3 Tips for Developing Skills Outside of Your Graduate Degree Program

As a graduate student, you might become competent and confident in your research and/or teaching skills, your abilities to think critically and write persuasively after receiving training in your graduate study. Yet, it’s likely that what you have acquired prepares you for only a part of what a future employer seeks. In addition to academic achievement, some of the most-wanted attributes in a résumé or CV that employers value are abilities in problem-solving and teamwork, strong work ethic, analytical/quantitative skills, written and verbal communication, and leadership skills, according to a summary of the most recent the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2020 report.

There are different approaches to build your skills outside of the classroom. Here are three tips that might start you off on identifying the skills you need and/or are interested in developing, and what’s more important, exploring opportunities to develop new or enhance existing skills.

Tip #1: Knowing Yourself

This is the first step – to find out the skills you are interested in or you believe will be needed for pursuing your career. First, it would be helpful if you go over a list of competencies that employers are looking for and then rank the skills by your confidence level. There could be a few competencies that you might need more effort to improve. Start from the one that the employers of the career you pursue put more weight on.

If you are not sure which skills are valued in your career of interest, try searching job postings of your interest and look for the patterns of qualification sought by employers; then assess and decide whether you have the same knowledge, skills, and training required by the employers. If not, consider finding opportunities to gain what is needed to be a competitive candidate. Another way is to try a job simulation that provides you with real-life job tasks in various fields (check out the post about InterSECT job simulation). After you have a taste of how a task is carried out in the simulation exercise, you will probably have a better idea about the skills required for succeeding in that job. You can always work with a career coach at the Center for Career Development to identify the skills you need to develop and to expand your opportunities for achieving your goals.

Tip #2: Learning through Experience

Different career-related skills are picked up through various experiences. It could be an internship, a volunteering activity, or service on a committee, etc. that occur outside of your degree program. For example, if research and teaching are the primary experiences you gained in your graduate assistantship in your department, an internship or GAship in a different department or another field might grant you opportunities to enhance other important skills, such as leadership, communication, and teamwork.

Take me for example. One of the main tasks in my role as a Graduate Assistant at the Center for Career Development is to plan and deliver career programs such as alumni panels. Through this experience, I have tried to brush up my skills in moderating discussion and communication with people from different backgrounds. That will fill out the blank of the skillset I need in my résumé when I look for positions emphasizing programming experience and interdisciplinary communication skills.

Besides formal work experience, you can also consider involvement in service work like joining an association or a council on campus, or volunteering in the community. Be open to different opportunities and choose one or a few that you can commit to, depending on your capacities.

Tip #3: Self-taught Skills

The internet is a powerful knowledge base for your skill-building. What makes it stand out is that it enables learning with flexibility – without the restriction of time and place. Through search engines, video providers, social media, forums, to MOOC providers, you will find rich resources for developing industry skills that are not taught in the academic setting, from one-hour overviews to certification programs. If you are seeking to learn a new quantitative analysis technique in a systematic and comprehensive way, for example, a MOOC course could be your first option to look into. If the jobs to which you hope to apply in the future require a project management certificate, you might narrow your search to those types of programs. The quality of the resources may vary, and you have to make a wise selection. Sometimes it would be helpful to read through the course reviews and ratings, or even start a trial lesson before you decide whether you should spend your time on it.

Different platforms have their own focuses or expertise. For example, SkillShare offers a wider variety of courses about photography and design, while edX has a broad range of course offerings on various topics. The Center for Career Development website has a skill-building section that recommends and curates various resources such as online courses, webinars, lectures, short videos, etc. covering skills in teaching, leadership, business, communication, and more.

To be a competitive candidate for jobs, it is essential to have skills, knowledge, and training that are aligned with what the employers in your fields of interest value and seek in their job candidates, while sometimes you have to step outside of your degree program to achieve those qualifications. It’s never too late to get started – once you are on your way, it will start to make a difference in your career advancement.

Photo courtesy of geralt at Pixabay 

By Damiao Zoe Xu
Damiao Zoe Xu Graduate Assistant, Graduate Student and Postdoc Career Programs and Services Damiao Zoe Xu