Professionalism is a common topic for graduate students. As housing professionals, we speak about it in programs of study, at internships and assistantships, we even do conference presentations on being professional at conferences. Professionalism is important but different people imagine different things when they envision a professional. I asked my co-workers, all of which hire and supervise graduate workers, to provide characteristics that would define a professional graduate student. Most of what my co-workers discussed involved how a graduate student might present his/herself at his/her first conference or first job search.
It’s about the look. The first and most obvious indication of professionalism is how a graduate student looks. It is also the first thing anyone will see when they meet him/her for the first time; however, professional look is not a set-in-stone dress code. Professional does not always mean suit and tie, though in an interview scenario it does. Every department is different and so is every professional. Sometimes jeans are accepted for a graduate and sometimes everyone in the department should be in slacks. Some departments run on their polo shirts and for some that is just for causal days. Presenting a professional image is about representing an institution well. Graduate assistants, for that matter all professionals, should dress as their supervisor requires making sure the image of the department is maintained. Regardless of the exact dress code one should always make sure his/her attire is in good shape, well ironed, and clean. Business cards are always helpful, but if they are not provided by an institution one should make sure any cards that are created are approved prior to distribution. An increasingly common topic that came up during our discussion was a graduate student’s social media presence. With how widespread social media has become it may be the impression that comes before the first impression. Graduate students should ensure that what is viewable by the public supports a professional look or he/she may not have a chance to make a second impression.
Another topic that was discussed among my fellow co-workers was how graduate students carry themselves, or expressed differently “It is all about the attitude.” This was expressed as a combination of knowing what he/she is doing and doing what he/she should. It is easy to think that always having the answer is the expectation but even more important is asking for help and being able to learn. Supervisors and hiring managers are looking for new professionals that are willing to do the work and eager to learn how to do it better. A graduate who attends a webinar or makes sure to actually be in sessions at conferences demonstrate a drive to excel. Engaging with presenters and other attendees is an even better way to show that drive. No conversation about how to act professional is complete without the classic requirements. Be on time, be prepared, and be willing to work. One never knows if the next session or meeting could be a chance to impress a future supervisor.
Finally, remember to talk the talk. This is especially important for the job-searching graduate. It is very important that graduate assistants are able to concisely explain what his/her daily duties are and what he/she can bring to a department. Supervisors are looking for people who can handle different responsibilities and work with people. Graduate assistants have to sell themselves and their skills; however, do not do so at the expense of others. Graduates students should stay positive about their current position even if it is not completely positive. Remember, if a new professional speaks negatively about coworkers or supervisors now, many of the people you are interviewing or networking with may ask if you will say the same about them later. Being able to really convey how well one works with people and handles challenges is what will land a graduate assistant the job or make that connection that might just be a job later.