How far should students go in striving for professionalism?

What is the beginning of eternity and the end of time?

Sometimes the simplest answer is actually the right one: in this case, the letter “e.”

Having served as chair of my departmental graduate and admissions committee, professionalism is an issue I have spent a great deal of time thinking about. Without a doubt, in this Orwellian society, we are not only continually evaluated and observed, but often recorded. Our words, even misconstrued, come back to haunt us. So the question remains, how “professional” must students be?

At this point, an example is needed. In the course of my career, I have witnessed oral defense dissertations, which are seminars given students who are defending their research—certainly an anxiety-ridden event for anyone. To my amazement, occasionally I have observed a student  who has very successfully navigated such a tricky presentation lose the façade of professionalism at the “acknowledgment stage.” Thanking one’s parent briefly—I have no problem. A spouse, fine. An uncle who steered one into science, sure. A brother, a sister—perhaps that’s pushing it. When we arrive at the kindergarden and elementary school teachers, pets ranging from cats to parrots, then I think we have a problem…

This, however, is only an example of a wider issue for students (and postdocs and junior faculty) to consider: we are constantly being evaluated. There is no respite. In our professional lives and exposure to colleagues, we cannot relax—certainly not in formal situations.

While rules and regulations can stymie creativity and boldness, I think nonetheless a few guidelines are warranted to help younger researchers decide what constitutes a professional approach.

  • When in doubt, stay conservative. Personal reference—not wearing more formal attire, at least for some job interviews, may have negatively impacted past job searches.
  • Be reasonable—all things in good measure. It’s fine if you want to briefly acknowledge various people at the end of a talk. But for a 45-minute seminar, acknowledgments that extend longer than a minute or 90 seconds will be too long. They will bore the audience, and perhaps detract from the seminar. Remember the “peak effect”—people will piut emphasis on the last things you present, include over-done acknowledgments. Adding your garage mechanic, plumber, piano teacher and pet turtle will not go over well on the audience.
  • Humor is fine—but as a side dish, not as the main one. A good seminar often has a humorous slide or includes a brief joke/story/anecdote to keep the audience engaged. That’s usually an excellent strategy—except that you want the audience to appreciate you for your science, not for your stand-up abilities…

In reality, professionalism is really just common sense in one’s working environment. If you are in doubt about whether any particular behavior is sufficiently professional, just ask colleagues and mentors–but do so beforehand, rather than afterward. That is the essence of professionalism.


About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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