Professionalize and Gain Experience

Why Is It Important to Gain Career-Related Experience?

Imagine if you’re reading two job applications and you have to decide which candidate you’d like to interview. One has no experience at all related to the job position for which you’re hiring, and the other has several relevant experiences. Now imagine further that you are interviewing two candidates for a job, and one candidate talks about different projects she’s worked on and experiences she’s had that are related to the position, and the other can only offer one tangential experience. Which candidate would you be more likely to hire?

It’s important to gain career-related experience for several reasons. When you’re ready to apply for jobs, it’s crucial to have experiences on your resume with strong bullet points highlighting the skills you’ve used, the work you’ve done, and the results you’ve produced that are pertinent to the jobs you’re interested in. Similarly, during interviews, it’s helpful to have stories you can tell about your skills, projects, and experiences showing how you have solved some of the problems you have faced. Throughout your job search process, the more concrete examples you can provide to future employers to demonstrate your ability to perform the job and interest in the role, the more likely they can imagine you succeeding in the position and the more likely they are to hire you.

Another benefit to gaining experience before you need a job is that you’ll be in touch with people in industries and careers that interest you, allowing you to build your network and develop professional contacts who can help you as you navigate your professional life. Depending on how closely you work together with these contacts, they may even be able to serve as a reference for you when you’re ready to apply for positions in the future.

Trying out different career-related experiences can also help you get a feel for whether you would enjoying this kind of work full-time. As you consider seeking opportunities to gain professional experience at Penn, chat with those already in jobs you’d like and take a quick browse at job ads in your field to get a sense of what skills and experiences are needed in those careers.

What is Professionalism and Why Is It Important to Develop Professionalism?

You may have heard that professionalism in the workplace is important, but what is it exactly? Well, think about what a lack of professionalism looks like. Imagine if you’re a supervisor, and you have one employee who is often rude to her clients causing you to lose business, another employee who neglects to update his team on important developments causing frustrating miscommunication, and another who fails to arrive to work on time, missing crucial meetings with clients. To be part of a successful work environment, it’s important to behave professionally. Professionalism is demonstrating personal accountability and effective work habits (e.g., punctuality, working productively with others, and time/workload management), and understanding the impact of non-verbal communication on professional image. Do you demonstrate integrity and behave ethically? How can you make responsible decisions that consider the interests of the larger community? Are you comfortable assuming responsibility when mistakes are made, and are you able to demonstrate learning in future situations? Are you able to communicate with colleagues in language appropriate for work and suitable for a diverse environment? Do you go above and beyond to make positive impressions?

Throughout your professional life, you will encounter challenges when it comes to working in different work environments with different colleagues, supervisors, and clients. Developing your professionalism while you’re at Penn before you enter the post-PhD professional world will equip you well with the skills to manage interpersonal dynamics as well as different work challenges that come your way in your career.

How Can I Gain Career-Related Experience at Penn?

There are many things you can do at Penn to gain experience while developing yourself professionally, and we’ve included some examples of different kinds of opportunities that exist on and off campus. Use your academic and professional network to help you identify and prioritize opportunities that are most pertinent to your career interests. If you’d like to brainstorm ideas of how you can make the most of your time at Penn in preparing for your future career, make an appointment to meet with a Career Advisor via Handshake!

Student Organizations

Penn student associations, including student governments like GAPSA and SASgov, provide excellent opportunities to develop leadership, communication, and organizational skills. Beyond your department, many campus organizations bring students together over common interests so you can not only collaborate with students from other schools and displines, but also build specific expertise and gain skills relevant to certain careers. Some of these groups include PBG Healthcare Consulting, Penn Data Science Group, and Penn Graduate Women in Science & Engineering.

Internships & Fellowships

Internships and fellowships are formal opportunities to gain hands-on experience working in particular career fields and industries. Usually paid for a specific duration, these opportunities exist in industries ranging from pharmaceutical companies to publishing houses to tech start-ups. The Penn Center for Innovation, for example, has a program to expose students and postdocs to a wide range of emerging technologies and commercialization opportunities in the life sciences, physical sciences, and nanotechnology areas. You can also get involved with start-ups through Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship. Ph.D. students and postdocs have taken advantage of these opportunities.

Workshops, Trainings & Competitions

Participating in workshops, trainings, and conferences at Penn are terrific ways to hear from experts in career fields and to acquire skills and knowledge needed for certain industries. Additionally, competitions such as Penn’s consulting case competition, 3-Minute Thesis, AppItUp, and PennApps’ Hackathon allow you to work together on teams to complete a challenge that solves a real-world problem. These opportunities not only give you the chance to collaborate on multidisciplinary teams, but also provide hands-on experience in problem-solving.

Community Engagement

If you’re looking to make a difference in the greater Philadelphia area, volunteer opportunities are a great way to gain experience in a wide range of skills and job functions. Get involved with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships or Civic House, Penn’s hub for civic engagement. If you enjoy working with children, for example, consider volunteering with the Philadelphia Public Schools and seek opportunities to work on specific projects or to gain leadership experience. Being engaged in your community can help you demonstrate your initiative and leadership while developing skills in communicating and building relationships with others.


Externships, like internships, allow you to gain direct hands-on experience in industries that interest you, but unlike internships, are usually unpaid and are short-term. Career Services’ Externships in Higher Education Program allows students to obtain hands-on academic administration experience working in a campus office at Penn with mentorship and guidance from experienced professionals. More information about the externships program can be found here. Beyond Penn, some organizations may also offer externships or job-shadowing opportunities.

Job Simulations

Don’t have time for an internship or want to try out a job first before signing up for something that requires more commitment? Consider doing job simulations to help you experience what it’s like to undertake specific job tasks in careers that interest you. InterSECT Job Simulations is an online platform that allows PhD-level scientists and humanists, regardless of professional stage, to explore future career options by providing true-to-life job simulation exercises in industry, academia, and government sectors. After completing a job simulation exercise, you can get a sense of whether you would like to further pursue the career field.

Side Gigs

Do you have special skills and talents that you’re using beyond graduate school? Do you provide clients with your research, writing, and editing services? Do you run a blog that you’ve created? Perhaps you do stand-up comedy on the side? Or practice photography? Your “side gigs” can also be valuable in your job search if you’re using relevant skills and if the work you’ve done can help demonstrate your interest in a particular career field or industry.

Action items:

  1. Create a plan to gain hands-on career experience with student organizations, internships, or volunteer opportunities before you hope to apply for full-time positions.
  2. Participate regularly in opportunities like workshops, trainings, conferences, and competitions to help you develop new professional skills.
  3. Attend Career Services workshops and events, which you can find on Handshake.
  4. Perform at least one InterSECT Job Simulation in a career field that interests you and chat with a career advisor afterwards.
  5. Make an appointment with a Career Advisor via Handshake to discuss your plan for gaining hands-on career experience while at Penn and translate your experiences for future employers.
  6. Check out articles related to experiential opportunities from Carpe Careers, a weekly column focused on career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs that provides personal, optimistic, actionable advice.
  7. Move on to the next step of your career planning: Take Action & Make Decisions

Explore the other stages of the exploration process: