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As graduate job seekers prepared for faculty and industry openings this fall, we hosted a cover letter workshop that one participant, reflecting the views of others, characterized as “the best one I’ve been to.” Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars across disciplines—communication, textile sciences, agriculture, engineering and others—attended the workshop, which featured hands-on learning activities. Along with résumés and curriculum vitae, cover letters are a high-stakes genre for graduate and postdoctoral writers, as those writers must show in just a few paragraphs how their experiences align with a specific position and workplace community.
Providing a supportive environment for instruction in how to create such job application materials is crucial, especially for multilingual international trainees, and participants in our workshop had the advantage of hearing from two leaders with distinct perspectives on writing for the job search: one of us, Katie, is the director of writing programs, and the other, Kelly, is the director of career readiness on the professional development team at North Carolina State University’s Graduate School.
As we debriefed the session, we thought about the distinct, valuable perspectives and affordances that writing support and career development professionals can leverage together to assist graduate and postdoc trainees who are composing materials for the job search. Despite the rise of AI tools to assist with drafting job application materials, applicants must still craft and instill a human voice in these materials that shows their fit with specific organizations, and employers still view these applications as writing samples that demonstrate applicants’ transferable skills. In this column, we present some of our takeaways from our recent collaborations and give advice to other writing and career development professionals for creating effective campus partnerships.
Preparing Job Seekers With Distinct Perspectives
Effective communication is vital in every role, regardless of career goals. As a job seeker, the individual needs to strategically think through how best to communicate their skills and experiences in a way that resonates with the intended audience. That can be especially challenging for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, because their research and experiences may not obviously translate into the role(s) that they are applying for.
Writing specialists bring a distinct perspective and understanding about how to tell the story of a career journey in a way that is concise, relevant and cohesive. A job seeker’s application materials must demonstrate not only what they have done in terms of transferable skills but also why they are a qualified candidate. The résumé and cover letter are crucial components of the job search process, so they must be written in a compelling way that will entice the employer to continue the conversation. Writing specialists can provide the expertise and technical guidance that job seekers need to accomplish that.
For their part, career development leaders bring knowledge of what employers in not only higher education but also outside it—in private industry, nonprofits and government—are looking for in job seekers with advanced degrees. They can explain how an employer, such as a hiring manager, interprets cover letters and résumés, as well as the latest trends in automated applicant tracking systems. By modeling the thinking processes of employers during the hiring cycle, career development professionals can help graduate and postdoc trainees create scannable application materials that effectively highlight their skills and experiences in the language of employers. They can also challenge trainees to explain the relevance of their research in everyday terms and make their materials accessible to audiences with varying levels of subject matter expertise.
Opportunities for Collaboration
Career development and writing professionals can find many opportunities to collaborate across their campus community. Career development should never be a siloed approach—especially in a job search—and if you are a professional in that field, you should bring others into the process to gain their perspective, network and learn best practices for success. While you can provide career coaching and steer students toward high-impact opportunities in a variety of fields, writing experts will bring the valued perspective of how to communicate effectively, regardless of audience.
As you both think through opportunities for collaboration on your campus, identify ways in which you can host workshops and events that incorporate direct feedback for participants. We found in conducting our workshop that graduate students and postdocs had specific questions about how to communicate their research and other university experiences through a thoughtful, strategic approach. As a result, we were able to use our expertise to provide tailored answers for each participant.
Cross-promoting programs always helps to make graduate students and postdoctoral scholars aware of the network of people and programs that can support them in their professional journeys. But it is even better to co-facilitate presentations or hands-on workshops that showcase the expertise of both writing and career development experts. Participants can get more individualized feedback from several facilitators as well as differing perspectives that mirror those of the employers who will read their job materials.
For example, at our recent cover letter workshop, we supplemented a generic Kahoot! quiz game that we used to open the session. Working together, we customized the learning experience by leading small groups based on participants’ career interests in industry or academia. Those small groups discussed sample job ads in their respective sectors and critiqued AI-generated cover letters to understand the best practices for both academic and industry cover letters. In addition, writing professionals and career development leaders can collaborate to develop asynchronous resources like webpages and videos to bring their complementary perspectives and advice to larger graduate and postdoctoral audiences.
Advice for the Future
Career development professionals have the tools and goal-oriented strategies that span across industries. Each career journey is distinct, so career development professionals can support and encourage job seekers to explore and prepare for that journey in a tailored, thoughtful and strategic approach. A job search process, for example, involves a lot of steps and can be intimidating. Career development professionals can assist in navigating those various components through leveraging their career community, providing insight into industry trends and identifying ways to best communicate the career competencies laid out by the National Association of Colleges and Employers throughout the process. And, working with campus colleagues, such as writing professionals, they can provide additional opportunities for feedback, practice and reflection.
Similarly, graduate writing professionals often have years of experience teaching communication skills in general education courses, and they can draw on those experiences to engage graduate and postdoctoral trainees in the co-curricular settings of career and professional development programming. From teaching writing to undergraduate populations, for instance, they have honed active learning strategies that encourage learners to interact with the material, relate it to themselves and connect with others to strengthen their skills and achieve common learning goals. Such active learning strategies are especially beneficial to graduate and postdoctoral scholars as adult learners creating high-stakes written documents for their job searches.
Graduate writing professionals may also have specialized training in working with multilingual students, such as TESOL certification, that they can use to help international graduate and postdoctoral scholars develop confidence in their speaking and writing skills throughout the job search. They are skillful at guiding language learners to notice how distinct linguistic features of texts relate to their communicative purposes, such as how writers use active verbs and quantify results to describe their work on résumés.
In short, as career development and writing professionals, we should identify whom we already are connected with on our campus as well as new colleagues to collaborate with in support of graduate and postdoctoral trainees’ success in professional development. We don’t always have to create a program or workshop from scratch. Instead, think about what is pre-existing and identify ways to enhance that. Together, we are skilled in helping job seekers articulate the value proposition of their research, skills and experiences for diverse audiences, and our student populations will benefit from hearing the intersecting and diverse ways that we approach this challenging task.