Tag Archives: Professional Development

Why Learning Customer Service Is Important and Relevant- Even for Academia

I don’t know how many of you are using LinkedIn (although you should be—see our great post by Emily Schwarz for tips to get started) but I’m a big fan. Particularly of the articles they occasionally promote via email. It’s what I would describe as “procrastination light”—you’re on social media, but its work related so… that’s fine right? I think that still counts as work? Right?…

Anyway… the most recent series was “think back to your first job,” and basically asked those far more successful than most what they wish they had known before their first, first day. Not exactly a groundbreaking topic, but what interested me was that almost everyone on the list mentioned some sort of customer service related story. Whether scooping ice-cream or waiting tables, customer service—and the importance of understanding that dynamic—tended to be what people took from those experiences.

Customer service is about having the person you’re helping leave the encounter a) feeling happy and b) with what they came for. The mix of those two factors will vary (sometime considerably) depending on what you’re doing. For example, no one likes going to the DMV, but if you walk out with a driver’s license you generally consider it a win. Whether that encounter was a “success” (for you and whoever helped you) probably depended on customer service.

Balancing how much you go out of your way to help someone depends on lots of things, but ultimately comes down to how much you can accommodate before you stop doing your job. Where you’re going to draw your service line. My old co-workers used to call it “the sample cup line.”

(We worked in frozen yogurt. In a college town. And when you work in frozen yogurt in a college town what you get is a bunch of undergraduates in sororities and fraternities hanging out and trying to eat a quart full of yogurt in tiny sample cup portions. I understand that this is a very specific analogy but you get what I’m saying.)

As graduate students, I’m not sure how many of you have had non-academic jobs (although I hope most of you have) and if so, whether or not front-line customer service was an important aspect of your position. But if you haven’t… well you might want to get something part-time this summer because I’m pretty sure that understanding customer service is what separates the successful from the misanthropic.

And yes, I am implying (heck, outright saying) that misanthropic people are unsuccessful.

The cranky, absent-minded professor might be a stereotype, but it’s not one you should be looking to fill. Because while it might seem that of “all the professions, in all the world”, being a professor might give you the most leeway on behavior and interacting with other humans, I assure you that it’s not true. Ask a department chair—no one wants the person who doesn’t know how to play nice to be a permanent part of their community.

And customer service (and sports- but that’s another post…) teaches you how to be a part of a community and interact with others while meeting a set of stated goals. The trick is how to then translate that skill to other professional agendas.

Work is about accommodating people, assisting them, while still prioritizing and accomplishing your own goals. And truly successful people understand and manage that balance in ways that serve the missions of their employers and themselves.

I’m still working on this. It’s hard. And it’s going to be even harder for those of you who are going to have to balance classes of students, tenure reviews, and colleagues, so make sure you start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

Any of you have any “first job” advice that’s helped you succeed?

  • Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14

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Filed under Graduate Students, Networking, Professional Development

Conference Etiquette- Is There Such a Thing as an Inappropriate Question During Q&A?

The Background

I recently attended a conference in Seattle on graduate education, and it was a great experience full of panels and ideas that I’m excited to try and replicate here at Fordham. But while I was in one of the sessions, an interesting situation arose—an audience member asked a question about sexual assault that clearly made the panel uncomfortable. So my question is: are their questions that simply should not be asked in a public Q&A?

It’s complicated. I think that there are productive conversations and argumentative ones. Anyone who has ever sat in on an academic conversation (Q&A, open forum, etc.) knows the difference between a comment meant to generate discussion and one made to disrupt it. There are panels where easy discussion and questions are the norm and ones where hard questions come up that may cause disagreement or even some outrage. In general, I think the beauty of the conference panel is that it does provide a place for people to create thoughtful segues and connect research but in general they’re more informative than anything.

Here is what we, the authorities, think. You, the audience of lesser knowledge, now respond to my ideas.

There are exceptions of course but let’s be honest—that’s fairly typical of the experience, especially when attending as a graduate student. Odds are you’ll be one of the least experienced voices in the room, so when is it time to speak up if you have something atypical to add?

The Situation

Let me set this particular scene. It was a panel on international travel, more specifically, the educational and professional benefits associated with graduate student travel. Considering the topic, I’ll also share the gender make-up of the presenters—two women and a man, all high level administrators. It was the very end of the session, the last question in fact, when the topic arose. Very respectfully, a man and asked if advocates for international travel were taking into consideration the numbers and reality of studies, like this 2013 preliminary, on overseas study-abroad sexual assault. “How are we preparing students to deal with this?” he asked. And should that reality affect an administrative push for international travel?

It was a topical and meaningful question that left the panel in obvious mental anxiety. I could see both panel and audience physically clench up. Sexual assault cases, and their handling, on domestic campuses are touchy subjects in higher education and it seemed this academic (and I would ethical) question did not limit the discomfort. It’s a reality and a problem, the panel admitted, but then quickly added that the benefits outweighed the risk and moved on, even going so far as to ask another question to end the panel on another note.

The Fallout

Who was in the right? The person who asked the question? The panelists who seemed to ignore it, despite its importance? I think in this case I can see both sides.

It was a rough question, one that I think would have derailed panelists with less experience and considering the time limitation (less than 5 minutes till lunch), I personally wouldn’t have asked it in that moment. But I don’t think it was inappropriate. It was on topic and timely, as proved by the recent Chronicle article dealing with this very issue.

Should audience members take panelists potential discomfort into account before asking a question? I don’t think so. Certainly, when you defend your dissertation your committee members are not going to go easy on you, nor are classmates in discussion. Dealing with difficult questions is part of being an academic, no matter the forum.

I think the panel’s importance and my overall take-away was lessened by the panelists brushing away the discussion of sexual assault. It seemed disingenuous and dangerous to pretend that our current, unorganized preventative education is going to make a difference with this issue. There needs to be a culture change. And maybe that panel was not the place to discuss that change, but the problem should have been better acknowledged—more importantly they should not have ignored the topics presence simply because it made them uncomfortable.

The Last Word

Overall, I think that the conference Q&A is the place to ask hard questions. As long as it somewhat relates to the session topic and is not outright insulting, I say go for it. In the end, it’s rarely the question asker who feels pressure from a poor question. A good panelist will know when and how to brush it aside (whether they should or not). But you may want to check the program so you’re not too rough on a new colleague.

As a graduate student I’d be careful who you may put on the spot—do you want to collaborate with them? Will you be interviewing at their school in the future? Most people appreciate questions that make them think or question their results, but some might be annoyed at what they feel is a disruption of a smooth panel.

  • Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14

Fordham works hard to create a respectful environment fee from sexual harassment. Remember if you’re a graduate student teacher you’re a mandatory reporter!

Fordham policies, resources, and reporting information can be found here


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Filed under Conference, Graduate Students, GSAS Futures, Professional Development

How to Mingle (with a Side of Networking)

Last night I had the good fortune to attend a cocktail party (and gosh do I feel a weird mix of old and elegant saying that phrase with a straight face) to celebrate a dear friend’s move. This party, which was held at a small non-profit museum, was the field-typical mix of young and old, rich and not-so-rich, volunteers and board members. The clear division between board members and regular (non-ED) employees is blurred with small organization like this one, creating an opportunity for the run of the mill intern (or past intern like me) to get some face time with people who “know people.”

This event made my anxiety-ridden mind look forward to a conference I’ll be attending next month, and the nightly “soirees” that are sure to ensue. This, more than anything, was what used to (and occasionally still does) give me anxiety, so I thought I’d write out some thoughts on how to network casually at reception events, in case like me, anyone tends to linger too long near the queso.

First things first—leave the comfort of the cheese. I know it’s hard, especially as a graduate student being lured by the siren call of free food, but hanging out by the food table screams socially-awkward. Conversations can’t really happen since you can’t block the table with groups and trying to eat a cracker and talk to that professor you’re dying to work with is a disaster waiting to happen. Take a little food (it should fill a little plate but don’t go crazy) and then step out into the middle of the room or grab a small table.

So now you’re standing alone, far from your best friend, gouda, and this was a terrible idea!!

But don’t panic! You can do this! Your best bet if you’re new to this group is to find someone who is also standing alone and just go up and say hello. Keep it short and if you’re comfortable, make a joke about hating to stand alone. Odds are, unless they’ve got a mouth full of food, they’ll be happy to talk to someone. (Hint- Don’t approach someone on a cell phone or if they’ve clearly just stepped away to have a drink or a bite to eat—you can tell your fellow loner by the desperate way they’ll be scanning the room for a familiar face.)

But maybe you’re beyond the basics. You’ve been to this event before, have said your mandatory hello’s and are looking to do a little mingling with people outside your main social circle. You’ve got your business cards (carefully stored in a pocket or easy to reach purse location) and you’re looking to meet some new people, hopefully ones with some sort of super job-finding power. But how to find them?

Important people tend to stay in one place, with people who are interested in talking to them, coming to them. You can’t rely on someone to come up to you. Ask a friend to introduce you, or if you don’t have any mutual connections, wait for an opening and introduce yourself. But don’t linger around—like the cheese, this person is going to be a sought out resource, and you won’t make friends by forcing a prolonged conversation. That’s not to say longer conversations shouldn’t or won’t happen, just that you need to read the room.

And move around the room.  Hanging out with the same people the whole night can be a waste of an opportunity. Last night the most successful young woman (who was NOT me), moved from group to group, sometimes introduced by her old boss, sometimes not. She worked that room like a pro, and had I been a better mingler, I would have gotten her card and had her write this post!

And finally, leave the nest. Go talk to people outside your own age group. Do not get stuck at the kids table. It can be intimidating as a young professional to go talk to your older peers or bosses but it’s worth the risk to start the conversation. You can contribute to the group no matter its makeup and it’s important to show that socially as well as in work scenarios.

But the best tip I can offer is to just relax. No one is judging you if you’re standing alone and it’s not the end of the world if you are— just remain calm and worst comes to worst, eat some cheese and call it a night.

And for love of all the books in the library, when you eventually host an event don’t say that dress is “smart casual.” NO ONE knows what that means.

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Filed under Conference, Networking, Networking Reception, Professional Development