Practicing Professionalism: A Graduate Student Guide

You’ve reached an exciting new beginning — the start of graduate school. In many cases, this brings an opportunity to define yourself. By practicing professional behaviors from the beginning of your time in graduate school, you can adopt habits of professionalism, respect, thoughtfulness, and self-care before you begin your career. The following list provides tips to help you succeed in graduate school, internships and other work opportunities, and your future career.

Email and Communication

  • Check your university email regularly for announcements related to class and professional opportunities, as well as for essential university communication.
  • Use your personal email on your resume, linkedin, internship/job applications, website, or any other professional materials you create. Check this email regularly. This email address should be professional (first & last name, not a hobby or a silly nickname, etc.).
  • Reply promptly to any emails requiring response. Use proper email etiquette. (Resources: Emailing your Professors | Emailing Professionally )
  • Proofread emails, blogs, & other public materials online. These represent you and your brand.
  • It’s okay to send a follow up email as a polite nudge if the person has not replied. The length of time varies based on circumstance, but two business days for faculty, longer for professional contacts. Be patient: remember that your supervisor and coworkers have multiple duties.

Technology Use

  • Take advantage of using technology in the classroom [except when prohibited] to take notes, refer to e-readings, look up references, and work on tasks as directed. You should, however, create a plan to limit distractions (close tabs with social media, email, news sites, and off-task items, or install a Web Blocker (e.g. Freedom) if you struggle with self-control in this area).
  • Be mindful of your use of cell phones, mobile devices, and other distractions.

Respect

  • Please respect your peers and other professionals in person and online. Do not bully or disrespect others. If you are experiencing any problems, speak with a faculty member or supervisor immediately to work to resolve any issues.
  • All students have a right to an education free of harassment. Each of us also carries the responsibility of ensuring our peers are experiencing a harassment-free education. (Check out your university policies for resources related to harassment, bullying, and Title IX)
  • Be an active listener. (Resource: What Great Listeners Actually Do). Be respectful of different points of views. Be calm and judicious in your responses.
  • As you create a professional presence online (resumes, portfolios, linkedin, etc.), remember that nothing you post online is truly private, and anything could be viewed by future employers. Consider the image you’re cultivating before posting.
  • On all of your social media accounts, including personal accounts and those used in your classes, internships, etc., you should uphold professional standards that meet university and professional codes of conduct.

Academic Honesty & Plagiarism

  • As a graduate student, you should take the your university’s honor code very seriously. Familiarize yourself with the guidelines for policies including academic honesty, plagiarism, cheating. The work you do in your program must be your own.
  • Be sure to cite your sources to avoid issues of plagiarism and dishonesty.
  • When collaborating with other students, fairly attribute their contributions. Respect others’ opinions, fairly divide work, and communicate regularly with your team.
  • Talk to your professors or supervisors immediately if you have questions or doubts about what constitutes academic dishonesty. Plagiarism carries serious consequences that could jeopardize your graduate education and future career.
Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

Professional Conduct

  • Be humble. Know what you know, but listen to learn more. If you leave your program with the understanding that there’s lots more to learn, and that you can learn from people who aren’t like you, you’ll have made the most of your time in graduate school.
  • Show up prepared: read for class, prepare for presentations or your work at an internship/job.
  • Networking is a great way to develop contacts. It engages you in a professional community. Networking can happen digitally via twitter, email, etc. Networking also gives you face time with the people who are actually hiring.
  • Keep in touch with your professors, your peers, and other professional contacts from your time in graduate school. These people can bolster your professional success.
  • Have a positive attitude. People will respond to your attitude. Practice being interested in other people by asking them questions about their work. Always be courteous.
  • Follow through if you say you’ll do something. Don’t promise more than you can deliver, but also don’t sell yourself short.
  • Don’t be late. If it is impossible to be on time with something, communication is key. Let the person know as soon as possible and propose an alternative (“I could submit this on Thursday.”). If it is a classroom assignment/project, communicate with your team members, if relevant, and talk with the professor before the due date to ask if an extension is possible.
  • Attend class. Don’t be late to class, internships, and jobs. If you’re going to be late, communicate with your supervisor ASAP before you’re due to arrive.
  • Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Take criticism for your mistakes in stride.
  • Advice specific to internships and jobs: 1) Ask for a list of responsibilities & expectations in writing. 2) Ask what about the communication norms at an organization or office. 3) Go to your supervisor with solutions instead of problems (X Problem + Y Solution. What do you think?)

Tips for Getting the Most Out of your Graduate Program

  • Make a calendar with important tasks + deadlines. Set alerts for approaching deadlines. Plan ahead — don’t procrastinate! And then, check your calendar regularly to see what is coming.
  • Start building yourself a “brand” by wearing your passion on your sleeve. Standing out helps you get ahead in this field and helps you surround yourself with other passionate people.
  • Hand-write thank you cards to those who support your research & professional development (librarians, archivists, supervisors, reference writers, draft readers, etc.)
  • Be kind and gracious to the librarians, archivists, and others who support your research. Treat them as professionals. Express your gratitude to them, and remember that some may become potential bosses, colleagues, and mentors.
  • Similarly, be kind and gracious to community members and others you involve in your research and projects. They are sharing their time, their memories, and their lives with you — be sure to thank them and respect them.
  • Embrace opportunities for further professional development — conferences, an additional internship, volunteering at local institutions. All of these things will help you network and build a diverse range of experiences.
  • Be ambitious. Take on opportunities where you’ll meet new people and try new things outside of your comfort zone.
  • Independent scholars and laypeople are doing interesting and valuable research. Be open to these folks without academic credentials.
  • Attend department events and take advantage of university resources. Take the lead in figuring out what you want or need from graduate school, internships, and new jobs, and take advantage of the resources and opportunities available to you.
  • Support your colleagues: take the time to listen to them, go to coffee or a happy hour with them, attend events or presentations they organize. Discuss your successes and failures. They are your support network through grad school and beyond.
  • Self-Care: Maintain your friendships, outside hobbies and routines, and your health. Graduate school is overwhelming, and can quickly take over your life. Get a good night’s sleep. Your health and well-being still should be priorities!
Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash
  • Be attuned to your mental health. Anxiety and stress can creep up on you. Please reach out if you’re overwhelmed or need assistance. (Check out your university mental health resources so that you have them handy if you’re ever in need).
  • Don’t undervalue what you learn in graduate school. (e.g. “I’ve only taken one class in this subfield.”) Sell your strengths, and keep a running list of your experiences on your portfolio/resume/linkedin.
  • Ask questions ASAP when you get stuck or you’re confused. It’s better to ask early on, rather than staying stuck and not being able to continue on.

Please feel free to share more tips and best practices in the comments below.

A Google Doc version of this document for use with students may be found here. Please feel free to adapt with attribution for any non-commercial purposes. (Note: some of the points more specifically deal with public history in this doc copy).

Document compiled by Lindsey Passenger Wieck, St. Mary’s University, August 2018.

Special thanks to Kristen B. Deathridge for her feedback on a draft of this document, and to Rebecca Wingo for helping name this piece. Many thanks to those who contributed items, ideas, and resources to this list via social media, including Caitie Bolich, Sheila Brennan, Emma Brown, Rocio P. Caballero-Gill, Charlotte Canning, Eric Chelstrom, Kristen B. Deathridge, Abigail R. Gautreau, Ann M. Little, Thomas M. Littlewood, Steven Lubar, David McKenzie, Mary E. Mendoza, Katie Orr, Catherine Osborne, MJ Rymsza-Pawlowska, Katy Kole de Peralta, Marc Reyes, Mary Rizzo, Hillary Richardson, Sara Ronis, Ryan Semmes, Lindsey K. Walters, Andy Verhoff, @eastern_branch, @m_arruth, @MidWestMuseums, @southernmuse, @stephanieohr5.

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International (CC BY-NC 4.0): Feel free to Share (copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format) and Adapt (remix, transform, and build upon the material) with attribution for non-commercial purposes.

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Lindsey Passenger Wieck

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is an educator, urban historian, and advocate for integrating local culture and history in the classroom.