Self-advocacy strategies for professional development coaches (opinion)


Those of us in the field of career and professional development can say a lot about supporting graduate students and postdocs as they are navigating their work and research while preparing for what comes after grad school or a postdoc appointment. One of the key topics in career development is advocating for oneself. We create programs that teach our students how to communicate the value and importance of their work, how to get funding for their research, and how to make an argument for why they should be hired or promoted.

However, what happens when we, the professional development experts, need to advocate for ourselves and our offices? Would we give the same advice to a colleague as we would to a student? How do we make the case for ourselves, our positions, and our offices to get the resources we need to support our grad students and postdocs?

Like everyone else, we tend to get so caught up in doing the work that we rarely take the time to look carefully at our outcomes. The focus on service delivery often diverts attention from strategic planning, outreach to partners, and communication with upper administration about our higher-order goals. Many in our field feel like their professional growth and promotion is left to the whim of their supervisor or institutional leadership, and just hope that their great work will speak for itself.

But in fact, we can be more proactive and strategic about our work, communicating its value to higher powers and making sure we leverage our success to get the support we–and our students–need. Here, we offer three suggestions for how to be more strategic about this essential, but often overlooked, part of our job.

Align your mission and vision with institutional priorities. Every higher education institution invests in articulating a clear mission and vision that helps guide all its parts toward shared goals. Those statements present the institution’s values and provide valuable information about its primary commitments. Professional development offices have their own mission and vision; we should align them with those of our college or university and also reflect its values. When we articulate and demonstrate how our work supports the explicit goals of university leaders, we are better positioned to advocate for more staff, support or resources.

If you have not yet developed the mission, vision and strategic goals for your office, carve out some time to consider those concepts and begin the process. As you create your strategic plan, keep in mind your college or university’s mission and vision. Strive to align at least one or two of your strategic priorities with the institution’s broader agenda, and be specific about how your work supports its mission.

Remember that strategic planning does not need to happen alone. Consult with colleagues from other institutions about their processes. Invite staff members within your office and partners on campus to weigh in on your ideas. Thoughtful and inclusive planning will allow you to articulate a robust mission and vision that your institution supports.

It is also important to revisit your vision, mission and goals annually. As leaders, we sometimes create such directives but fail to schedule time to review and assess them with our teams. Your vision, mission and goals should permeate all of your services, operations and planning. This holistic integration is only possible through consistent and intentional reflection, always in the context of your institution.

Document the effectiveness of your programming. Assessment is one of the most important tasks in higher education. Institutions, programs and offices need to know if the work they are doing is yielding the intended results. We need to know what the outcomes are and how they align with learning objectives, what’s the impact we’re making, what’s the return on the investment and so much more.

Assessment can be done in many ways and on many levels depending on resources available and the questions you are asking. One of the simplest approaches is to collect quantitative data–the number of programs, attendance in them and so on–and qualitative data, such as user feedback, on your programs. Surveys are the most common way of assessing professional development programs. But while they are great for many things, such as learning what works best for our users, they also have key limitations.

One challenge to creating a good survey is that it requires designing questions that will give information both on how users experience current programming (to inform how we continue to offer programs) and on the long-term effect of our work (to provide data we can use to advocate for more support). Unfortunately, many surveys simply tell us what students like or dislike about a program. Qualitative data from carefully designed surveys can provide valuable insight into user experience; it can not only inform what we do, but also yield compelling student testimonials to showcase the success of our work. That said, however, such data are not generalizable and won’t help us make a compelling case that we need more resources.

A key lesson that one of us, Jovana, has learned is the importance of showing exactly how her programming aids the university’s efforts to improve retention, time to graduation, communication support, DEI metrics, community building, and the mental health of our students and postdocs. For example, over the past six years that she’s been at her institution, she’s collected five years of data about its writing programs. It provides her with the kind of information that allows her to make the case that writing support programs not only provide writing support but go beyond and offer community and mental health support.

If you don’t already have a method for collecting data about your work, reach out to colleagues and ask what they are doing. Before you do that, think about what kind of information you want. It’s also helpful to know what kind of data the people in power at your institution are looking for. Do they want just numbers, or do they also want the story behind the numbers? Again, remember to position your work in the context of your institution’s particular culture.

Communicate your work to key stakeholders. Once you have developed your strategic goals and documented your progress, then it is time to actively communicate your work to senior administrators and other key stakeholders. The value of our labors may go unrecognized if we are not regularly speaking with institutional leaders. It might be helpful to follow a strategy known as Power Mapping and ask,” Who at my institution has the power to influence my work?” To engage in this process, you need to cultivate a short list of people at your university who can raise the visibility and expand the reach of your initiatives.

After identifying your key stakeholders, connect with them. Ask for the opportunity to share your vision, the outcomes of your programming, and how these efforts relate to their strategic priorities. You can engage institutional leaders in many ways. You could invite several stakeholders to an end-of-semester presentation and discussion, or schedule periodic check-ins with individuals. It might even be effective to draft annual reports to share with collaborative partners through email. The goal is to create a continuous flow of communication with these leaders.

While working in a previous role at Temple University, the other author of this piece, Mark, engaged with key stakeholders through a university-wide committee called the Graduate Student Career Network. This was a group of faculty, administrators and staff that met regularly to discuss strategies for elevating graduate student career development. In addition to meeting monthly, he kept the group updated on the outcomes of his office’s programming for graduate students through a shared listserv. This communication of program outcomes inspired commitment from members and encouraged them to promote future programming.

Speaking about your work to leaders can feel presumptuous or even scary. Yet, without these crucial conversations, it’s much more likely that our programming and services will go unnoticed. One of your key job responsibilities is to hold yourself accountable for sharing your outcomes with key stakeholders at your institution.

In conclusion, self-advocacy is an important skill for any professional, and the strategies and tactics we choose influence our ability to effectively advocate for our work. While we encourage reaching out to colleagues for ideas about how to get started with all of these suggestions, we also remind you that contextualizing such efforts at your own institution is vital. Other people can offer examples and ideas, but ultimately, you must be guided by the context and culture of your distinct environment.

We hope that these suggestions offer you some ideas about how to campaign for the important work that all of us are doing. The value of holistic career and professional development continues to gain recognition in graduate education. Our advocacy will assist in further integrating these initiatives on college and university campuses.


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