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Communicating Your Skills for Employment

As a graduate student, you have a wealth of transferable skills that are applicable to so many different careers in a variety of sectors. Sometimes, employers are not aware of the many skills that you are developing throughout your graduate experience. Fortunately, you can help to lessen this barrier by communicating your skills, experiences, and achievements in a way that is meaningful and impactful for employers, so they will respond positively to your applications.

Consider the tasks that you did during your graduate degree(s). Then consider the skills that you used to complete those tasks successfully. This can help you to identify the skills that employers need. For example:

Task: Literature review
Skills: Finding and interpreting information, identifying relevant information, analyzing info, identifying trends and themes, making meaningful connections, written communication

Task: Thesis defence
Skills: Oral communication, presenting, defending ideas, responding to feedback, public speaking, thinking and performing under pressure

If you have trouble thinking of the skills you used, break your tasks up into smaller tasks. For example:

Task: Graded student work

Smaller task: Looked for errors
Skills: Attention to detail, ability to identify mistakes

Smaller task: Wrote suggestions for improvement
Skills: Provided feedback in a way that students could understand, communicated clearly in writing

Smaller task: Assigned grade
Skills: Evaluated and assessed quality of work

Some common skills that many graduate students obtain during their degrees:

  • Written communication
    • Persuasion (proposal and grant writing)
    • Report writing
    • Defending conclusions in writing
  • Research
    • Finding information
    • Synthesizing information
    • Analyzing data
    • Making connections
    • Measuring and assessing results
  • Oral communication
    • Facilitating group discussions
    • Teaching 
    • Orally defending conclusions
    • Explaining complex concepts in to make them easier to understand
  • Critical thinking
    • Defining problems
    • Asking meaningful questions
    • Looking at problems from multiple viewpoints
    • Evaluating information
  • Thinking
    • Understanding and organizing large amounts of information
    • Coming to conclusions
    • Determining what information is important
    • Creative problem solving
    • Generating ideas and solutions
    • Troubleshooting
    • Learning
    • Applying learned knowledge
  • Work ethic
    • A proven desire, willingness, and ability to learn
    • Perseverance
    • Receiving and incorporating feedback
    • Taking direction
    • Dedication
    • Collaboration
    • Flexibility (especially if your thesis does not go as planned!)
  • Project management
    • Planning (designing experiments and research methods)
    • Creating and implementing timelines
    • Making recommendations
    • Managing projects from start to finish
    • Prioritizing and managing information and tasks
    • Evaluating ideas and outcomes
    • Thinking strategically to finish project and to problem solve
    • Creating and following a budget
    • Managing groups (teaching classes)
    • Personal initiative and the ability to work independently with little supervision
    • Reporting outcomes

Providing evidence of your skills

When communicating these skills to potential employers, you want to be sure that you provide evidence of your skills by showing how you demonstrated the skills. To say “I have excellent communication skills” means little to an employer when anyone can claim the same; however, by backing up your skills with experience (“I have orally presented my work as a poster where I effectively explained complex concepts to people in a variety of fields”), the employer can get a sense of how you have used your skills to find success and begin to understand how you can help them.

Focus on relevant skills

You will choose the skills you want to highlight according to the job, company, and sector requirements and demands. This means that you will likely vary in the skills that you strongly emphasize in your application. For every job that interests you, think, "how can my skills help with the employer's/company's success? How will my skills fit?" If you can answer these questions for the employer, the employer will be able to see the benefit of hiring you.

Communicating your skills in writing (resume/cover letter)

You want all of your experience, including your academic experience, to read as the valuable experience that it is, especially if you lack non-academic experience (or experience outside of the university). You want employers to understand the many skills you have developed in your experience. This can be accomplished by formulating strong skills statements to communicate the skills you have to offer and to provide evidence of times when you demonstrated those skills. 

To do this, ask yourself:

  • What skills do I have that the employer requires?
  • Where have I demonstrated this skill?  
  • Do I have any measurable achievements that my use of this skill produced?
  • How can I write this in an efficient way (one or two sentences) that will allow the employer to visualize how I have used this skill successfully in the past?

To write these statements in a way that will be meaningful to employers, include your skill (stated as the action you took) and the result (which is most effective when supported by measurables).

For example, instead of simply stating you have strong written communication skills or persuasion skills:

  • Action: wrote proposal
  • Result: secured $150,000 of funding

Statement: Wrote a successful proposal, securing $150,000 of funding for our research. 

Communicating your skills orally (interview/networking)

  • Whenever possible, even if it was not necessarily requested, provide examples of situations where you have demonstrated your skills.
  • When discussing these situations, use the STAR method to illustrate the example clearly:
    • Situation: where/when/with whom did this example happen? Set the stage for your example.
    • Task: What was it that you had to do? What was the challenge or problem?  
    • Action: What did you actually do? Why did you do this? What specific steps did you take?
    • Result: What was the result of the action that you took? What was positive about it? What did you learn?

Don’t wait to identify your transferable skills until you are actively looking for a job. If you are regularly and constantly evaluating your tasks and skills, you will have a better idea of how you have identified these skills and you are less likely to miss any skills. You will also be more cognizant of situations in which you are demonstrating these skills, making it easier for you to identify and communicate them to prospective employers.

PhD Transferable Skills: https://careercenter.umich.edu/article/phd-transferable-skills 

Bringing together PhD skills expected of students in the UK, as outlined in the Joint Statement of the Research Councils and AHRB: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/2014

 

For more information, see our Communicating Your Skills for Employment tip sheet or see a career advisor.