If you are like most of the grad students (or recent grads) that I work with, you may be worried about finding a job after graduation. The good news is that you have so many awesome skills (more than you likely realize!) and these skills are in demand in the quickly changing labour market.
More than a quarter of jobs in Canada are estimated to be affected in some way by technological advances in the next 10 years and approximately half will require a change in skills. “Human” skills, such as attention to detail, communication, and critical thinking, are highly sought after, as they will not easily be replicated by machines. These skills will also allow workers to be adaptable and learn new information. No doubt, your graduate degree has helped you to develop these skills. So why does it sometimes seem hard to get the attention of employers?
The Conference Board of Canada reported that employers may have trouble understanding how your grad skills translate and apply to the workplace, and that grad students may have trouble articulating these skills in a way that is meaningful to employers.
Let’s take a look at how you can identify and present these skills effectively.
Identifying the skills employers want
The way that you convey your experiences can affect how employers understand your value. Sometimes, when corresponding with employers, grad students focus on the theory and content of their research and studies rather than on the in-demand, relevant transferable skills that they drew upon to complete their challenging advanced degrees.
To ensure you are emphasizing relevant skills, choose the skills you want to highlight according to the job posting (be sure all the requested skills you possess are reflected in your application), company (try searching on LinkedIn to see what skills current employees showcase), and sector demands (your research abilities will help you determine these human and technical skills). One size does not fit all when it comes to job applications. For each application or communication, you should vary the skills and knowledge that you emphasize and try to answer the question, “how can my skills help with this specific employer’s success?” If you can convey the answer to that question to the employer, they will be able to clearly see the benefit of hiring you.
To identify your skills, it may help to reflect on the tasks you have done (during academics, research, jobs, volunteering, committee work, etc.), then consider the skills that you used to complete those tasks successfully. For example:
- Task: Conducted a literature review
- Skills used: Found and interpreted information, identified relevant information, analyzed, identified trends and themes, made meaningful connections
If you have trouble identifying the skills you used for a task, try breaking your tasks up into smaller tasks. For example:
- Task: Graded student work
- Smaller task 1: Looked for errors
- Skills used: Demonstrated attention to detail, identified mistakes
- Smaller task 2: Wrote suggestions for improvement
- Skills used: Provided feedback, communicated clearly in writing
- Smaller task 3: Assigned grade
- Skills used: Evaluated and assessed quality of work
- Smaller task 1: Looked for errors
How to communicate these skills to employers
Provide evidence for your skills. Think about how you need to provide evidence in your work during grad school; you can’t make an unsubstantiated claim in your dissertation without providing a citation or proof. Now think about your communication with employers the same way. You want to provide evidence of your skills by describing how you have demonstrated those skills in the past. To say “I have excellent communication skills” means little to an employer when anyone can make the same unsupported claim; however, by backing up your skills with experience (“I presented my work as a poster where I effectively explained complex concepts to people in a variety of fields and with varying education levels”), you are allowing the employer to understand how your skills have led to success.
Communicate your skills succinctly when appropriate. In writing (resumé, LinkedIn, etc.), you will usually want to communicate your skills in a fast, to-the-point manner, and add additional details when appropriate. This can be accomplished by formulating strong skills statements.
Sometimes, it helps to write these statements in an action (the action you took that demonstrated the skill) + result (the result of your action) format. For example, instead of simply stating you have strong written communication skills or persuasion skills, consider a time when these skills led to success:
- Action: wrote a proposal
- Result: secured $10,000 of funding
- Statement: Wrote a successful proposal, securing $10,000 of funding for our research.
Provide specific examples. When you are able to elaborate on your skills examples (in an interview, when networking, etc.), attempt to provide specific examples that allow employers to imagine you using the skill. To ensure your examples are specific enough for the employer to picture, it may be helpful to use the STAR method to illustrate the example clearly:
- Situation: Where/when/with whom did this example happen?
- Task: What was it that you had to do? What was the challenge or problem?
- Action: What specific steps did you take?
- Result: What was the result of your actions?
Regularly evaluate and record your tasks and skills to help you remember the great accomplishments and examples you have. This practice will also help you to be more cognizant of situations in which you are demonstrating these skills, making it easier for you to identify and communicate them to prospective employers.