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A Key to Career Competency: Professionalism

September 29, 2016

Happy Thursday, y’all,

This week I felt was the perfect time to have an important discussion with everyone about a concept, while widely known, can be seriously undervalued and over-looked while preparing for the work force: professionalism. You may be thinking: “Austin, you’re crazy. I know what professionalism is.” And you may be right, a portion of Mason’s graduate students have worked and continue to work in the professional world, while pursuing an advanced degree; however, there is also a significant portion of our graduate population that has gone straight through college into graduate school without professional work experience So, I think it’s important to clear up any misconceptions.

Let’s start with a definition of professionalism: The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) did research on Career Readiness and they defined professionalism as the demonstration of “personal accountability and effective work habits, e.g., punctuality, working productively with others, and time workload management, and understanding the impact of non-verbal communication on professional work image. [It is an] individual [who] demonstrates integrity and ethical behavior, acts responsibly with the interest of the larger community in mind, and is able to learn from his/her mistakes” (Career Readiness Defined).

Let’s take a moment and decompact NACE’s understanding of professionalism. College students, whether graduate or undergraduate, who are entering the work force need to be punctual, dressed appropriately for your field or profession, able to work well with others, think long term and for the collective, not just the individual, and behave in an ethical manner. Basically, don’t show up late, wrinkled, with a bad attitude and only looking out for yourself.

You might say, “This isn’t new to me” and “I already know all this.” And again, you may be right. Some of y’all have worked in the “real world” for years and are now going back to school, or some of y’all have had internships. But I ask you then, why did Hart Research relate that “two in three employers (67%) believe most college graduates have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in entry-level positions, but only 44% think they have what is required for advancement and promotion to higher levels” (Hart Research Associates)? This study looked at both graduate and undergraduate success rates in the work setting, after completing their degree and (re)joining the work force. To me, this implies that while students are getting jobs after graduation, they’re not prepared to progress quickly.

When I asked Raechel Timbers, Associate Director of Student Professional Development at Mason’s Career Services, why she thought this was, her response was a lack of professional development: “Those soft skills are what is needed for career management” (soft skills meaning punctuality, attire, manners, work ethic). Timbers continued, “Students need to find a mentor, whether academic or professional, who can help them with the learning gaps and acting as a sort of sponsor who can help them network in both formal and informal settings.” This mentor can be someone you shadow and learn from, emulate, be the standard you compare yourself to — not that I’m saying you have to be exactly like them, do and think what they think. However, they can be the resource to help you gain what is needed to succeed professionally in your given area or field. See how they carry themselves, how they dress, behave, brand themselves. A mentor can be especially helpful when you are using graduate school as an entry point into a new career or field – a mentor can help you learn about the professional norms in your new industry. Speaking from personal experience, this was major drive in my academic career. One of the readers on my thesis had been my mentor for two years, taking me to conferences where I would eventually present, finding me guest lecturing opportunities, helping my find my first lectureship as a professor, and then my main reference for getting into my PhD program.

A discussion of soft versus hard skills will further our look into professionalism. Hard skills are the tools, knowledge, and practices learned in the classroom and internships. Soft skills are the practical skills supposedly developed along the way; again, they are the idea of punctuality, appropriate work attire, the ability to finish tasks in a timely manner, civility… let’s be honest the list is never ending. Hopefully by graduate school, students have realized that showing up 40 minutes late to class, wearing wrinkled clothes/workout/revealing clothes (I am speaking to both men and women here, if you can tell if a quarter is heads or tails in jeans… it’s too tight), popping your gum and disrupting class is a bad idea; a no-no, if you will. But let’s make it clear, this behavior will not be accepted by your future employers. If you walk in late to work or can never make a meeting on time, you will be fired. If your clothes are wrinkled, not appropriate, or revealing, you will be sent to HR and eventually could be fired for repeated offenses. How you interact and communicate will be of the utmost importance. The people you interact with will not be your classmates or teachers, who may be more accepting of outlandish, personal, off-topic, and/or inappropriate communication and interactions; they will be your colleagues and bosses. If your communication and interaction skills are not on point, you will find yourself not being taken seriously and possibly looking for a new job.

You may ask: What’s my next step? Well, I have the answer: Mason’s Career Fair and preparation events.  Visit the Career Event webpage for all events and details. All events are open to all Mason students and the Prepare for the Fair Workshop will be a great crash course in professionalism.

I hope y’all can make it to the Career Fair; however, if you can’t, let me leave you with these final thoughts. Find a mentor; let them help shape your professional trajectory. Don’t become one of Hart’s 44% — focus on acquiring all the professional skills and tools you can while at Mason. Take advantage of professional development opportunities designed specifically for graduate students hosted by your graduate program, Graduate Student Life, University Life Arlington, and the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence. And please join us here every Thursday at Mason Grad Insider, for a new blog!

Editors Note: This post has been updated to reflect current web resources. 04/14/21

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