Career Advice

S.M.A.R.T. Goals, Mentor Maps, and Values: Developing Your Professional Identity

E. Yezierski, S. Bretz, A. Diekman, R. Ward

As fewer than 50% of STEM doctoral students complete their degrees within seven years, with lower rates of completion for those from underrepresented groups,1 it is useful to identify ways to improve doctoral and postdoctoral education so it will support larger numbers of students and do so in a way that bolsters their professional development.

In chemistry specifically, the current system of educating graduate students focuses more on research than on student learning in a broader sense. Students learn what their advisers know and can do (e.g., synthetic chemistry; the master-apprentice model2). Surely, this deep immersion in learning the discipline of chemistry is central to doctoral education. However, this approach falls short in forming a professional identity or a sense of yourself as a chemist.

Developing a clear sense of professional identity in chemistry requires not only growing your knowledge and skill but also reflecting on why this knowledge and skill is important to you, important to others, and important to the world. Solidifying this sense of professional self and purpose can provide motivation to persist through challenges.

Collaborative learning communities are among the most promising approaches for developing graduate students. These groups support and socialize students within the disciplinary context, particularly because they create power-neutral and interactive teams.3

In this article, we describe activities that have been developed and tested with two graduate student cohorts from Chemistry and Psychology as part of an NSF-funded project titled Interdisciplinary STEM Graduate Student Learning Communities. Although these activities were implemented within a structured, academic-year-long learning community, we present them with the hope that you can infuse them into a variety of programs that target graduate student development (for example, in departmental seminars or lab meetings).

The activities that the project implemented and that we are translating here for your use are valuable because they aim to support professional identity development while intentionally holding these conversations with students and faculty from different disciplines; this allowed us to make new connections, uncover unknown similarities, and highlight different strategies and viewpoints.

Learning Activities for Professional Identity Development

We developed and piloted these activities for small groups of doctoral students. Because we know this model works, we highly recommend that you find at least two other graduate students from chemistry or another discipline. In our learning community, we observed strong value added in reflecting on and discussing with other students and faculty. This interactive component allowed us to see different perspectives and strategies.

Below, we describe activities for you to try that are organized around goal setting and mentoring. You can access the Graduate Students and Postdocs Professional Learning Community Syllabus for more details about how doing these things fits into the year-long professional development experience.

Activity 1: What are your goals? Let’s start by acknowledging the skills you’ve already mastered and prioritizing those you’d like to improve. You can begin by looking through the list of goals in your ACS ChemIDP. (To learn more about the ChemIDP, please see these articles by W. Hankle, J. Schlatterer, and M. Levy, or look at the AAAS IDP.) Determine whether each skill you’d like to develop is a high priority (you absolutely need to work on it), a medium priority (important but not high priority), a low priority (you have mastered this skill already. Go you!), or unimportant to your field or future career goals.

Next, take this activity to your group, where you will share your lists. Put a star next to the two skills you think are likely to be the highest priority for each person in your group. Then circle the two skills you predict will be each individual’s lowest priority because either they are unimportant or have already been mastered. Now, share the ratings of each skill created by all the group members. Which skills did they rate the highest? The lowest? Compare your predictions (both stars and circles) with the group’s ratings.

Now that you’ve identified the skills you’ve mastered and those that are your highest priority, take a few moments to generate two goals around your highest priorities. Work with your group to turn those into specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely goals using the S.M.A.R.T. framework. After each member of the group has a S.M.A.R.T. goal for both of their high-priority skills, hold a whole-group discussion. Ask, “What was challenging about this process? What surprised you?”

Activity 2: Who are your mentors? Get started by discussing these two questions with your group:

  • What is a mentor?
  • What should a mentor do?

Consider that some actions are visible (e.g., conversations and advice), but you can’t readily see other important things your mentor does for you (e.g., behind the scenes advocacy, nominations for opportunities).

Ask everyone in the group to estimate how many mentors they think they have. Share your number and discuss the types of people who can mentor you other than your adviser. Now create your own Mentor Map, which can be printed out from the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity.

Now, ask yourself some questions. How accurate was your prediction about the number of mentors in your life? What was easy about making the map? What was difficult? The answers to these questions not only support reflection, but also prompt everyone to look ahead to fill in more mentors in their map—and life.

Finally, discuss which categories of mentors the group would benefit from but don’t yet have (i.e., the empty areas of your maps). As a group, brainstorm about the people who could fill those roles. Discuss the characteristics you consider to be important when looking for a new mentor. Consider that because you are always changing, what you need from mentors will also change. Learn about more tools for building productive mentoring relationships here.

How Can You Get Started?

Engaging in activities like the ones described above can bolster your professional identity development. As you try them, refer to the pre-session work and reflection questions on the Graduate Students and Postdocs Professional Learning Community syllabus. These questions will help for all of the sessions when you discuss things with peers and your mentors.

When you create your group, keep it small, with four to six members. They can all be chemists, or you can include a few peers from other graduate programs. Our learning community was a mix of chemistry and psychology grad students.

Find a place to meet away from the lab—out on the quad, in a coffee shop. Our project found value in engaging in these activities in a small community with others instead of just with faculty mentors because it relieves some of the evaluation anxiety associated with considering achievements and aspirations.This group could be a formal learning community (as with our project) or an informal group. Reflecting on these shared activities, their outcomes, and emergent insights together is essential to professional identity development both for you personally and for the other members of your group.

We are fortunate to have seen these approaches work well for emerging scholars and hope that you are excited to try these techniques. They can support your professional identity development while strengthening connections among your colleagues. We wish you well in your professional pursuits!

Reference Notes

1. Sowell, R.; Allum, J.; Okahana, H. (2015). Doctoral Initiative on Minority Attrition and Completion; Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools, 1.

2. National Research Council 2012. Challenges in Chemistry Graduate Education: A Workshop Summary. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

3.  Weidman, J.; Twale, D.; Stein, E. (2001). Socialization of Graduate and Professional Students in Higher Education: A Perilous Passage? ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 28(3), 1–112.

Additional Mentoring Resources:

  1. National Academies: Sci of Effective Mentorship Online Mentoring Guide 1.0
  2. Rockquemore essay introducing mentoring maps
  3. Mentoring guides:
  4. Mentornet:
    1. How Mentornet Works