Creating Professional Development Services That Meet Your Network’s Needs

Have you ever attended a conference or watched a webinar that gave you a new perspective to apply to your career? Those working in academia and in the research profession find it valuable to learn from, and work alongside, others with knowledge about their particular field. Scholars from backgrounds that are underrepresented in research disciplines — such as first-generation college students or members of a racial or ethnic minority group — may look for resources tailored to the unique needs they might experience in their careers.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation created the New Connections program in 2005, in part, to address this need and support these scholars so they can not only build their own professional skills and expertise, but become essential contributors to building a Culture of Health.

New Connections conducted an annual Symposium, a Research and Coaching Clinic, trainings in specific skills areas, and other professional development opportunities. In addition, through a partnership with the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), New Connections funded researchers to attend sessions about research design, statistics, data analysis, and social science methodology. New Connections also funded researchers to attend the Intersectional Qualitative Research Methods Institute (IQRMI), part of a partnership with the Consortium on Race, Gender and Ethnicity at the University of Maryland, College Park. At IQRMI, participants enhanced their qualitative research and writing skills, developed intersectional perspectives they would need when designing and interpreting research, and honed navigational skills so they could successfully negotiate academic career paths.

New Connections also provided webinars that addressed topics such as publication and manuscript writing support, writing regularly to increase productivity, translating research into action, moving from research questions to data collection, and qualitative methods for disparities research.

If you have taken advantage of any of these services, you may consider how you, too, can share what you have learned in a way that helps others advance in their careers. New Connections’ Tia Burroughs, Altinay Cortes, and Chantias Ford have a wealth of experience in this area, and shared their advice for how to set up services to help other scholars reach their goals.

Identifying a Service

  • Different services serve unique purposes, so it’s best to start by identifying what your audience needs. If you’ve received suggestions or requests for services, such as trainings in how to apply for grants, you can use those as your starting point, or survey prospective participants for input.
  • You might be tempted to create something that hasn’t been done before, but a better strategy may be to build on an existing program that has similar aims with new offerings. For example, even though data analysis and research skills are usually learned early and honed often in academia, most people can learn something new from additional training in this area. One New Connections scholar, Dr. Raphael Travis, noted, “New Connections offered me top-notch professional development for many research and networking skills. I have greatly improved my data analysis skills and overall research skills.”
  • Sponsor members of your network to attend trainings from professors or other professionals who can explore with them how to gain tenure or handle interpersonal challenges with colleagues, as well as other scenarios that will come up as part of their careers. The New Connections team noted that question-and-answer sessions within their convenings have been successful, so consider incorporating that feature into your own programs.
  • When deciding whether the service itself should be delivered in person, remember that many people participate in these activities to network and meet others with whom they can collaborate, which may be more difficult, if not impossible, to facilitate virtually. If you’re creating a mentoring program, mentors may want to have at least one in-person session during the process. (Learn more in our blog post about developing your own mentoring program!)

Implementing Your Service

  • Once you identify the service you want to offer, evaluate your budget before putting anything in motion. Conferences and symposia can be expensive to implement, for example, so assess whether you have the resources to pull off a particular format before making promises to your network. Virtual services, such as the New Connections webinars or conference calls, will be more cost-effective and can be a good way to get your feet wet. For in-person services, keep costs in check through partnerships — for example, a local university might donate space if you handle other needs for an event. Having a professor chair an event can open up resources from that professor’s university. Get creative about how such partnerships could be mutually beneficial.
  • Determine a realistic timeline. The New Connections team noted that creating a conference or symposium takes the longest (up to a year), as you will need to secure a venue, develop an agenda, secure speakers, and handle other logistics. Make sure the time and staff resources you have align to what you want to do.
  • Consider whether you have in-house experts who will meet the needs of your audience. New Connections webinars, for example, used program alums or current participants as presenters. Thinking through any gaps early will keep you from missing the mark on your goals.
  • Recruit participants through outreach at conferences, messages on listservs, contacts with leaders in the field, and conversations with people who would find the network valuable, such as department chairs and academic deans. The New Connections team suggested asking university grant managers and administrators to send information to their networks. New Connections used a robust outreach strategy, such as hosting information tables at conferences and sponsoring network members to speak at events.
  • Remember that a strong event is the best way to recruit new participants for your program! New Connections scholar Dr. Sara Bleich said, “Before becoming a grantee, I had the opportunity to attend a New Connections Symposium. It was perhaps the best conference I had ever attended. I was so impressed by the dedication of the RWJF staff to foster junior researchers and the enthusiasm of the current grantees to be a part of the program.” 

Sustaining Momentum

  • Once you’ve implemented your service, your work isn’t done! Services should evolve as your network’s needs evolve. Keep an open line of communication with your network, so they can share input about what they would find useful.
  • Make data collection part of your follow-up to implementation. One evaluation method is a follow-up survey, and the New Connections team suggested incentivizing survey responses. For example, New Connections reimbursed participants for their attendance, so they asked attendees to complete surveys before they could receive reimbursement, to ensure they would receive timely feedback. You may need to use data to demonstrate to your outside funders that the services are effective. Some useful data to collect are who has been promoted, received tenure, or achieved other career milestones. Maintaining an updated contact list will enable you to reach out to participants to respond to requests, as well as refer network members to opportunities, such as speaking engagements and other grants. 
  • Unexpected challenges will arise as you develop your services. Plan for the challenges you can foresee, such as scheduling issues due to the academic year.

Scholars considered the services provided by New Connections as an essential part of their educational and professional experiences. As Dr. Denna L. Wheeler, said, “[New Connections] is an investment in my personal and professional development through training, networking, and mentoring. I have received access to career development information and training that is not readily available at professional conferences or in most graduate programs.”

With consideration for your audience and their needs, and the capacity to build services to meet those needs, you can also create programs that scholars will rely on as a key part of their academic career.

 [WR1]Add link to mentoring post when ready.