Preparing for a Rapidly Changing World of Work

Sonali Majumdar highlights why grad students and postdocs should identify emerging employment trends, develop durable skills and ultimately adapt a growth mind-set for professional success.

February 28, 2022
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The rapid emergence and growth of new professional areas and fields is changing how we approach careers. Therefore, graduate students and postdocs need to be versatile and agile when preparing for their future professional lives. While the current labor market in the United States—beyond traditional tenure-track faculty jobs—is favorable for advanced-degree candidates, navigating and succeeding in a rapidly changing professional landscape will require a willingness to learn and apply new skills.

In other words, the concept of a growth mind-set—the idea introduced by Carol Dweck that talent can be developed through hard work, good strategies and input from others—is crucial for professional success. How can grad students and postdocs best apply that mind-set? How can they identify, assess and develop desired and durable skills in emerging professions that will lead to career preparation and success?

Investigating Trends

In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of self-knowledge in preparing for the future of work. At the same time, it is vital to understand why the world of work is changing rapidly and to observe trends in order to devise an appropriate career-preparation strategy.

Some of the fastest-growing jobs in past five years are vaccine specialist, machine learning engineer, UX researcher, process development scientist and diversity, equity and inclusion manager. Many factors are probably contributing to growth in those fields. First, global societies are tackling complex, multifaceted challenges like climate change, democracy, global health, precision medicine and the ethics of artificial intelligence. Such challenges require evidence-based decisions, human-centered design and interdisciplinary teams and partnerships across sectors— higher education, industry, government and nonprofit and local community organizations.

Second, digitization and hybrid approaches, which accelerated during the pandemic, have changed the ways we work and collaborate. Third, owing to higher awareness and advocacy of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, as well as sustainability, most professional sectors are striving to create supportive workplaces for multicultural, diverse employees and to engage in socially and environmentally responsible practices. The fastest-growing jobs cater to a combination of solving urgent interdisciplinary problems and supporting a global, multicultural and diverse workforce operating in digital and hybrid environments.

To observe such trends in action at your own university, you should pay attention to new research investments and areas of focus by reading annual reports generated by your university’s office of research. Educate yourself on the underlying diversification of funding that now includes institutional awards and private sector support in addition to established government and nonprofit funding streams.

To understand the future, you need to expand your knowledge of diverse professions, job functions and sectors, because new and emerging jobs hold the promise of intellectual stimulation, meaningful and purpose-driven work, and societal impact.

Collecting Data

You should gain knowledge of jobs in a range of sectors and understand the skills required to thrive in those jobs, ideally long before you enter the job market. You can try following approaches:

Mining job description. Get into the habit of regularly reading job descriptions to learn about new and interesting positions. For those that pique your interest, list the skills and qualifications that are both required and preferred. In fact, create a spreadsheet to document the expected skills in the various careers of interest to you. If you are analytical like me, you can give higher scores and weights to skills that are consistently desired for positions of interest by employers across sectors. Look for jobs on platforms like Inside Higher Ed and LinkedIn or peruse sample jobs on Imagine Ph.D. and field-specific job Listservs (e.g., DOC Jobs, SciPol jobs).

Attempt job simulations. To understand the tasks and responsibilities involved in specific jobs, attempt simulations. Job simulations such as InterSECT provide interactive exercises to provide clarity of typical tasks in a range of jobs and a glimpse of the daily lives of professionals. Each exercise also highlights the skills typically applied in those jobs, providing more input data for your spreadsheet.

Talk to people. At the end of the day, people are the best guides. Connect with professionals in careers and organizations of interest, and request informational interviews with them to gain deeper understanding such as:

  • desired skills for getting the job and succeeding in it;
  • fluency level expected, such as what constitutes basic, intermediate and advanced skills;
  • the organization’s investment in employee professional development and well-being;
  • leadership structures and cultures within organizations; and
  • the institutional commitment to inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

Use the data that you obtain from informational interviews to validate or further examine the skills in your skills spreadsheet. As with research, you must talk to multiple sources to determine consistent information (data) versus outliers.

Along with collecting information about jobs, you should reflect on whether those jobs align with your values and interests. Self-reflection will assist you in eliminating jobs that aren’t good fit, allowing you to instead focus on those where you will find joy and meaning. You should strike a balance between practical choices and fulfillment.

Self-Assessing and Upskilling

Assess whether your graduate and postdoc training equipped you with the skills you’ll need in the jobs of interest to you. You may want to gain further skills and experience to match the level of fluency expected for success. If you start assessing your skills early, you can spend some time on upskilling and experiential learning in the final years of your training.

For gaining skills, participate in universitywide professional development programs, access LinkedIn Learning or Coursera courses afforded by your university, and explore opportunities to audit courses offered in other departments. For experiential learning, explore project-based learning (e.g., MindSumo), internships and leadership and service opportunities.

That said, don’t overextend yourself in trying to match all the skills and qualifications for a specific role. Typically, employers invest in the upskilling, mentoring and professional development of prospective and current employees (e.g., Bridge to Consulting programs). To garner employers’ trust and appreciation, you can and should convey in interviews your commitment to learn new skills by referencing prior experiences.

The Half-Life of Skills

Professional skills are broadly categorized into technical skills and human skills, traditionally called “hard” and “soft” skills, respectively. Research suggests that, at present, technical skills have an average half-life (the time it takes for one half of something to decay) of five years. They are perishable and have a relatively short half-life due to rapid advancement of technology. Think of every time you had to learn a new platform or technique to match the current standards and best practices in your field of research and teaching.

In contrast, human skills are more durable. They include the ability to learn quickly, think critically, solve problems and communicate effectively to diverse stakeholders, as well as the leadership, management and collaboration skills required in a global multicultural workforce. Although you may be hired in your first job due to your domain knowledge and technical skills, such human skills will influence your long-term career trajectory.

During Ph.D. and postdoc training, you get plenty of opportunities to hone durable human skills, and you should develop them rather than focusing predominantly on perishable technical skills. Leverage storytelling to identify and communicate how your graduate and postdoc training fosters those human skills, and then work to translate that for each specific audience.

In an ever-changing world of work where skills can rapidly become obsolete, two attributes are crucial for success. A growth mind-set—reflected by initiative to venture into new domains, learn new skills and seek mentorship—is the first required attribute. Agility to adapt to frequent changes is the second. As a Ph.D. student and postdoc, you are learning about yourself, solving problems, creating as well as expanding knowledge and adjusting plans due to unpredictable directions and outcomes. If you aren’t highlighting a growth mind-set and agility as core skills intrinsic to the Ph.D. experience, you are undermining sought-after superpowers.

Ultimately, graduate and postdoc training is inherently a journey of learning, development and re-invention. Those attributes will not only serve you well in current training, but they also offer a map for success for the evolving employment landscape of the future.

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Sonali Majumdar is an associate director of professional development in the University of Virginia’s Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs. She is 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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