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Graduate Matters

Prioritize the skills you want to develop

Realistically, how much time can you devote to skills development?


If you’re convinced that you have no skills other than research and teaching, I suggest you read the Graduate Matters post on transferrable skills by Maryam Hejazi, Georgina MacIntyre and Hanne Ostergaard. The authors list five skills that you’ve likely been honing, whether or not you’ve intended to.

Of course, there’s no need to stop there. You’re not limited in terms of the transferrable skills that you develop, and while your program might offer you more opportunities to develop some skills over others, you are always free to seek out your own skill development opportunities. That is not as impossible as it sounds.

Since you don’t have endless time, it makes sense to prioritize which skills you want to develop. There’s no need to simultaneously work your way through all skills on someone’s list (not even Canada’s own Employability Skills 2000+).

If you already have a clear career goal, then the path is clear. Find out what skills gaps are the most important. Review job postings as well as job profiles of those already working in the role you are seeking – the skills needed will be almost definitely be highlighted there. You can also ask people who work in your desired field, what skills they need to do their work well. (Granted, sometimes the answer won’t have to do with transferrable skills; there may well be a specific skill set or a certification required.)

If you don’t have a clear career goal, then you’re in good company, so don’t feel completely lost. Job titles tell only a partial story of what any given job is like, and as the job market changes, focusing your development on skills over titles makes sense. In this case, consider what skills most intrigue you, or whether there are skills that are required for more than one of the options you’re considering.

Now the question becomes what you can fit into your schedule. Evaluate that. Realistically, how much time can you devote to skill development? If you’re able to set aside time each week, then you can consider routes like certifications, continuing education, and regular time commitments like ongoing volunteering to build skills.

If you can’t set aside time regularly, university is actually a great place to be, thanks to the number of time-limited activities that happen on campus. Look at the skills you want to build, and brainstorm the most rewarding ways possible to build them. Any given task will require multiple skills. So, organizing a set of professionalization workshops could give you a chance to flex muscles related to seeking stakeholder feedback, creating programming, finding community resources, organizing events, developing training, or reaching a target audience. Acting as a representative on your graduate students’ association can help you understand stakeholder needs, advocate for them, and operate within a limited budget. Having a presence on your university senate can give you an understanding of how larger budgets are allocated, the challenge of writing policy that applies to a large and diverse institution, and the collaboration required to make things happen.

People early in their careers often worry – before engaging in skills building – that the tasks they pursue won’t be “enough.” Whatever you take on next probably won’t be enough, on its own, to effect a career transition. But it will provide you with information about what you find rewarding, and prepare you better for your next foray into honing that skill.

You’re not represented by just any one skill. You’ll bring with you a set of skills, and the ability to strengthen them and develop new ones. More importantly, you’ll bring with you everything else that reassures employers of your ability and willingness to apply your skills to solve problems, to collaborate meaningfully with a team, and to improve as you go. As you work to improve specific skills, remember that you are always more than the skills on your CV.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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