You work hard. It’s Friday, and here you sit in your last class of the day running at about 10% capacity. You begin to nod off as your professor blesses the class by turning off the lights to show a video clip. As you slide slowly off your seat and are rudely greeted by the cold floor, you realize that you might not be showing your best self.

Granted, humans have bad days. Although we can’t always prevent off-days from happening, we can work to improve the message we send.

Why Does Reputation Matter?

Abraham Lincoln said that “character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” Although character is what truly matters, a flawless tree with a wonky looking shadow seems suspicious.

Therefore, it also helps to develop a professional image that reflects your character while highlighting your skills and talents. Remember, colleagues, professors, and supervisors tend to recognize what you say and do. Some of the people you work with may write you letters of recommendation, and often the best opportunities are given to those with the best reputations. A reputation is like a message, and you can help decide what the message says.

What Can I do?

Developing a good reputation in graduate school can take time. The most important rule of thumb is to be consistent in the way you present. Stick to these pointers, and remember that it is all about the message:

1. Inspire with Attire

One of the easiest ways to improve your image is to dress professionally. Professional attire tends to send the message that you care about what you are doing. On a scale of 1 – 10, where “1” is what you would wear while watching television on a Saturday evening (if anything) and “10” is what you wear to a job interview, shoot for the range of 7-9. Blue jeans are usually not the best bet, but if your professors or supervisors wear them then perhaps they are appropriate.

A great resource for professional dress can be found here. All that being said, it is also ok to be human sometimes.

2. Get Off Your Laptop!

If you are reading this post during class, get off your device now! The message you send by paying attention to a screen instead of your supervisor or professor is one of indifference and disrespect.

Professors spend a great deal of time preparing lessons for graduate-level courses, and public speaking is scary. Use those stellar attending skills and at least make eye contact with the person who is trying to teach you. Paying attention is also easier when you practice good sleep hygiene, so make sure you are taking care of yourself.

3. Meet with Faculty

Although you might appear to be the ideal student, professors may not know you beyond the classroom.

Make an appointment to meet with some of your favorite faculty members each semester. If possible, try to meet one-on-one with each faculty member within the first half of your time in the program. Get to know them better, and plan to have some specific questions about their area of interest or involvement in the department. Requesting a meeting sends a message of respect for their expertise and a desire to connect.

4. Refrain from Gossip

I grew up in a small rural town, and the only thing that spread faster than brushfire was gossip. Your department is a lot like a small town, except perhaps with more teeth.

Although people may occasionally get on your nerves, venting about other people tends to send the message that you want to damage someone else’s reputation. If you need to talk about something or someone, it is best done privately with people you trust and without using names.

5. Get Involved

Your engagement in the community sends a message of being dedicated to working with others. Joining (or creating) a student interest group or being elected to student council can be a great way to obtain membership in a circle of your department.

Such groups offer an outstanding opportunity to learn from others, gain leadership, and network.

6. Do Good Work

Perhaps the most important factor regarding your reputation involves the quality of your work. Your work sends a message about your aptitude – for better or worse. Every presentation, paper, and project should be an opportunity for you to display your expertise.

This might involve scheduling and organizing yourself better so that you are able to put adequate time and effort into everything you do. Good work does not mean more work, and involvement in multiple activities and groups does not mean success.


As a grad student, you are in the midst of a critical period of development. You have the opportunity to maximize your training and prepare yourself for the next phase: real life. Remember to use every opportunity to ensure that the message you send is congruent with your values.