Shaping Your Graduate School Journey: Advice from PFL Ambassadors

PFL Photos Fall 2013 062
Molly Hartzog-Storment, author

PFL Ambassadors are a multi-disciplinary group of graduate students who have developed exceptional leadership skills through their involvement in Preparing Future Leaders (PFL) events, programs, and activities. They have demonstrated their excellence in graduate school through their professional development, teaching experiences, and research. PFL has been integral to the experiences of these students. Here they have shared how PFL has helped them achieve their personal goals for graduate school and work towards long-term career goals. In addition, they have provided advice for newly arrived graduate students who are looking to find their way.

Teaching goals

Many of our Ambassadors had teaching-related goals regarding developing their teaching methods, developing a solid teaching portfolios, and marketing themselves as experienced instructors. PFL has a number of teaching-related programs and events every year that have helped the ambassadors improve their teaching and develop a strong teaching portfolio for the job market.

“Before I graduate I hope to have strong developing teaching and research portfolios in order to be fully prepared for the job market. PFL has helped me with work towards this goal through teaching-focused workshops that are practical to help prepare for teaching and strengthen the teaching portfolio, as well as research workshops.” – Elizabeth Johnson-Young; 3rd year PhD student; Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media

“In my professional career as an educator/researcher, I hope to motivate students to engage in learning and enjoy the process.  PFL has taught me innovative classroom techniques and has allowed me to think creatively about the activities and assignments I plan as an instructor.  Now that I’ve channeled my creativity as an educator, I look forward to continuing to create new activities and assignments in my future career, always looking for a better way to engage students.” – Natalie Cooke, 4th year PhD student, Nutrition Sciences

Communication goals

In addition to teaching-related goals, many Ambassadors had goals regarding their development as successful communicators. As they developed their communication skills through attending (and teaching) PFL programs and events, they have improved not only presentation skills, but their skills in networking, teaching, and collaboration!

“I really want to sharpen my ’Networking’ and ‘Leadership’ skills before I graduate and go to work in an industry. While I have learned and even practiced these skills through the platform of PFL, I still feel that I need to get better. And right to its name, PFL always presents me opportunities to work on these skills and helps me grow professionally.” – Chirag Gajjar, 3rd year PhD student, Fiber and Polymer Science

Career skills for International students

International students have felt especially at home in PFL programs and events, finding a strong resource for adjusting to the US higher education system and professional culture.

“Being an international student, I needed to understand the new educational and professional environment in the USA. PFL helped me acclimatize through several career skills and professional development workshops that are useful across the board, but specially useful to international students like myself.” – Haritha Malladi, 4th year PhD student, Civil Engineering

Long-term career goals

While our Ambassadors have achieved many of their short-term goals in teaching and professional development through their participation in PFL, they also have developed many long-term career goals along both academic and non-academic paths. While many Ambassadors came to graduate school with these goals in mind, PFL has also helped them to refine, articulate, and develop these goals throughout their time in graduate school.  These goals include becoming leaders within their fields in academic, non-academic, and teaching positions, through innovative thinking, problem-solving, cross-disciplinary collaboration, engaging teaching methods, and confidence. All of which they have developed through PFL!

“One of my long-term career goals as an academic is to be a leader within a future department and with students. PFL has provided many opportunities to work towards this goal through workshops, volunteer opportunities, and the Ambassador program. Along with departmental opportunities, PFL has offered paths to find how I can best serve as a leader and build knowledge and confidence to act as a leader, and the Ambassador program is the latest in that.” – Elizabeth Johnson-Young; 3rd year PhD student; Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media

“I have always enjoyed teaching, ever since summers when I would hold ‘classes’ for my younger sisters. I came to graduate school knowing I wanted to be a professor. Since my academic program prepares me for every other aspect of that career (research, publications, etc), I wanted to get experience and training in the classroom. PFL events have helped me build my confidence as an instructor and given me tons of resources to rely on as I transition from TA to professor.” – Sophie Carrell, 4th year PhD student, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“In my lifetime I hope to inspire people to think outside the box. There is no reason why someone can’t be an artist and scientist at the same time. I think that we often set our own limitations based on what other peoples perceptions of what we can and cannot do are. By helping people discover what they are passionate about, I hope to teach them how to build bridges between different disciplines and research ideas. PFL has given me the confidence and tools to make this a reality for me.” – Jennifer Dixon; 4th year PhD student; Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Science

“I realized that the only way to fully utilize one’s strength is to cooperate with others. Being a chemist requires intense cooperation. I learned a lot about communication skills from PFL, which help me to motivate, to negotiate and to influence.” – Menglong Hu, 5th year PhD student, Chemistry

“My long-term career goal is to get in a position where I can lead scientific innovations and make strategic decisions in a corporate company. PFL provides me an opportunity to observe and work with high-level administrators at NCSU. This not only helps me understand the ‘behind-the-scene activities’ but also helps me with developing skills like communication and time management.” – Chirag Gajjar, 3rd year PhD student, Fiber and Polymer Science

Advice for new graduate students

We recently asked our Ambassadors what advice they would give a new graduate student. You’ll see below that this advice includes setting and revising goals, making connections, creating your own professional identity, trying new things, and finding a balance. All of which, you guessed it, you can get with PFL!

“My advice to new graduate students would be to set out some goals for yourself right away, work on adapting them as you go, and look both in your department and outside the department to find ways to accomplish these goals. Looking beyond the department can be extremely beneficial.” – Elizabeth Johnson-Young; 3rd year PhD student; Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media

“To a new graduate student…I would tell them to be open to all the things your graduate career can be. Don’t get caught up in becoming what your adviser/department/fellow grad student wants you to be. This is your degree and your career…make it into anything you want.” – Jennifer Dixon; 4th year PhD student; Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Science

“When I began graduate school, I wish I knew that whole process of drafting journal articles, going through several iterations of corrections, submitting them and dealing with reviewer comments took several months at a time before you got to see them get published. Had I known this, I definitely would have started writing them much earlier.” – Haritha Malladi, 4th year PhD student, Civil Engineering

“What advice would I give to a new grad student? Go out and make connections. Get involved with student groups or off-campus organizations. Volunteer.Take as many opportunities that are presented to you as you can without burning completely out. Everyone’s busy in grad school, but you’ll better remember the things you did to enrich your experience beyond just classes and research.” – Sophie Carrell, 4th year PhD student, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

“I would tell a new graduate student to seek to find balance while in graduate school.  Take time to explore your discipline, to engage in quality research, to educate or invest in the lives of others, to prepare yourself for your future career through professional development, and find time to build relationships, both in and out of academia.  And most importantly, find something that helps you recharge – like running, cooking, reading, singing, or painting – and make time for it.  That time is the secret to thriving in graduate school. Balance isn’t easy, but graduate school is all about seeking to find it.  It’s a journey, not a destination.” – Natalie Cooke, 4th year PhD student, Nutrition Sciences

“Besides working hard on his own field, one should learn more knowledge in other fields by making more friends or reading more books.”  -Menglong Hu, 5th year PhD student, Chemistry

“I would advise new graduate students not to restrict themselves to their labs, departments or friend-circle. There are lot of opportunities outside the lab and the department where the students can gain exposure to the skill-sets that will help them to grow personally and professionally. For example, PFL and UGSA are a few avenues where they can network with students across the university.” -Chirag Gajjar, 3rd year PhD student, Fiber and Polymer Science