Making the Most of Summer: Developing Skills Employers Want – Graduate College at Illinois

Written by The Grad College

As you move into your first summer as a graduate student at Illinois, now is a perfect milestone to take time to reflect on your progress as a student and scholar. Over the past year, you’ve gained new skills and knowledge in your field, but success beyond graduate school requires taking a comprehensive approach to your professional development. It requires more than technical skills and field-specific knowledge.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is a professional association dedicated to connecting colleges with employers to better serve students as they move into their professional careers. In its Job Outlook 2019 report, NACE asked employers to identify the skills they look for most when recruiting graduates. Notably, the attributes employers want the most are those commonly categorized as “soft” skills or qualities not directly associated with technical abilities. Employers describe a significant need for these skills that far surpasses the level of proficiency observed in new hires.

In particular, recent trends show increased interest for candidates who are problem-solvers, communicate effectively, work well in teams, and demonstrate a strong work ethic.

Despite sometimes being called “soft,” these skills are in fact pretty hard to develop. Demonstrating your ability in these areas necessitates knowing what they are and how to talk about them – and how you’ve used them – to potential employers, no matter what career path you are pursuing. (When we ask faculty what makes them successful in their careers, they often talk about skills similar to the ones highlighted in the NACE report.)

Summer is a great time to strengthen these skills because it typically means having new experiences outside of the classroom. For some, that involves long hours in a research lab or library, working a summer job, or doing an internship. But no matter where your summer plans take you, any setting will provide ample opportunities to work on your professional development. Below I will explain these four in-demand skills in greater detail and offer tips on how to focus on your “softer” side.

Become a Problem Solver

Problem-solving is the most essential career competency reported by employers to NACE. Problem-solving is about how you choose to arrange, combine, and utilize all your abilities as a specific response to a unique challenge. Fortunately, you are already likely to encounter tasks that test these skills in your professional and academic roles. The next step is to think about your individual approach to problem-solving in a strategic way and figure out how to get better at it.

So, what can you do to improve your problem-solving skills this summer? Start by assessing what you already do on a regular basis. Whether you are troubleshooting a research hiccup or navigating an obstacle at an internship, incorporate time for reflection after overcoming a problem. Create a step-by-step breakdown of your actions and an inventory of what skills you applied. Determine which strategies were most and least useful. Was your approach successful? If so, why did it work? And if not, what would you do differently? Then when the next problem arises, pay attention to your process and how you apply all your skills to get to a solution. Then reflect again.

Communicate Effectively

Verbal and written communication are ubiquitous skills, demonstrated in every interaction you have. Yet, employers say less than half of their new hires are proficient communicators. Expressing ideas and complex concepts effectively remains a highly desired, but difficult skill, so make sure you’re not taking it for granted.

A critical element of communication skills is understanding your audience. Graduate work can be hyper-focused in both your field and on a specific topic area where most conversation is amongst experts with extensive foundational knowledge. This summer, you’ll likely meet new people – such as at conferences, during an internship, or even on vacation – who are not familiar with your work in graduate school. Use these opportunities to practice your communication skills by describing what you do as a graduate student, with extra attention devoted to connecting with your audience on their terms. What are ways you can explain your work that connects to their experience? Every occasion for small talk is a chance to refine your ability to communicate complex topics while connecting with a new audience. And as with problem-solving, reflect after each interaction to identify what worked and what didn’t.

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By Maria Ordonez
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