Articulating Adaptability

Adaptability is a career skill many employers seek, writes Robert Pearson, but a certain pervasive platitude can keep you from achieving it.

October 14, 2019
 
 
Istockphoto.com/Feodora Chiosea

At a recent information session with professionals working in a boutique consulting firm, one graduate student in the audience asked the panelists whether the firm hires Ph.D.s in their field. The panelist’s answer, which was not really a yes or a no, echoed a response I hear often from employers in industries that do not necessarily have a long history of hiring at the Ph.D. level. “The discipline of a job candidate’s Ph.D.,” the consultant said, “is less important than the skills they bring to the table.”

On this occasion, the consultants on the panel singled out skills like the ability to quickly become an expert in new industries, to make persuasive arguments confidently and eloquently, to connect with different kinds of people, and to ask insightful and strategic questions. “We need people who are adaptable,” they said.

I believe that graduate school does, in fact, prepare you to be adaptable in all the ways the consultant described. But popular notions around what it means to be a graduate student can impede the ability to be adaptable in your career.

Adaptability is arguably one of the most important skills a job candidate can possess; certainly, it is a desirable one. In the 2019 Job Outlook survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 58.4 percent of employers cited adaptability/flexibility as one of the skills most valued in job candidates. Simply scanning job descriptions in diverse career paths followed by Ph.D.s bears this out. Whether in technology transfer, policy, consulting, UX design or business development, adaptability in one form or another stands out as an important skill for Ph.D.s who are interested in diverse careers.

But the idea that adaptability is a necessary skill that you can cultivate conflicts directly with one of the most pervasive and problematic platitudes about career development: that you must follow your singular passion and pursue it obsessively if you are to find satisfaction or success in your career. I often see evidence that this platitude shapes how some graduate students relate to their work, and I find it to be one of the primary obstacles to achieving adaptability in their career.

In my previous career as a faculty member in musicology, I spent four years teaching up-and-coming professional musicians. During that time, I witnessed some of my graduate students dedicating hours upon hours to solitary practice of their technique and artistry, often sacrificing their basic needs like community, sleep and nutrition, even against the advice of their teachers. This notion of the starving artist resembles in some ways the trope of the overworked graduate student caricatured in popular culture.

When I applied to graduate school in musicology back in 2004, I found few resources to help graduate students think about how graduate training would prepare them for diverse career options. One series of articles circulated at the time was called, “So You Want to Go to Graduate School?” The articles sought to warn prospective graduate students in the humanities about the realities of academic life and their supposedly bleak career prospects. Many of those warnings about the path upon which I was about to embark were indeed true and very helpful, but what stuck most firmly in my mind through the years was this quote from Part II in the series: “But any student who is discouraged by these warnings probably lacks the determination and psychological resilience to make it through the process.”

In light of today’s crisis around graduate student mental health, that statement, which attributes success in graduate school to psychological resilience, is deeply concerning. At the time, however, I often returned to this logic to justify prioritizing my devotion to musicology above my basic needs. I did so even during the most psychologically difficult periods in my life, including devastating personal losses, the departure of my mentor, frequent disappointments on the job market and friendships rattled by a relentless culture of academic competition. I can’t say whether I demonstrated psychological resilience in graduate school, but I can say that I was so focused on my singular pursuit of a career in my field that I couldn’t comprehend the range of valuable skills I acquired along the way, especially my ability to adapt.

Ways to Demonstrate Your Adaptability

What does it mean to be adaptable, and how does graduate school prepare you to adapt to diverse career paths? In the rest of this article, I’ll outline some thoughts about adaptability as well as some starting points to help you articulate how your work as a graduate student relates to adaptability. These examples are drawn from my own personal experiences and those of graduate students and postdocs with whom I’ve worked. I encourage you to think about how the facets of adaptability I outline below have impacted your own distinct graduate school experience.

Engaging with secondary literature in your doctoral dissertation prepares you to adapt ideas and information in light of varying contexts. In most fields, your doctoral dissertation consists of an original argument supported through research and deep engagement with existing scholarly literature. Perhaps your argument presents a new way of looking at old evidence, or perhaps you uncovered new evidence to support or refine an existing idea. You may need to compose a literature review that formally contextualizes your research in relation to pre-existing scholarship. This process of situating your ideas in various scholarly contexts and refining your argument to consider related work trains graduate students to be intellectually agile -- and is an important component of adaptability.

Talking about your research with people outside your field helps you practice connecting with people whose level of expertise differs from yours. Some graduate programs have developed trainings for graduate students in science communication and have organized public communication programs like Three-Minute Thesis. Such formal programs train you to choose language and delivery modalities that are considerate of the needs of your audience, to draw comparisons with familiar concepts to illustrate your work’s complexities and to focus on your work’s potential applications or biggest research questions to emphasize its importance.

There are creative ways to practice this skill, too. One graduate student whom I worked with challenged herself to find creative ways to talk about her latest scientific work with her parents. In my field of musicology, some people exercise this skill of communicating with diverse audiences through writing concert program notes, which are written guides that draw upon music history and theory to help enrich audiences’ musical experience. Whether talking about your research with people at interdisciplinary conferences, with other graduate students from different programs or your friends and family back home, you demonstrate adaptable communication.

During graduate school, which may occupy well over five years of your life, you will undoubtedly have to respond to unexpected challenges in your life and work. I have witnessed graduate students adapting to all kinds of professional surprises, like research projects suddenly taking longer than expected, scholarly interests changing, experiments that don’t pan out, surprise job offers from industry and moving due to family needs. My own graduate experience was full of surprises, including a mentor who took another position elsewhere in my second year. What matters most is how you learn to adapt to unexpected challenges nimbly and do your best to chart a new course, while being mindful of the potential for future uncertainty.

The most important way to be adaptable is to be open to how your graduate education has prepared you to imagine new and creative ways to exist in the world. The career possibilities for graduate students are diversifying and expanding rapidly, and you should take intentional steps to research careers and employers, including the range of options within academe. It is possible, maybe even likely, that your scholarly work will matter in ways you cannot yet envision. Those who are most adaptable will be the first to approach this new horizon.

Bio

Robert Pearson is assistant dean of professional development and career planning at Emory University and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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