How best to identify and express your career skills (opinion)

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When I begin my workshops with graduate students, I ask everyone in attendance to introduce themselves. I ask them to state their names, where they’re from, what degree track they’re on and what they’re studying or researching. This last question is purposely leading. Graduate students, and especially Ph.D. students, tend to enjoy talking about their research in front of their peers. I know I did. And this is especially true in interdisciplinary settings, like our workshops.

I always enjoy listening to graduate students distill their research into a two-minute introduction. Some go into minute detail. Others highlight the key research questions with which they’re engaging. Still others infuse their introductions with so much disciplinary jargon that I admittedly don’t always follow. Whatever the case, it’s a fun way to get graduate students to share their research stories.

Then the workshop begins in earnest. Whether we’re focused on résumés (and how they differ from CVs), cover letters, interviewing or another career preparation topic, I emphasize a key theme. Today, I tell them, we’re working on effectively communicating how you do the great work that you do as a graduate student, not the subject matter. That is another, equally important story that is crucial for graduate students to communicate. Yet, as I find in workshops or coaching appointments, graduate students often find that story much harder to tell.

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Such difficulties highlight a wider trend. In spring 2021, my office administered a survey to our university’s graduate students to assess their perceived levels of career readiness. More than 500 graduate students completed the survey, and when asked about which National Association of Colleges and Employers competencies they needed to develop further, over 50 percent identified career management. Career management—which, after NACE revised the core competencies in summer 2021, is now known as career and self-development—was defined, in part, as the ability of a student to “identify/articulate one’s skills, strengths, knowledge, and experiences relevant to [a] position and career goals.”

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This is the challenge: How can graduate students effectively tell the story about their skills, strengths and experiences as well as the story about their research?

Moving Beyond the Focus on Achievements

Graduate students are focused on achievements. And why shouldn’t they be? Despite growing calls to the contrary, graduate students in the liberal arts and sciences especially are beholden to a culture that is achievement-oriented. Scan the faculty and graduate student pages of any academic department’s website and you’ll find lists: lists of awards and fellowships (and the associated dollar amounts); lists of publications and conference papers delivered; lists of courses taught.

So it’s not surprising that graduate students are more readily able to discuss what they’ve achieved and what they study. In a workshop setting, once we get over the modesty hump, students start to open up: “I research 19th-century feminist literature.” “I presented a paper at the Northeast Conference on British Studies.” “I co-authored an article in Perspectives on Higher Education.” “I won funding to do field research in New Mexico.” Essentially, they rehash their CVs. It’s a list of outcomes, of credentials and achievements. Again, graduate students are very good at listing outcomes and talking about subject matter.

Now I press the students. What does your research entail? What went into presenting that paper? What was the process like of co-authoring that article, for winning that research funding? What I’m after is the journey that led them to their achievement.

Communicating the Journey

Communicating the journey is especially important when we review that ever-important skill: translating the CV into a résumé. The CV, again, is a list of outcomes. The résumé more fully illustrates the journey that graduate students took to achieve those outcomes—it’s a window into their skill set, the story about how they’re developing and honing strengths through their graduate study. While it’s also important to communicate outcomes and achievements on your résumé, it’s equally as important to communicate how you got there. In fact, it is essential in an age in which graduate students are encouraged to explore diverse industries where the résumé, not the CV, is the core application document.

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This was something that I struggled with when I began to consider careers beyond the academic track after I finished my Ph.D. I used the resources on Imagine PhD to help me think about how to flesh out my experience. I also asked a few friends who worked in different industries to read my initial attempts at résumé writing and point out where I could strengthen descriptions. I found that I had been selling myself short.

I had been discussing my skills in general terms, defaulting to phrases like “Researched 17th-century universities” or “Taught two sections of Modern European History.” I was taking for granted that hiring managers would understand everything that went into my research or my teaching. But that’s rarely the case, and I needed to be clearer; I needed to tell a more detailed story, because “researched” and “taught” do not fully communicate the range of organizational, analytical, interpersonal, communication and digital skills that go into researching and teaching.

I discovered this when I was on the job market, while I was searching for work while piecing together adjunct teaching roles. For current graduate students, it’s important to practice communicating your skills story as early in your studies as possible.

At one of the first graduate student résumé workshops I facilitated, I vividly remember working with a Ph.D. candidate whose research focused on 20th-century German history. He had won external grant funding and traveled abroad to complete his dissertation research. This is great, I thought—he really has an intriguing story to tell. But when we started translating his experience onto a résumé, I noticed the student was running into the same problem that I had.

So we broke down the components of his research. What went into the grant proposal? How did he communicate with archivists in Germany? What did he do with the primary source documents that he found? How did he incorporate his findings into this research? And then, finally, what was he able to produce based on this research?

By asking those probing questions as a group, we were able to uncover a litany of research skills that weren’t at first apparent: databasing and digital technology, intercultural communication and bilingualism, written communication in different mediums, organization and problem solving, and time management. It quickly became apparent to all the graduate students in the room that they exercise a range of diverse skills in completing the research tasks that they take for granted in their graduate work.

So, going forward, how can you ensure that you’re fully communicating all the great skills you have? How can you guarantee that you’re telling your story effectively? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Connect with career services at your university to reflect on your various responsibilities and how you can communicate them.
  • Coordinate a discussion with your peers and faculty mentors to discuss the process beyond their research. If something sounds vague or seems unclear, ask them to elaborate! This is a great way to uncover skills and glean ideas for how to identify your own.
  • Review NACE’s core competencies and reflect on how you are building such competencies through your research, teaching or assistantship work; where your strengths are; and where you’d like to grow.

Graduate students have many stories to tell. Understanding how to communicate the story about your skills will help you build your confidence as you explore, and achieve, your career goals.


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