Winter Professional Development Challenge

Winter Professional Development Challenge

Welcome to the Winter Professional Development Challenge

The Challenge is a curated schedule of professional development resources and activities for you to engage with over the month of January. Complete at least five activities over the course of the month to earn one of 250 limited-edition long sleeve shirts from the Graduate School! Only UW–Madison graduate students are eligible to compete, and the challenge log must be submitted by 11:59 pm on February 1, 2021.

You can stay connected with the Professional Development Challenge by registering to receive weekly emails or by visiting this page and completing activities on your own time throughout the month. Activities cover a wide range of topics from career development to wellness with the hope that every student can find relevant, high quality content. The challenge is also flexible – activities are mostly asynchronous and require a low time commitment.

If you have questions about the Challenge, email

This week’s suggested activities are listed below, but you are welcome to choose activities from past weeks as well.

How to earn your limited-edition shirt:

Complete at least 5 activities from weeks 0 through 4, log them in your Professional Development Challenge activity tracker, and upload your tracker and feedback in this Qualtrics form to earn your limited-edition long sleeve shirt. The Qualtrics form will be available starting at midnight on Monday, Jan. 11.

Activity Tracker Reflection: Answer the reflection questions for at least 5 of the activities that you complete. Reflection questions are listed at the end of each activity description and there is space in the tracker to respond briefly to these questions. These reflections are for you – we will not read your reflections. They will only be used to confirm that you engaged with at least 5 activities.

Mock-up of a gray, long-sleeved shirt with the UW crest on the front. The back reads 2021 Graduate School Professional Development Challenge Champion.

Week 3 - Preparing for Spring 2021

This week, the PD Challenge activities focus on preparing you for the spring 2021 semester. Jump start your semester by planning your professional development, creating a racial equity plan, preparing for online learning, and thinking about your wellness plan.

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18. Make a plan to engage in racial justice and equity work this semester

How can you promote equity this semester? How can you heal or find community? Take a look at these resources to build your plan. Come away with at least one new resource or activity to include in your plan. For students that identify with an underserved community on campus, the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Funding offers programming and wellness opportunities that you can include in your plan.

Reflection Questions: What resources or activities will you include in your plan?

19. Watch Every Semester Needs a Plan (NCFDD Webinar)

If you have not done so, click here to activate your NCFDD account through the UW–Madison institutional membership. Then, watch the “Every Semester Needs a Plan” webinar.

The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) offers this planning webinar at the beginning of each semester so that you can take time out of your schedule to identify your personal and professional goals, create a strategic plan to accomplish them, and identify the types of community, support, and accountability you need to make this your most productive and balanced semester ever. Take some time after the webinar to create a strategic plan for accomplishing your semester goals!

Reflection Questions: What tips did you learn from the webinar and what particular techniques will you use in your own planning?

20. Attend A Practical Approach to Project Management for Graduate Students on Thursday, Jan 21

Jeff RussellRegister following this link and attend the workshop A Practical Approach to Project Management for Graduate Students. Learn principles of project management and apply them to your own project in this collaborative, virtual program. You will think creatively, define a problem, establish project goals, create a plan, and prepare for implementation. Since no project runs perfectly, the program will also address how project leaders manage change and other common challenges. Tools for effectively working on projects remotely and addressing the impact of COVID-19 will be incorporated throughout the day. You will leave better prepared to lead a team and deliver results. Students will also hear from a panel of successful project managers, including industry professionals and faculty members.

Susan OttmanReflection Question: What is your biggest takeaway from this workshop?

21. Jump start your wellness plan

University Health Services (UHS) has virtual resources available to all students. Find a graduate student support group, listen to the guided relaxation podcast on Spotify, or schedule time to attend a Let’s Talk or Virtual Processing Space session this semester.

Reflection Questions: What did you learn? How can you use UHS resources to support your mental health while in graduate school?

22. Complete the Successful Online Learning module on Canvas

Explore proven strategies to learn remotely, engage in your courses, and maximize your time. The Successful Online Learning module from the Graduate School is for grad students taking their first online course or those looking for some new resources on online learning. Enroll in the Successful Online Learning Canvas course at any time. Use the information you learn in this course to create SMART goals (see Week 1) to ensure your success in online courses this spring.

Reflection Questions: What is one of your primary SMART goals for this semester? Why is this goal important to your academic success?

23. Sign up for an early spring professional development event

Sign up for one or both of the upcoming featured events from the Graduate School.

3MT® Three Minute Thesis Finals
Wednesday, Feb 3 | 6 – 7 pm CST
Three Minute Thesis® (3MT®) is an international competition in which graduate students explain their research to a general audience in three minutes or less. Over 60 UW–Madison graduate students participated in the first virtual 3MT® competition, and on Feb 3 the remaining 9 finalists will compete in the live 3MT® Finals event. Join us to watch the finalist presentations, hear from the competitors, vote on the People’s Choice award, and see the winners announced! Registration is recommended, register here.

Why Capable Students Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
Tuesday, Feb 2 | 11 am – 1 pm CST
Do you chalk your accomplishments as a fluke or “no big deal?” Do you think, “If I can do it, anyone can?” Do you feel like you’re just fooling your professors? If so, join the club! Millions of people around the world—from executives to graduate students and their professors to Academy Award winners—secretly worry they’re not as bright and capable as other people “think” they are. It’s called the Impostor Syndrome and there is a cure. Join us for an interactive presentation led by speaker and author, Dr. Valerie Young. Registration is required, register here.

Reflection Questions: What do you hope to learn from the event that you registered for? How do you plan to use the information you learn?

24. Meet with your advisor

Read these resources on having a productive meeting with your advisor: University of Michigan’s guide on mentoring, Brown Graduate School guide on advisor meeting, and  University of Washington tips on meeting mentors, Then, schedule a meeting with your advisor and prepare by using the tips you’ve learned. If you’ve been working on your IDP (see activity #6 from Week 1), you can share pieces of your IDP with your advisor.

Reflection Questions: What are your goals for your advisor meeting?

Week 2 - Building Your Presence and Networking Remotely

In Week 2 you will have the opportunity to update and optimize your public-facing professional materials. You will also learn strategies for building your personal brand and cultivating a robust network of mentors to help you navigate graduate school and the job market.

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11. Draft or update your CV or resume

Career development experts recommend updating your CV or resume every six months, regardless of whether you are actively searching for a job. Review The Writing Center’s online handbooks for CV writing and resume writing. Then, use the information to help you draft or update your resume or CV.

Reflection Questions: What did you change about your application materials? What did you learn from the Writing Center resources?

12. Write a diversity statement

Many jobs inside and outside of academia are now requiring a “diversity statement” in which candidates are supposed to write about their philosophy and experiences of promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion in their professional roles. Whether you are applying for a job or not, writing a diversity statement can be a useful and illuminating exercise. Read this Inside Higher Ed article, The Effective Diversity Statement, and draft or update your own diversity statement. You may write the statement independently of a job description, or you can use one of the job descriptions that you identified on Week 1 in the Prepare for career development and exploration activity as a starting place for your statement. You may submit a portion of your diversity statement draft in lieu of responding to reflection questions.

13. Optimize your LinkedIn profile

Watch Optimizing Your LinkedIn Profile with Gina Jenkins and take at least 20-30 minutes to update your LinkedIn profile based on what you learn.

Reflection Questions: What part of your LinkedIn profile did you update? How did you strengthen your profile?

14. Learn how to establish your personal brand during graduate school

Watch Don Stanley’s presentation, How Graduate Students Can Build a Personal Brand: Standing Out in a Crowded Job Market and set at least one SMART goal to help you build your brand by the end of the spring semester. If you are not familiar with SMART goals, review last week’s activities before setting your goal(s).

Reflection Questions: What is your goal? Does it fit the SMART format? (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound)

15. Build your mentor network with Dr. Fatimah Williams

For this activity, watch Fatimah William’s Fall 2020 Workshop, How to Develop a Mentor Network for Career and Academic Success and complete parts 1-3 below. Reflection questions are included in the activities.

Dr. Fatimah Williams advises that you should be clear about your needs so that you can benefit from mentoring. Mentors can help you clarify goals and act on them. She suggests that you shift your perspective from finding one “right” mentor to finding someone who has the necessary level of expertise to help you. Given that you are likely to have multiple goals, you will probably need multiple mentors.

Part 1. What is the one thing you know you want to get out of graduate school? Can you be more specific about this need? What questions do you have about how to go about it?

Part 2. Dr. Williams suggests several places to look for potential mentors. Ask yourself who could provide professional and/or personal support to you and make a list of potential names:

  • Peers, such as more advanced graduate students, postdocs, colleagues at work;
  • Faculty, including your advisor, other faculty in your program, faculty at other institutions;
  • Administrators or other professionals in your field; and
  • Family and friends.

Part 3. Dr. Williams offers tips on how to reach out to potential mentors by email and in person. To prepare to reach out, draft answers to these questions.

Write a 1-2 sentence response to each question:

  • What is your career goal after graduation?
  • What project/scholarly activity/research are you doing now?

16. Watch Flourishing in Graduate School

Want to make graduate school a time to thrive and not just survive? This workshop focuses on promoting psychological well-being in graduate school. Topics covered include managing the transition to graduate school, coping with stress, promoting work/life balance, and establishing habits to maintain and improve mental health. This workshop was recorded on Aug. 25, 2020 as part of Graduate Student Welcome Week hosted by the Graduate School. View the recording here.

Reflection Questions: What is one way that you can take care of your mental health and flourish this semester?

17. Write a Tips for Grads column for publication in the GradConnections Weekly Newsletter

GradConnections Weekly is an email newsletter with an audience of over 9,000 UW–Madison graduate students. The newsletter includes a weekly “Tips for Grads” column written by graduate students, and GradConnections is looking for fresh perspectives on the graduate student experience. If you have advice, counsel, or tips for UW grad students, you’re invited to write a guest column for “Tips for Grads.” Writing a “Tips” column is an excellent way to share your valuable knowledge and experience with other graduate students and to practice writing for a general audience. Guest writers will be credited with a byline in the newsletter.

For this activity, write a draft “Tips for Grads” column for GradConnections this spring. For more information check out our Tips for Grads guest writer infographic. Email to let us know if you are interested in writing a column. Please submit a draft of your Tips column in lieu of responding to reflection questions.

Week 1 - Professional Development Foundations - Assessing and Getting Started

Week 1 is full of activities that will help you lay the foundation for your personal and professional development this January and beyond. Activities include structured self-assessment, long-term strategic planning, informal networking, and an opportunity to hone your culinary skills.

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4. Complete a self-assessment

Use one or more of the following professional development tools to complete a self-assessment (which may require creating a free account). This will serve as an excellent starting point for your professional development challenge.

DiscoverPD generates customized professional development recommendations based on a self-assessment of your skills and includes a searchable database of 400+ professional development resources hand-picked for UW–Madison graduate students.

myIDP is a career planning and strategic goal-setting resource designed for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The website matches your interests, skills, and values with career paths in the sciences and includes tools to help you build a personalized Individual Development Plan (IDP).

ImaginePhD facilitates career exploration for graduate students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences by assessing your skills, values, and interests, identifying potential career options, and helping you plan your next steps academically and professionally.

Reflection Questions: Once you complete your assessment, review the results and reflect. Did anything surprise you? What results did you agree or disagree with? How can you use the results to grow and improve?

5. Create or update your Individual Development Plan (IDP)

Review the UW–Madison Graduate School’s Individual Development Plan (IDP) page. You can also view this illuminating IDP video from a recent UW–Madison PhD about his IDP process. Next, start the process of making your own IDP by setting SMART goals for the month or the upcoming semester.

If you are having trouble getting started, you can review Monday’s activity, “Complete a self-assessment” to help you develop goals, and both ImaginePhD and myIDP have planning tools to help you get started on building your IDP. If you aren’t familiar with SMART goals or want to know more about how they fit into your IDP, watch this video about developing SMART goals for your IDP.

Reflection Questions: What SMART goal(s) did you set for the month or semester? How do you plan to prioritize your goals?

6. Attend a Graduate Student Interest Group

Graduate Student Interest Groups

Take advantage of this great opportunity to meet graduate students from across campus. Topics and discussions are curated by group members, but a Graduate School staff member will facilitate the start of each session. It will be up to the members to share strategies and seek advice from each other during each session.

Work-Life Integration and Priority Management
4 pm (30-minute meetings), Monday every other week, starting Jan 11
Online | Zoom

This group will jump-start the Spring 2021 semester by exploring strategies for work-life integration and priority management.

Prelim Preparation
4 pm (30-minute meetings), Tuesday every other week, starting Jan 12
Online | Zoom

Students in this group are preparing for prelims and will share preparation strategies and progress toward goals. Although exams can be very different across graduate programs, what we’ll likely have in common is a desire to be organized, reduce stress, and share accomplishments.

Job Market Preparation
4 pm (30-minute meetings), Wednesday every other week, starting Jan 13
Online | Zoom

Find community among graduate students who are in various stages of job market preparation and share tips, tricks, and the journey with one another.

Virtual Coworking Space (Virtual Coffee Shop)
4 pm (1-hour meetings), Thursday every week, starting Jan 14
Online | Zoom

Work alongside other grad students. Your choice to have your camera on or off. We provide the virtual coffee shop experience. Take advantage of this great opportunity to work alongside graduate students from across campus.

Reflection Questions: What group will you participate in? What is something you’d like to discuss with your peers around your topic of interest?

7. Prepare for career development and exploration

Depending on where you are in the Career Exploration process, complete one of the following activities:

Early in the job search process
Find 3 real job descriptions for positions you could be interested in. Consider how your qualifications and skills align with the descriptions, and how you can set SMART goals to build transferable skills to appeal to similar employers in the future. See Tuesday’s activity for info about SMART goals, and consider using the robust career exploration resources from ImaginePhD (for humanities and social sciences students), myIDP (STEM), and the Graduate School’s Alumni Career Paths page.

Late in the job search process (if you have thoroughly explored careers and your materials have been updated within the last 2-3 months)
Watch Successful Interviewing with Kristina Vack. Then, choose 2-3 relevant sample behavioral interview questions and write an answer using the STAR method from Kristina’s talk.

Reflection Questions: What common qualifications and skills did you find across the job descriptions? How can you develop and demonstrate these skills for potential employers in your application materials and interviews?

8. Explore virtual career development resources

Visit two professional development resources (listed below) that are available to you through a UW–Madison Institutional Membership, set up your account, and explore the resources for at least 15-20 minutes. Make note of how you can use these career development resources in the short and long term.

Aurora by Beyond the Professoriate is an e-learning platform with on-demand, self-paced learning modules that allow you to explore non-academic and faculty career options while identifying and honing the transferable skills you have gained in grad school.

The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) offers webinars and advice designed for aspiring and current faculty, but most of their content is applicable to graduate students, regardless of career aspirations. Click here to activate your NCFDD account through the UW–Madison institutional membership.

Reflection Questions: Which of these tools can you see yourself using? What features or topics are most applicable to your situation?

9. Begin informational interviewing

Read this Inside Higher Ed Article, “The Informational Interview” and this UW–Madison informational interviewing page and schedule at least one informational interview with a potential mentor and/or somebody in your desired career field. 

Reflection Questions: What do you hope to learn from the interview you scheduled? How can you use this interview to connect with additional contacts?

10. Whip up something delicious with our Grad School Chef series

In September 2020, the Graduate School partnered with Executive Chef Paul Sprunger and Dietician Agnes Sherman of University Housing and Dining to bring you Grad School Chef, a cooking demonstration of tasty, budget-friendly recipes designed with graduate students in mind, including vegan and gluten-free options. For today’s activity, select one of the Grad School Chef recipes to make at home. Once you’re done cooking, tag @uwmadgsed and #GradSchoolChef on Twitter or Instagram to show off your finished dish.

Alternatively, you can share a recipe on social media from your family or culture that has helped nourish you and your loved ones during your graduate education. Tag @uwmadgsed and include #GradSchoolChef, or email to

Reflection Questions: What did you learn from the Grad School Chef videos? If you shared a recipe from your family or culture, why did you choose this recipe and what does it mean to you? 

Week 0: Reflecting and Recalibrating

Since Jan 1, 2021 falls on a Friday, we are treating Jan. 1-3 as “Week 0” of the Challenge. This abbreviated set of activities will provide opportunities to check in on your academic progress and mental health to reflect on where you are and where you are headed.

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1. Gauge your academic progress and use backward planning

Go to UW–Madison Guide to check your program requirements. Assess your progress with academic milestones in your program and write down academic goals.

If you already have clear goals and a timeline set for your graduate program, check your graduate program handbook (which is accessible through your department or program website) for more information specific to your program. Important deadlines might include: timelines for completing mandatory courses, passing exam requirements, connecting and checking in with your advisor, and when to file for graduation. Contact your graduate program coordinator if you have any questions. For information related to the method of backward planning, see this Tips for Grads column.

Reflection Questions: Did you learn anything new about academic milestones in your program? How can you use backward planning to help you map out a path to graduation and beyond?

2. Start the Healthy Minds Program

The groundbreaking Healthy Minds Program, created by the Center for Healthy Minds at UW–Madison, uses neuroscience, contemplative traditions, and skill-based learning methods to help you develop the skills for a healthy mind through an engaging and completely free app. Download the Healthy Minds Program App, set up your profile, and complete at least one activity in the app.

Reflection Questions: Can you see yourself using the Healthy Minds app regularly as a tool for improving your mental health? What appeals to you about the program and what are you skeptical about?

3. Reflect and grow, while listening to Ida Balderrama-Trudell talk about embracing strong emotions

How do you engage yourself and others in self-care and wellness practice when you recognize strong emotions? How do you support others in their experiences? And how do you support yourself? In this session you will be encouraged to engage in self-reflection surrounding the impact of experiencing strong emotions in work and life. Watch Ida Balderrama-Trudell, Interim Director of the Office of Inclusion Education, use personal reflection and storytelling to further conversations about wellness as they relate to grief, gratitude, and grace drawing from her experiences in graduate school and beyond. Watch Ida’s talk here and engage in the mindfulness and gratitude prompts that she shares.

Reflection Questions: Take a moment to reflect on your own journey through strong emotions, taking special focus to think about your journey into graduate school. What are some emotions and milestones you’ve traversed on your path to graduate school? It’s helpful to reflect on the reasons you applied to graduate school and be able to come back to that call when coursework or writing feel tough.