Exploring Your Skills

Students who have pursued an eight-week career exploration have expanded their collaboration and interpersonal skills in unexpected ways, writes Laura N. Schram.

April 25, 2016

For the past year, I have had the opportunity to work with humanities students who have taken on a substantive project outside of their departments through the University of Michigan’s Mellon Public Humanities Fellowship program. Although they were not full-time jobs but rather career exploration experiences of just eight to 10 weeks, students found that they gained increased career clarity and significantly expanded their skill sets. Through working with students, I learned five useful lessons for Ph.D. students about the value of such experiences.

Lesson 1: Examine any negative assumptions about skills. Before sharing some lessons about the power of a career exploration for the development of skills, it is important to acknowledge that a discussion of skills with Ph.D. students, particularly in the humanities, can be countercultural. A rejection of thinking about one’s skills can be a barrier to professional growth for some graduate students.

As Miriam Bartha (2009) pointed out in her excellent keyword essay on skill in the humanities, “Scholarly identities are most often conceived and developed in terms of subject and content knowledge, rather than performative skills. Consequently, the discourse of 'skills' figures only marginally in advanced graduate education and professional training. Discussions of skill are instead relegated to 'functional’ service domains like language learning and composition. In critical discussions, they are frequently and pejoratively associated with technologies and cultures of management, an instrumentalization of knowledge, and an educational culture that uncritically reproduces workers.”

If you find yourself cringing when you hear the term “skill,” that could be a product of the culture of skepticism in your field around the concept. Merriam-Webster defines skill simply as “the ability to do something that comes from training, experience or practice.” If you are pursuing your Ph.D., you are gaining highly specialized training, experience and practice in your field. Examine any negative assumptions you might have about articulating your own skills -- the abilities you have due to your specialized training, experience and practice -- to avoid conceptual barriers to learning from your career exploration experiences.

Lesson 2: Believe you have transferable skills. It is valuable regardless of your desired career path to step back and take the time to reflect on your own skills. You should think about which areas you most want to grow before engaging in a new professional experience -- whether that is starting up a lab for the first time or developing a social media communication strategy for a community foundation.

To be clear, when talking about transferable skills, professional development experts mean those that you acquire in one work setting that can be productively applied in another. In other words, you gain abilities through your doctoral work that have relevance in other contexts, and your training -- whether that is in grant writing, running a lab, teaching a course or leading a committee -- can be brought from that context into a new one.

As one of our fellows, Bonnie Applebeet, a Ph.D. candidate in American culture, put it, “I was surprised at how much my doctoral training and experience in ethnography would inform my Mellon work. Part of my mission in the short internship-like program was to build relationships and conduct interviews with alumni. I found that, just as much as relying on my skills as a writer, I was relying on my ability to ask questions in ways that opened up pathways for compelling narratives and trusting connections. It not only was a skill that my work site valued, it was a skill that I was not previously aware that I had.”

Examples of categories of transferable skills that are especially relevant for scholars include analysis, research, project management, writing, teaching and communication skills. While Bartha wisely cautions us from equating professional and social network contexts when thinking about the ease of transferring scholarly skills into other professional employment, many of the abilities that scholars gain through their specialized training and practice can be extremely valuable in other professional domains.

Before they began their summer fellowships, I interviewed public humanities fellows and presented them with a list of 47 Ph.D. transferable skills. I asked those students to reflect on the list for a few minutes, and identify skills they would like to develop in their eight-week job experiences. Although I had created this exercise to help me to evaluate the skills graduate students developed through the program, many students said it was their first time in their graduate education to reflect deliberately about their own skills.

Several students were so enlightened by seeing a list of Ph.D. transferable skills that they asked to take the list home with them for further reflection and to help them improve their job documents (e.g., CVs, résumés and cover letters). Students easily recognized the many transferable skills they had gained through their scholarship, and found value in reflecting on those abilities and how they might both articulate them to employers in and beyond academe and expand upon them in new ways.

Take the time to reflect on your transferable skills using online resources, such as this shorter list of skills from the University of Michigan’s Career Center. The American Historical Association’s Tuning Project also has a useful list of core skills for historians.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate how quickly you can acquire skills. Taking on a project by pursuing an eight-week, part-time job opportunity can expand your existing skills in more ways than you might expect. That amount of time is similar to what you spend in a typical semester-long graduate course, which you expect to expand your skill set and knowledge base. By working in a new setting for a relatively short time, you can expand your range of transferable skills even more than you might anticipate.

In my initial conversations with public humanities fellows, they identified a range of skills they hoped to broaden in their eight-week career explorations. After five weeks, I reconnected with each of them and asked them to reconsider the same list of skills and assess what skills they would say they had developed thus far. Universally, students listed more skills than they had anticipated gaining in our first discussion. Students obtained clarity about and enlarged their transferable skill sets.

In addition to gaining more skills than expected, job experience developed the students’ skills in areas they had not necessarily anticipated. The top five unexpected skill gains included: forging effective relationships through improved communication (“managing up”), cooperating and collaborating on team projects, networking and forming new collaborative relationships in and outside the organization, managing projects from beginning to end, and implementing plans or solutions. Interestingly, three of the five most unexpected skill gains were in the broader area of collaboration and interpersonal skills, which often are neglected during solitary academic study and research. The takeaway is that you can expand your capacities in a range of unexpected ways through a relatively short career exploration.

Lesson 4: Broaden your skills outside of your department. Take advantage of professional growth opportunities that come your way outside of your departmental comfort zone. As Bartha notes, skills are not automatically transferable, and social networks are key to employment success. Working in a new setting helps to foster the transferability of your skills while you simultaneously build your professional network.

In fact, the process of translating skills from one setting to another is a skill in itself, so working outside of your department can broaden your skill base simply through working out how to translate your skills in a new setting. And you need not have a formal internship or fellowship program at your institution to identify these opportunities.

For example, when I was a doctoral student, I always found the most joy in teaching and talking about teaching with colleagues, and was drawn to activities like being the graduate student teaching mentor in my department. I sought out professional development workshops at my campus’s teaching center, and applied for part-time pedagogy-related employment opportunities outside of my department. It was through this series of smaller engagements that I developed confidence and career clarity, and ultimately pursued a career in educational development. If you have an interest in a career option beyond a faculty position in your discipline, look for professional opportunities outside of your department to engage in that area.

Lesson 5: Skill building is not a zero-sum game. An objection that I often hear before doctoral students are willing to explore professional opportunities outside of their departments, even for a short time, is that any project outside of the department takes away from one’s scholarly progress. However, my professional engagement with my campus’s teaching center didn’t detract from my scholarly training. Rather, those experiences made me a much more reflective and effective teacher, which is a core role for any faculty member. And several of our public humanities fellows have already gone on to faculty positions, and attested to the value of their work experiences outside of their departments in securing those jobs where digital humanities or public scholarship skills were highly valued.

As one Mellon Fellow, Marie Stango, a Ph.D. candidate in history, shared with me: “My fellowship experience at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit was intellectually valuable and helped me think about my dissertation research in new ways. My work at the museum has influenced both my research and teaching. I am planning to write an article on public monuments and memorials that relate to my research, and I have created a syllabus for a class on the memory of the Civil War that focuses on its changing interpretations over time. I'm not sure I would have thought about either of these projects if I didn't step outside of the dissertation writing to do this work. My museum work featured prominently in my cover letters, and it was something I talked about in each of my interviews for tenure-track jobs in history departments this past year.”

Such experiences need not diminish your skills as a future faculty member. In fact, an expanded skill set is valuable for both future faculty members and for scholars working beyond academe. As I noted earlier, students who pursued an eight-week career exploration expanded their collaboration and interpersonal skills in unexpected ways. What they learned was valuable not only for junior faculty members who will serve on committees or work on collaborative research projects but also those who might pursue a career path at a foundation where they would be collaborating with colleagues, grantees and funders.

Furthermore, through pursuing opportunities in a new professional setting, the students with whom I worked reported that they expanded their core scholarly skills, such as the abilities to link ideas, identify sources of information applicable to a given problem, teach skills or concepts to others, and effectively convey complex information. Thus, ultimately, while you develop core skills through your scholarly work in your department, you can also expand that skill set through applying those skills in a variety of settings outside of the department.


Laura N. Schram is academic program officer at the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan, where she coordinates the Mellon Public Humanities programs to expand and reimagine doctoral training in the humanities.


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