When we think of grad school, we often define it as a space to grow in professional expertise: speaking at conferences, polishing that CV, studying, leading research projects, grant proposals, and classwork. However, what we often fail to realize is that it can be a space not just for growing the expertise of our professions, but for becoming better professionals in general. Now what do I mean by this? I’m sure many of you have heard the rhetoric that grad school is supposed to be more like a workplace, an arena where you start the climb from “student” to “colleague,” where you’re expected to act in a more “professional” way. But there’s not always a lot of guidance on what specifically that action should look like. So, for today’s article, we’re going to be discussing some practical steps for growing your professionalism in grad school.

Build Your Wardrobe

Now, you might be thinking right now that being professional is more than wearing the right outfit, and that would be correct. Building character traits in yourself such as competence, courtesy, and trustworthiness are some of the most important parts of being professional. However, being intentional about the way you present yourself can help communicate some of those characteristics. This doesn’t have to mean going out and immediately buying the finest business clothes on the market: first, because we’re grad students on a budget; and second, because that may not be the right attire for your field. Instead, take a look around at what your colleagues and professors are wearing. Perhaps you do need to consider having some business clothes on hand, perhaps there’s specialized safety equipment you need for lab work, or maybe you’re a sports therapist and there’s a lot of athletic wear in your future. Just find what’s appropriate for the field you work in, and then think of ways to slowly add elements of that attire into your wardrobe over time in ways that are budget friendly. Combining intentionality with a keen eye for thrift stores and end-of-season sales can take you a long way towards your goals. And as a final note: make sure that what you purchase is not only something you like, but something relatively comfortable. It’s enough work to teach, attend class, or speak at a conference without having to worry about itchy seams and too-tight collars.

Practice Your Introduction

Department mixers, conferences, classrooms: in all these spaces and many more, you’ll find yourself practicing the age-old art of introductions. As such, it’s important to know how to talk about yourself and what you do in a clear, concise way. Some questions you can think about having answers for are “Where are you from?” “What are your interests?” and “What have you been working on recently?” It’s also great if you have hobbies or interests outside of grad school that you’re comfortable sharing with others, since you’ll need to move on to other conversation topics at some point, and it shows that you’re a well-rounded individual with some work-life balance. If you’re not super comfortable going off-the-cuff, practicing these questions with friends or colleagues can be a great way to help you feel at ease when the time comes. Just make sure you don’t get so committed to a single script that you blank as soon as someone asks a question you’re not expecting.

As an additional tip: make sure you take some time to practice a good handshake. Covid may have put physical contact on hold for a while, but handshakes are coming back and can play an important role in making a good first impression. You’ll want to make sure you don’t strangle the other person’s hand, but don’t let your hand just lay there like a dead fish either. A nice, firm grip with some eye contact generally works just fine. However, do make sure to play the situation by ear. If the other person doesn’t seem to want to shake hands, or doesn’t offer the gesture, don’t insist on it; they likely have reasons for their boundaries, and showing your respect for those is another way to make a fantastic first impression.

Don’t Take Yourself too Seriously

We’re grad students, so we’ve all gotten bitten by the perfectionist bug at some point or another in our lives. When in a class or a work setting, that tendency can kick in again and prevent us from sharing ideas, trying out theories, or making new connections. Our preoccupation with making whatever we’re doing perfect, in the end, can keep us from getting it done at all. So, give yourself room to make errors. After all, you’re in grad school because you wanted to learn, not because you already had all the answers. So, embrace the questioning, the investigating, the failures, and the successes that come with really delving into the learning process. Along the way, make sure to also practice your active listening, taking every opportunity to learn from the colleagues and faculty around you and benefit from their expertise. Then, when the opportunity comes for you to share your own thoughts, you’ll not only be better equipped personally, but academically as well.


In closing, grad school isn’t the end of the journey for education; instead, it’s the beginning of a wonderful and lifelong journey of learning, a space to find what interests you and grow your understanding of it. So, make sure to take all the opportunities that are here for you to grow and learn more about the type of person you want to be, whether personally, academically, or professionally.