[PD as CD] Part 1: The What, Why, Where, and How of Professional Development

If you’re past ‘early career’ phase where you can easily make pivots, career dissatisfaction can make you feel extra stuck. You may find yourself looking back on your work journey and seeing ‘if only’ moments: places where if only you had made a different decision, then your work life could be totally different. And, if you’re not loving your current situation, you probably think that your work life could be better. If only I had done xyz thing, I would… be making more money, have better balance, be happier, etc, etc. These thoughts are dangerous because 1) you don’t know if they’re actually true and 2) they keep you stuck. If you focus on the past, you’re robbing yourself of a chance to change your future. And how can you change your future? Through professional development!

In this post, we’ll go over what professional development is, why you should engage in it, and where to find it. This is the first of a miniseries, so future posts will cover things like setting goals, tracking your progress, incorporating professional development into side hustles and self-care activities, and how to account for your growth on your resume and LinkedIn. Stay tuned!

Professional development is exactly what the name implies – it is an opportunity to grow your skills so you can advance your career. Professional development can take many different forms and often depends on the company and industry you’re in. For example: When I worked in a high school, professional development was highly structured and planned by our district managers to cover key topics that they felt were relevant to our careers. There were days set aside for it, and everyone was held accountable. Now that I work in higher education, it’s up to me to find places that I need to improve and find the training to shore up my skills. In this environment, professional development has been desired by my employers but not required.

Tbh, I like the latter format much better. I enjoy learning things that I actually want to learn rather than sitting through stuff that isn’t relevant to my career. It also helps me have more control over my career because I can find professional development opportunities that will help me get to where I want to be. By knowing what I’m shooting for and knowing what I’m not getting in my day-to-day job, I have sough out places to fill the gaps and get ahead. It’s a long game strategy, but careers aren’t sprints. (They’re not marathons either… More like the 1600 meters, with hurdles and high jumps that pop up juuuust as you feel yourself hitting a stride.)

What I just described is how you can use professional development to get unstuck in your career. To expand and expound…

Step 1: Figure out what you want to be doing.

This first step is the most important, as it sets your subsequent professional development path. Decide what your goal job is so you can start working towards it. (Need help? Poke around the Career Advice section of my blog for pointers on how to make informed career decisions. The Figure Yourself Out February series is a good place to start!)

Step 2: Figure out what skill and experience gaps you need to fill.

To figure out what you’re missing, read job descriptions and occupational outlook information for the career you’re interested in. A simple job title search on indeed.com will provide you with a host of information on what employers for your desired position are currently looking for. Once you have this information, head over to a site like O*NET (onetonline.com) or the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (bls.gov) so learn more about what employers will be looking for in the future.

When considering this step, the key is to think in baby steps. If you’re currently an administrative assistant but want to be the CEO, don’t try to make the jump all at once! Chances are, you’ve got a lot of gaps to fill and you might get frustrated trying to do them all at once. If you’re in this position, pick the next job up from where you are and start there. If you’re not, then just make a list of the skills that you’ll need to become a competitive applicant for your desired field.

Step 3: Set about filling those gaps.

When planning out your professional development, it’s a good idea to start with the more manageable skills and experiences first. This way, you can build up momentum so that when you hit the harder stuff you’ll be ready for it. For example: If you want to become a data scientist, start with mastering pivot tables in Excel instead of jumping right into Visual Basic.

See, it’s simple!
Ha. If only it were that simple.

Well, it can be that simple, if you 1) work in a place where professional development is encouraged and 2) have access to quality programming that will help you get ahead. My current situation is as close to this ideal as possible, and you can believe that I’m doing everything I can to take advantage of this opportunity.

If you’re not as lucky, here are five things you can do.

1. Find a career role model.

A career role model is someone who is similar to you and is doing the work that you want to do. While role models don’t necessarily have to have background or demographic things in common with you, it’s definitely an advantage if you’re attempting to emulate their path. This is because you can learn what to expect in the future and have examples for overcoming identity-specific obstacles. As a Black woman, I have found it immensely more helpful (and inspiring) to have career role models who are also Black women since the life experiences of, say, White males are vastly different.

2. Talk to your supervisor about your goals and seek their support.

Supportive supervisors are tremendously helpful in planning and obtaining professional development because 1) they may be able to suggest specific things for you to work on and 2) they’re often the ones in charge of your time. It’s hard to hide the fact that you’re engaging in developmental activities if you’re constantly ducking out to attend classes or tired from staying up late for online courses. It’s best to be transparent with your supervisor to avoid any awkwardness.

The major caveat here is to only be this open if you know that your supervisor will support you. Good ones do, but we know that not all bosses are good ones! I’ve been in situations where I was open about bettering my skills for a new job and my boss felt personally offended that I wasn’t satisfied in my current role. Needless to say, this made work very challenging. If you’re in this type of situation, then it’s best to keep your professional development activities as much on the down low as possible.

3. See if funds for professional development are available form your job.

Sometimes, employers set aside money for employees to receive training and attend classes so they can get better at their jobs. Human resources often is in charge of such money, so reach out to your representative and see if it’s there and how to access it. Funds are typically tied to what you do in your current position, so be strategic and find places where new training can be justified to your employer.

4. Search the internet for online professional development options.

If you can’t get the professional development you need/want through work, check the internet. There are amazing resources out there for almost any skill you’d like to gain. Check out subscription sites like Tuts, Lynda, and Skillshare for their vast libraries of options. Or, if you’d like to go the free-99 route, YouTube is a great place for tutorials. The quality will vary, but it’s free so you can’t really complain!

5. See if your local library or community organizations have relevant training.

If you’re more of an in-person learner, public libraries and community groups often host free or low-cost events to assist individuals with gaining and honing their skills. Such programming is also great for networking!

Professional development is the key to creating the career of your dreams. Notice I said “creating” instead of “finding”, because that’s how you should think of your goal career. It’s something you make for yourself, not something you just stumble upon. If you really want it, you’ve got to work for it!


Dr. Lindsay is career development & academic success coach who loves helping people figure out and proceed to the next levels of their lives.