5 Professional Skills

Grad students can be strategic about being employable later, writes Karla P. Zepeda.

January 5, 2015

What is graduate school anyway? Is it an extension of the ideal carefree years of undergrad? Is it a safe haven from choosing an occupation and entering the job market? Is it a space to learn for learning’s sake? Given the state of higher education today, students cannot afford to attend grad school to figure things out or just for the love of learning (Ironically, I did it for just that reason), and hope for fate to favor them.

Students should approach grad school as a time to develop concrete professional skills. Since grad programs focus primarily on developing specialized knowledge, advanced critical thinking, and innovative research, grad students cannot rely solely on their programs to develop more basic skills. Since grad school is a space for learning, practicing, and achieving, it is also an ideal stage to rehearse for a future professional performance.

The graduate experience may feel a lot like the undergrad years. There is the customary campus with classroom buildings, professors, students, books, college friends, and bars, lots of bars. There is the staple informal dress code promoting school spirit with its sports caps, t-shirts, hoodies, and athletic sweats. There is also the all-important complaining, chattering, and hours of studying. In addition, there are the enduring friendships.

Despite the similarities, grad school cannot be approached in the same manner as the undergrad experience because postgraduate education is directly linked to professional development. Grad school lays the foundations of a career in a specialized manner, committing students to a discipline, an area, and a focus. The advanced education attained in grad school must translate into marketable skills, particularly when competition is fierce. For this reason, grad students should work on developing a series of basic skills to improve their chances of employment.

The Basics

1. Work on a professional persona. Starting in grad school, practice professional values that impress employers. Your professors will write your letters of recommendations or they may refer you to specific job prospects; allow them to develop a positive view of you. It takes more than knowledge to land a job. Be smart about impression management. To this end:

  • Ditch informal wear. Dress for the professional part you want to play.
  • Keep your deadlines to demonstrate efficiency and dependability.
  • Practice listening. This skill will make a huge difference in your interpersonal relationships. Even in interviews people can fail to respond to questions because they are so eager to answer.
  • Be discreet and respectful of others. Chatter, complaining, and gossip serve to form a view of the person engaging in such actions, not the information conveyed. You never know who will be a key player in your profession. Inspire goodwill, as it is an intangible asset.

2. Establish a strong professional direction. A postgraduate education endows students with strong qualifications that have to be guided toward an intended professional path. To this end:

  • Clarify your career goals.
  • Research the job market to know the trends and hiring needs. Use the information to conceive a variety of professional options. Manage expectations and remain flexible.
  • Envision different professional paths and dare to think of yourself performing different occupations.
  • Seek good mentors. Listen to the feedback from mentors. Decide how to process the information.
  • Identify people who can serve as professional models.
  • Develop the experience you need for the job you want. Try to diversify your professional profile. 

3. Work on the essentials. There are established professional documents and performances that employees must manage. Develop these well. To this end:

  • Write your C.V. early and keep different versions of it (short and long, or different styles for different kinds of jobs). Get feedback from a reliable source. Rewrite it multiple times until you have developed the best version of yourself on paper.
  • Practice your interview skills. Put together a panel of professors or appropriate professionals who would be willing to practice mock interviews for the job you want. Hear their feedback for improvement.
  • Attend job seminars organized by your university’s career center or your department. It’s never too early to start to get ready.
  • Identify people who can recommend you without reservations or questions. Approach them and ask if they would be willing to write a positive letter of recommendation on your behalf. 

4. Refine interpersonal skills. Professional success partly depends on other people. Be mindful of your interaction with others. Good relationships accrue goodwill, which translates into intangible capital. Unforeseen support and collaborations can always arise in unexpected places. Remember, you never know who will help you in the future. To this end:

  • Understand the social politics governing workplaces (even graduate programs have them). Listening well and being attentive allows you to recognize who and what can affect your career. It also allows you to be mindful of opportunities.
  • Practice being a sensible colleague. In grad school, the lines of friend and colleague can be blurred, but in the workplace such undefined boundaries can elicit unintended consequences. Rehearse professionalism.
  • Find professional networks and cultivate positive connections. These relations can materialize into future collaborations, references, or sources of information, among others.
  • Be mindful of your online identity. Social media conveys messages about you; use it to your advantage.
  • Be kind. Acknowledge others’ success and respect their failures. Class peers become future colleagues and prospective sources of professional collaborations and support.

5. Cultivate sanity and live your life. University and professional lives are only part of the building blocks of fulfillment. It is a good practice to find significance and serenity in ordinary existence. A balanced individual communicates stability and credibility. The professional world will notice. To this end:

  • Find interests that promote well-being in your life. Make them important.
  • Practice them, even if only once a week.
  • Engage in meaningful activities that make you happy.
  • Surround yourself with the people you love.

Finally, remember that knowledge does not land jobs, intelligence does; thus, be ingenious in building your professional future starting in grad school.


Karla P. Zepeda is associate professor of Spanish at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne. She recently co-edited with Ellen Mayock, Ernest Williams II Professor of Spanish at Washington and Lee University, a volume on careers in the humanities, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities: Advice for Academics (Sense Publishers 2014).


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