How to Illustrate Your Career Readiness Competencies

Dr. Joseph Barber

In a previous post, I highlighted examples of career readiness competencies that are being integrated into approaches to improve the career and professional development of students. While the original NACE competencies may have been developed primarily with undergraduates in mind, they are equally applicable to graduate students. Indeed, they may actually be far more important to graduate students because of the tendency of those students, as they approach the end of their academic programs, to suddenly realize they’ve totally forgotten how to talk about their strengths, skills and abilities to different types of audiences.

Some of the students I meet with at the University of Pennsylvania readily explain that the last application materials they created were for their entry into graduate school — sometimes five or more years ago — and that they have not applied or interviewed for anything that resembles a job or an internship since then. The consequence of this lack of practice is a great deal of verbal rustiness when it comes to presenting clear, illustrative narratives that describe skills and experiences — academic or otherwise.

Even in the most ideal situations, graduate students can feel a little awkward talking about their research to other academics. Describing the transferable skills that explain how they actually approached and completed their research can feel even more awkward, given the fact that they rarely discuss such skills in conversations with their advisers or other faculty members.

Are you, in fact, one such graduate student? If so, not to worry. There are many ways to practice and become more fluent in professionally appropriate, skills-based talking through networking. You can read about them in this post and this one.

You can also become more fluent in this language by thinking about career readiness competencies and using them as a starting point for illustrating your skills in action. And, yes, if you are wondering, focusing on career readiness competencies is just as appropriate for those seeking faculty positions as it is for those who are not.

Here are some suggestions for ways to think about such competencies in order to tell better stories to future employers and networking contacts about your research. Those competencies — and I’m using those that we are developing at Penn, adapted from the NACE ones – cover some of these areas.

Self-management and personal wellness. Interestingly, most job descriptions don’t list skills like resiliency or emotional empathy in the lists of skills employers often seek in ideal candidates. But everyone needs them. While you might not write about them in your application materials, they certainly pop up in interview questions such as “What has been your greatest mistake?” “How do you deal with failure?” or “How do you address conflict in a group situation?”

As researchers, the ability to provide examples that highlight resiliency should be easy. Research frequently doesn’t yield positive results, grant applications are not always successful, manuscripts are often turned away at first and so on. Your job is clearly not to bring up a long list of failures in interviews. But using these as context to explain how you responded to these setbacks, what you learned from the experiences and how you have used this knowledge in more recent situations can nicely demonstrate this competency in action. No one is perfect, and being able to talk positively and confidently about how you have looked failure in the eyes and moved on can be a narrative that appeals to employers looking for candidates with emotional maturity and strength.

Active listening and effective communication. Attending a conference where you are giving a presentation (or, in the case of some disciplines, where you are strangely reading word for word a research paper that the audience members could just read for themselves — come on, you must admit that this is a bizarre activity!), provides an opportunity to demonstrate public speaking skills. That’s great, until you see how students and postdocs often refer to such experiences in their application materials:

  • Barber, J. C. E., 2016. “Chickens are fab — a metaphysical analysis of the philosophical surrogating of domestic fowl.” The Third International Conference of Poultry Philosophy. Denver [Oral Presentation]

While it might be standard to list talks in this way in an academic CV, outside a faculty search committee no one is likely to find this an effective illustration of any sort of communication skills. And, in fact, one of the key attributes of the “Active Listening and Effective Communication” competency is to adapt communication approaches to different audiences.

The résumé and cover letter should illustrate this. In other words, you can’t just talk about other experiences where you adapted communication styles. The entire way you write and talk about yourself has to be one giant representation of this skill set in action. The language you use should be the language of the employer who will be reading the résumé. The skills you talk about should be the skills that are relevant to the job. Thus, I might reframe my oral presentation reference above to say, “Analyzed three fields of research on chickens and gave a multimedia presentation to an interdisciplinary audience of 300 that included philosophers, agriculture researchers and federal policy makers.”

It is helpful if you can describe your experiences by telling stories rather than just listing task after task. A good story describes some of the challenges and obstacles that your distinct set of skills, experiences and knowledge helped you to overcome, and it explains why you embarked on whatever experience you are talking about. People will remember your stories more than they remember the tasks you completed. In fact, people will understand your ideas better and will feel more connected to you and your work if you tell stories.

Need some help telling stories? Try integrating these six words, adapted from a presentation given by Dave Evans, a lecturer in the design program at Stanford University, at the 2016 Graduate Career Consortium annual meeting, into your next attempt to describe some of your research experiences:

  • Initiative: Why did you take on the research project in the way you did? What did you have to do to even get started?
  • Innovation: What was new about the questions you have been asking and the approaches you have been taking?
  • Implementation: How did you get your research going? What were the resources you found, and who were some of the people you connected with to help you? What obstacles were in your way?
  • Insight: What have you learned from doing it?
  • Iteration: What did you change along the way? How have you changed by doing it?
  • Impact: What did you find? Why is this important to your field and to the person you are talking to?

Critical thinking and problem solving. No one is going to doubt your ability, as a Ph.D. researcher, to think deep thoughts. Instead, many people may believe that you can only think deep thoughts, and they will wonder whether you are able to take your thinking and turn it into actions. To address that, you should consider and articulate some of the research-relevant decisions you have made along the way as you talk about aspects of your academic experience.

For example, don’t just say that your research focuses on X. Be ready to talk about why you chose this research topic in the first place. Given the infinite multitude of research projects that can exist, why did you pick this one?

Remember, the topic of the research itself is usually not going to be relevant to most audiences, so your particular story has to be more about the decision-making process than the research. You made the choice to ask certain questions — why? You chose the methodology and the approach to getting answers — why? And remember, while your research may not have solved any global problems, you definitely had to deal with challenges to conduct it. These could be challenges with methodologies, gaining access to resources, acquiring funding, getting along with your adviser or collaborators, and so on.

I have focused on reframing research experiences using these career readiness competencies, but most Ph.D. students and postdocs have done much more than just their research during their academic programs and training. All of these other experiences can also be used as the basis of skill-focused descriptions, narratives and stories. In my next post, I will focus on the other competencies from the list we are using at Penn: teamwork and collaboration, leadership and project management, professionalism and work ethic, and career management.

Author: Joseph

Joseph Barber is a Senior Associate Director at Career Services serving graduate students and postdocs. He has a PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, and continues to teach these subjects as an adjunct professor at Hunter College (CUNY).