Written by Jared Goff

More American adults than ever before are going on to complete their graduate studies. According to the United States Census Bureau, the number of adults who have finished a master’s degree has doubled since 2000. In the same amount of time, the number of Americans who hold a doctoral degree has more than doubled to almost 5 million.

The trend toward more graduates completing master’s and doctorate degrees means more competition in graduate school and more competition in the job market after obtaining a master’s or doctoral degree. PhD students may need to find more ways to stand out among other graduate students to obtain their degree’s opportunities.

Some topics explored below that will help you stand out in a crowd of PhD students include how to enhance your experience in your field before embarking on the PhD and clarify your vision of the future. There are also ideas on what not to do to be unique among your peers.

Build Background and Experience

If you are still an undergraduate student or haven’t begun a PhD yet, there are ways to enhance your background and experience to stand out in your graduate school of choice.

Usually, a master’s degree is required before applying for a PhD program. One option to be aware of is programs where a master’s degree combines with or transitions smoothly into a PhD program. These programs can cut down on the amount of time spent in graduate school since some doctoral-level classes can be taken in a master’s degree program. Also, you may be more likely to obtain full funding as a doctoral student if you have already established a reputation through a school’s master’s degree program.

Prerequisite courses taken in preparation for a PhD program are important. Not only do they prepare you for the course of study that you will be following in your doctoral program, but they indicate how you will perform in those subjects. Excellent grades in prerequisite classes will draw attention to your ability to succeed in your area of study in a doctoral program.

Clarify Vision

One way to stand out in a PhD program is to be clear about what you want to study and why you are interested in that subject. Although general interest in an area of study may be a sufficient reason for you to pursue a high level of scholarship, it may not convince your peers and professors. Having a passion for your subject requires real commitment, determination, and passion that those around you can experience.

Deciding on a dissertation project or area of concentrated study early on in your doctoral program, or even before you begin, may really assist you in becoming knowledgeable and eager about your area of interest. However, if you are the kind of student with a wide variety of interests, you may also become tired of the subject before even beginning the dissertation. Play on your strengths and weaknesses to keep interest alive and palpable to those around you. Your enthusiasm could enliven your fellow doctoral students, and the source will be recognizable.

Doctoral students, though making up a small crowd, are often intelligent and gifted. As individuals, they are used to standing out among their peers. However, in graduate school, they are among many other competent students. This may make it more difficult to rise above the status quo, but it also makes for interesting conversations and wonderful learning opportunities. Eager to show off expertise, graduate students who are humble enough to learn from other students may, ironically, stand out in their own way. Get the input of your fellow students and professors by asking intelligent questions and receiving the benefit of their expertise in honing your own graduate interests.

Build your Online Presence

Before graduate students start to build their presence online, they should probably start with a little excavation. Surprisingly few people google their own name. They might be surprised by the impression such a search would create, and it is a great place to start when cleaning up online accounts.

According to this article by Forbes, cleaning up your online presence also includes steps such as making a list of accounts and deleting ones you no longer use, as well as reviewing your security settings. When using social media accounts, the article suggests using enhanced privacy settings. It also highlights the importance of “stop and think” before posting anything online. You should be aware, however, that deleted pictures and posts can still be accessed for some time.

Other tips from the article include thinking like a hiring manager, or one could add, professor and colleague. What would you think of your fellow students and colleagues based on their social media accounts? Trying to consistently apply the same standard to your own online posting that you apply to others is often a good way to keep your online presence classy and appropriate. According to the Forbes article, inappropriate pictures, even on business sites such as LinkedIn are frequently a turn-off for hiring managers.

Portray yourself as an expert online, especially on sites such as Academia or LinkedIn. Highlight your areas of expertise, be sure to link professional articles that will enhance your own reputation. Be sure to keep your CV updated so that colleagues and other professionals can keep up with your research through links on your professional accounts.

Join Professional Organizations

There are numerous positive reasons to join professional organizations in graduate school. Being part of an organization shows your peers, professors, and prospective employers that you are serious about your subject of study. However, it’s probably a good idea to do some cost-benefit analysis on which organizations to join since they can be rather spendy for a student’s budget. Some of the positive aspects of joining professional organizations are:

Grants and Fellowships – Professional organizations sometimes offer scholarships or grants that are designated to funding research, attending conferences, or more effectively managing graduate school. Awards granted by professional organizations look good on a CV. Also, being featured as a winner of a competitive award can gain a student notoriety assisting their career. Opportunities such as co-authoring articles and research or presenting at a plenary session can be offered to winners of these competitive awards.

Ideas and Resources for Research – One of the main reasons graduate students are motivated to join professional organizations is access to their journals and resources and new ideas. Research trends can more easily be followed when reviewing up-to-date journal articles and attending meetings and conferences sponsored by professional organizations. Joining an organization’s email list and receiving the latest news on their conferences and publications is usually free and can help determine whether or not the professional organization is a good fit for your interests.

Spending time with professionals and doctoral students outside of one’s department can be an opportunity to hear new ideas as well. Being part of a professional organization can offer these chances for communicating and connecting with a diverse and wide array of persons who can inspire those around them.

Supplementing your Classes – Prospective employers are impressed by students with broad interests and a wide array of knowledge. Joining a professional organization looks great on a resume because conferences and organizations bring new angles to one’s education. Even joining organizations that are not directly related to your area of knowledge can stretch and supplement class learning.

Take Leadership Roles

Anytime a student takes on organizational and leadership roles in the course of their studies, others take notice. The opportunities in this area are numerous, and often professors and mentors will be happy to advise about possibilities. One way a PhD student can stand out is by organizing student groups. These can be action groups dealing with social issues. They can be discussion and study groups. Another common avenue for student action and leadership is to organize symposia or colloquia or invite respected scholars to your campus to lecture, discuss, and/or debate. Another way to stand out is to organize community outreach and service initiatives. These are just a few examples of the many ways students can take the reigns of leadership and stand out among their peers.

Present and Publish

A doctorate is a terminal degree in a given field or discipline. This means that it is the highest academic degree that can be earned in the field. Therefore, earning a PhD requires years of work, a great amount of commitment, and a demonstrated capacity to do research and present research. Getting on this aspect of academic life as early as possible is another great way to stand out. The most common venues to present your research are academic conferences and academic journals. Through social media, even non-academic venues can be useful for getting your research greater notoriety. Consult your professors, mentors, and discuss options with your fellow students to find the right forum.

Keep CVs Updated

Keeping a CV updated is often neglected, and important to let others know about your academic achievements. A student’s resume or CV is a vital part of the admissions process when entering grad school, but keeping your CV updated throughout a doctoral degree is also very important.

Creating a Curriculum Vitae or Resume can be intimidating, and students tend to follow an example online or copy the format of another student’s CV or resume. Although imitating other resumes is a great place to start, there is nothing wrong with creating a CV or resume that is unique to your style and perspective. Create something you like, and that reflects you.

A CV is not just for cataloging past work but also for setting goals and receiving letters of recommendation or applying for positions and organizations. A CV should keep peers up to date and keep you and them excited about your research.

Publications, presentations, honors, and awards should all be included on your CV. Also, don’t forget to add volunteer and extracurricular interests and experiences. These last items will be the areas that help you to stand out among your colleagues and peers since every student’s extracurricular interests will be different. Your interests will show your personality and proclivities.

Watch your Manners

One of the best selling books ever, selling more than 30 million copies, is Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. PhD students may need a reminder that the timeless strategy of good manners goes a long way to establishing respect in the eyes of the people we spend time with.

From Carnegie’s book, the most appropriate to academia is the section entitled, Twelve Ways to Win People to your Way of Thinking. Influence over colleagues in a department will gain respect and help students to stand out among their peers. Here are four of the most applicable principles:

  1. “Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say, ‘You’re wrong.'” Those who have been in a doctorate program can attest to the fact that it is highly insulting to have an idea, perhaps arrived at through a fair bit of research and study, only to be dismissed out of hand by a fellow student. Rather, listen carefully to what your fellow students have to say and if you disagree, do it respectfully.
  2. “If you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” This point may feel counterintuitive to a PhD student. An understandable human impulse may be to cover up or distract from a mistake you have made in order to save face or your reputation. However, PhD students and professors are a sharp bunch of people. They will notice your retraction and respect you for it. And likely they noticed your mistake to begin with. Honest inquiry will be best served by a straight forward approach.
  3. “Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.” Often a disagreement is based on a misunderstanding on a basic level. Establishing common ground will assist you in building rapport and in coming to a common understanding which will be a great asset in PhD research.
  4. “Throw down a challenge.” This last point, which is actually the 12th of Carnegie’s principles, may be one of the most suited to PhD students, especially those who want to stand out in a crowd. It may feel slightly risky, but shaking up a study environment or class just a bit by throwing out a challenge or puzzle to solve, will not only keep people interested in the topics at hand but also make you an interesting colleague!

Lastly, how you dress and carry yourself, along with how you treat the people around you, will affect how people view you. Although it may be more comfortable to come to class in shorts every day, dressing and acting professionally may help you to stand out in a field of PhD graduates that are heading into your job market.