As you move into your first summer as a graduate student at Illinois, now is a perfect milestone to take time to reflect on your progress as a student and scholar. Over the past year, you’ve gained new skills and knowledge in your field, but success beyond graduate school requires taking a comprehensive approach to your professional development. It requires more than technical skills and field-specific knowledge.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is a professional association dedicated to connecting colleges with employers to better serve students as they move into their professional careers. In its Job Outlook 2019 report, NACE asked employers to identify the skills they look for most when recruiting graduates. Notably, the attributes employers want the most are those commonly categorized as “soft” skills or qualities not directly associated with technical abilities. Employers describe a significant need for these skills that far surpasses the level of proficiency observed in new hires.
In particular, recent trends show increased interest for candidates who are problem-solvers, communicate effectively, work well in teams, and demonstrate a strong work ethic.
Despite sometimes being called “soft,” these skills are in fact pretty hard to develop. Demonstrating your ability in these areas necessitates knowing what they are and how to talk about them – and how you’ve used them – to potential employers, no matter what career path you are pursuing. (When we ask faculty what makes them successful in their careers, they often talk about skills similar to the ones highlighted in the NACE report.)
Summer is a great time to strengthen these skills because it typically means having new experiences outside of the classroom. For some, that involves long hours in a research lab or library, working a summer job, or doing an internship. But no matter where your summer plans take you, any setting will provide ample opportunities to work on your professional development. Below I will explain these four in-demand skills in greater detail and offer tips (including a Lynda.com* course) on how to focus on your “softer” side.
Become a Problem Solver
Problem-solving is the most essential career competency reported by employers to NACE. Problem-solving is about how you choose to arrange, combine, and utilize all your abilities as a specific response to a unique challenge. Fortunately, you are already likely to encounter tasks that test these skills in your professional and academic roles. The next step is to think about your individual approach to problem-solving in a strategic way and figure out how to get better at it.
So, what can you do to improve your problem-solving skills this summer? Start by assessing what you already do on a regular basis. Whether you are troubleshooting a research hiccup or navigating an obstacle at an internship, incorporate time for reflection after overcoming a problem. Create a step-by-step breakdown of your actions and an inventory of what skills you applied. Determine which strategies were most and least useful. Was your approach successful? If so, why did it work? And if not, what would you do differently? Then when the next problem arises, pay attention to your process and how you apply all your skills to get to a solution. Then reflect again.
Check out the following Lynda.com course on improving your problem-solving skills.
Verbal and written communication are ubiquitous skills, demonstrated in every interaction you have. Yet, employers say less than half of their new hires are proficient communicators. Expressing ideas and complex concepts effectively remains a highly desired, but difficult skill, so make sure you’re not taking it for granted.
A critical element of communication skills is understanding your audience. Graduate work can be hyper-focused in both your field and on a specific topic area where most conversation is amongst experts with extensive foundational knowledge. This summer, you’ll likely meet new people – such as at conferences, during an internship, or even on vacation – who are not familiar with your work in graduate school. Use these opportunities to practice your communication skills by describing what you do as a graduate student, with extra attention devoted to connecting with your audience on their terms. What are ways you can explain your work that connects to their experience? Every occasion for small talk is a chance to refine your ability to communicate complex topics while connecting with a new audience. And as with problem-solving, reflect after each interaction to identify what worked and what didn’t.
Check out the following Lynda.com course on making meaningful first impressions.
Become a Team Player
Teamwork is about integrating your strengths and skills with others in a collaborative process to achieve a mutual goal. Leadership focuses on organizing and prioritizing the work to be done while empowering and motivating others in a team setting. Teamwork and leadership can occur in both formal and informal situations, so you don’t have to wait to be appointed to an official role to think about developing these skills.
If you are part of a new team this summer, whether in a lab, job, or other setting, pay specific attention to how work is delegated. Is the team organized in a way that makes sense? You might think of ways to change who does what, even for seemingly small tasks, to better correspond to individual strengths, even if it means relinquishing some of your preferred responsibilities. Minor adjustments can have a major impact in fostering a more harmonious and coordinated team effort.
If you’re not already going to be in a team this summer, consider finding ways to collaborate in less formal settings. Seek out local volunteer opportunities through organizations in your community, including registered student organizations if you are remaining on the Champaign-Urbana campus. Whether you end up tutoring kids or unpacking boxes at a food pantry, you will have a chance to observe teams in action and develop your skills in this area.
Check out the following Lynda.com course on fostering collaboration.
Show Your Strong Work Ethic
Work ethic, also sometimes called initiative, is demonstrated by how you take on responsibilities both large and small and whether you make efficient progress on goals. Initiative is garnering increased attention, recently surpassing quantitative skills in the list of attributes employers seek out in a resume. But how do you convince somebody you have a good work ethic? Does taking initiative require saying “yes” anytime someone asks you to do something?
Sometimes it is about saying yes – but saying yes wisely. It’s easy to conflate initiative with the need to simply increase the number of things you’re doing. Doing more things, just for the sake of doing them, can be counterproductive to succeeding in your current endeavors. Developing initiative as a skill is about taking ownership of your approach to your work, identifying preemptive actions, and following through on those steps to ensure it gets done.
Show your work ethic through establishing concrete strategies for your long-term projects. Schedule specific times each week dedicated to your tasks and group similar activities together for efficiency. Set milestones and progress markers while checking-in at set intervals to assess and adjust your process. Mapping out the work to be done is useful in developing foresight to take steps on proactive measures that ensure success.
Check out the following Lynda.com course on building project schedules.
Once you get a head start on developing these skills over the summer, keep it up! No matter whether your graduate education is near the end or just beginning or whether you plan to pursue a career in academia, industry, government, or have no idea what path is ahead – demonstrating and describing these skills effectively can make a meaningful impression on employers across all professions.
*Lynda.com (go.illinois.edu/lynda) is an online learning platform with a diverse and extensive catalogue of professional development courses. Access to this tool is free for University of Illinois students by using your Illinois login credentials.
Mike Firmand is the Assistant Director for Employer Outreach in the Graduate College. He works with employers to connect University of Illinois graduate students to new opportunities and promote the value of graduate education. He previously worked for the College of Business at Illinois State University and has held positions in insurance, marketing, banking, and retail and event management. Mike holds a B.S. in Recreation, Sport and Tourism from the University of Illinois and an M.S. in Communication from Illinois State University.