A Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Landing a Job


By Helen Bothwell

Many of our readers and contributing early career ecologists are at that point in their careers where they are transitioning from graduate school life to that thing we have been working towards for so long – a job!  For those of you who have jumped that hurdle and successfully landed positions, I welcome your advice and suggestions from the trenches on this topic.

In a recent publication in Conservation Biology, Blickley et al. (2012) presented a “Graduate student’s guide to necessary skills for nonacademic conservation careers.”  While they focused on conservation jobs, their findings are broadly applicable to students preparing for numerous careers in the sciences.  At the heart of their study is the notion that graduate coursework and thesis or dissertation research don’t necessarily translate into skill sets essential for the job market.  A well-respected scientist once told me that a graduate degree is kind of the booby prize.  To be competitive in the job market, there are many additional skills we need to be developing beyond the minimum requirements of a graduate degree.

It begins with knowing your target job sector.  While many qualifications are shared across sectors, familiarizing yourself with various job posting venues long before you intend on actually applying, and zeroing in on skill sets common across your ideal positions will help in identifying a target set of skills that will serve your own specific goals.  This can give you that leg up by identifying areas of deficiency with plenty of time to address them before it’s time to actually apply.  An early start, self-awareness, and evaluation are key.

From their search of public databases (e.g., Ecolog, USAjobs, and numerous state government job boards), Blickley et al. (2012) analyzed 60 job advertisements across government, private, and non-profit sectors to determine key skills that employers are searching for.  Beyond specific disciplinary skills, all three sectors were consistent in noting project management as the top desired skill.  Interpersonal and program leadership skills were close behind, with networking and written communication also in the top five.  They also noted that broad experience can be a signal of flexibility, a potential indication to employers that you will be able to adapt as new challenges arise.

So what do these skills look like in action, and how do we signal competency in them throughout the interview process?  First, let’s look at project management.  Blickley et al. (2012) found no consensus that managing a graduate research project was sufficient.  Because student involvement varies widely in the degree of involvement in project design, organization, and implementation, many employers wanted to see additional experience in activities such as organizing a conference, managing a fundraising campaign, or mentoring undergraduate research assistants.

Good evidence of interpersonal skills can be signaled through involvement in collaborative projects, such as being a co-author on papers or grant proposals.  The interview process itself is one of the best opportunities to highlight your interpersonal communication skills.  While the experience can be nerve racking, this is your chance to shine and make a personal connection with your potential future employer.  The more practice you gain, (hopefully) the more comfortable you will be.  It’s not a bad idea to set up informational interviews with potential employers.  Even if a job doesn’t exist at that moment, you can gain practice in the interviewing process while obtaining a better idea of what various employers are looking for.  This also gets your name out there.  The old adage, “It’s all about who you know,” does hold some weight.  People tend to be more comfortable with and trusting of those they are familiar with.  Maybe when that job finally does come up, they will remember you over unfamiliar, new applicants.

Similar to project management, Blickley et al. (2012) found that writing a thesis or dissertation was often not regarded as sufficient indication of written communication skills, as these typically go through a heavy editing process involving the student’s graduate committee.  Proposals and grant writing can be important indicators of written communication skills, particularly if there is a demonstrated record of success.  While it is disenheartening to spend weeks or more writing a grant that doesn’t get funded, I am a firm believer that the experience of the writing process is well worth it either way.  Each grant or fellowship application you write makes the next one easier as you keep fine tuning the organization and presentation of your research.  You can’t get funding if you don’t try, and each successful grant makes it easier to get future funding as you can show that other agencies have valued your work and ability to carry it through.

Volunteering or interning with outside organizations can provide valuable experience working within a professional infrastructure and culture.  The Pathways Program (formerly Student Career Experience Program (SCEP)) through the U.S. federal government and the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program through the National Science Foundation both provide a framework for obtaining experience with professional organizations through project-based internships in addition to providing graduate support.  The IGERT program in particular emphasizes the development of communication skills across different fields and between academic and non-academic sectors within one’s surrounding community.  I highly recommend taking advantage of programs such as these.

The general consensus from this article, as well as from my own experience, is that it is vital to be proactive about your graduate experience.  Like most things, you get out of it what you put in, and going beyond the basic requirements of your program will only serve you in the future.  While many of the skills Blickley et al. (2012) note as essential for non-academic sector employment also cross over to those of us looking for academic sector jobs, there are a few additional things graduate students should be doing if they choose that latter path.  From my own searches of academic position job postings, mentoring experience and proven ability to secure outside funding through grants make frequent appearances.  Hiring committees also want to see evidence of contributing to service within the department.  Sitting on hiring committees, graduate search committees, and volunteering to be a graduate representative to faculty meetings are all excellent ways to show your willingness to contribute to all those extra things it takes to keep a department running smoothly.  These volunteer positions also provide valuable behind-the-scenes looks at other responsibilities you will be expected to take on as a faculty member and active contributor to the departmental community.

Graduating in a timely manner is essential, and it is no big surprise that developing additional skills takes time.  Yet, balancing your time wisely so that you’re able to gain these extra skills can mean the differences between settling for a job versus securing your ideal position.  So make the most of your graduate experience, and build a resume that will give you that competitive edge!

8 thoughts on “A Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Landing a Job

  1. I agree with Helen’s analysis on building skills that make one marketable within the academic market and am really glad she highlights the recent and timely Blickley paper. Still, I think that the skill that is most commonly excluded from graduate life, especially for those looking to enter government, non-profits and consulting, is networking. Sure landing a job is all about what you know, but it is very much also about who you know, and more importantly, who knows you. Because consultants and non-profits* aren’t scoring you on your H-index or scouring the literature to see how many times you’ve been cited in Science, one needs to get out, pound the pavement, shake hands and meet people. You liked non-profit director x’s post on a conservation blog? Let her know. You enjoyed state natural heritage program lead y’s talk at a conference last year? Give her the compliment. Emeritus guru-turned-consultant z had an op-ed in Nature? Let him know what you thought. You never know when that tangential friend of a collaborator will recognize your name in a sea of hundreds of applicants.

    Networking is awful business code-speak for having sincere interactions with people (sometimes loosely) working within your field or profession. So, don’t try too hard, but put yourself and your skills out there with people you genuinely want to know whenever the opportunity arises e.g. conferences, green drinks, local non-profit events, etc.

    Jeremy Fox has some good advice for using conferences to grow your network:

    As does orgtheory:

    Networking isn’t a substitute for working hard and creating deliverables, but it does put a face to those hard-earned skills, discussed by Blickley and others.

    *Using USAJobs or other government job application processes is another story as well, and not one to discuss here…

  2. Nice article and great info! I would add that collaborating with fellow graduate students is a great opportunity to seek out grants, network internally and externally (at conferences, etc), and has the potential to make your own research topic more robust. This doesn’t have to be a huge ground-breaking endeavor…it can be some offshoot of your mutual interests that may benefit your local landscape, community, etc. It can also be a nice ‘intro to teamwork’ in a low pressure situation. Teamwork is often something people shy away from, but it is a necessary skill that, I would argue, helps build the foundation to achieve most of the items addressed in the original post and in Nate’s reply. The ability to work independently while also being able to provide leadership is a crucial skill for success.

  3. Pingback: Friday links: new small-school ecology blog, job skills advice for grad students, #sciencepickup lines, Dawkins for Pope odds, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  4. I am glad that I have discovered Early Career Ecologists. I plan to show this site to all of my students. I have been teaching at a small state college in NW Georgia, and this discussion thread touches on memories that are still fresh in my mind. One character (not really a skill, but you could develop it) that is often not discussed in job hunting scenarios is enthusiasm. It seems weird to say it, and we often think that it is essential, but I have seen many scenarios where enthusiasm during an interview was missing. I had a great interview for a post doc position several years ago, and I offered some great ideas, it was a great fit, but I was dry and dull during the interview. It even sounded like I was going to get the position because the advisor was so positive, but in the end, I was passed. Be genuinely excited but not crazy over the top.

  5. I worked in the conservation non-profit sector for a number of years before returning to graduate school in ecology, with the intention of returning to non-profit conservation work (Which i have! hooray for finding a job!). Anyway, since my grad work was sandwiched in between professional stints, I have thought about this issue a *lot*, particularly since my program had a lot of younger (fresh out of undergrad) students. I think that there are *so many* intangible factors that you need to be savy at in a professional environment, everything from developing a good working relationship with the administrative assistants, to how to conduct yourself at a board meeting— while much of this cannot be taught in an classroom, it can be easily learned by interning at the types of places that you think you’d like to end up in the long run. Interning also gives you the valuable experience with the particular lingo and technical jargon used in those professional communities (which is often *very* different from academic speak!).
    On that note, one thing that you mention in your post is that “service” experiences, such as “sitting on hiring committees, graduate search committees, and volunteering to be a graduate representative to faculty meetings” are good skill builders that employers may value. While this is true, I think that students need to be aware that if you are applying for a job outside of academia, you need to be able to translate that experience to the employer in your interview. If the person interviewing you doesn’t come from an academic background then she or he might not really understand what goes into those experiences, so be prepared to explain your role, or even better, draw parallels to how such experiences could translate to things you would be doing in this new job–don’t expect them to make that leap for you.

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  8. Really nice piece – thank you for sharing! I run a website seeking to accelerate the careers of conservationists around the planet which you might like. We talk to loads of professional conservationists to collate their careers advice, list vacancies from around the world, talk to students to provide careers advice and provide platform for people to share their CVs / Resumes.

    One piece you might like is our top tips for conservationists. Conservation Careers asked 146 professional conservationists from 50 countries to provide their careers advice. With a combined experience of 1,734 years in the sector! You can read the full blog here: http://www.conservation-careers.com/top-ten-tips-getting-job-conservation/

    This is just one of dozens of blogs we’ve written which you can read here: http://www.conservation-careers.com/category/conservation-careers-advice/

    Indeed, our Top 10 tips for getting a career in ecology might be interesting also: http://www.conservation-careers.com/top-10-tips-getting-career-ecology/

    Be very happy to help anyone out there who wants to get in touch via my contact us page.

    Nick Askew – Conservation Careers

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