional Development

Melissa ensures that all Graduate School students can identify and develop transferable skills to prepare them for the full range of career opportunities open to master's- and Ph.D.-prepared professionals. She is Managing Editor of the blog.