A recent study revealed that about 75% of PhDs will work in environments where other competencies are more important than research (Stoddard & Campa 2014). Now, more than ever it’s important to build the competencies and skills you are gaining on a daily basis in your graduate programs and to identify where you need to grow your skills to be competitive in the postacademic workplace.

You may be asking, When should I start building skills for postacademic careers?

I get this question a lot from graduate students who wonder when is the right time to begin devoting energy to building skills and exploring careers that will serve them beyond the academy. I totally understand the concern: you have a lot of work to do just to successfully get through your program, so you don’t want to get distracted too early.

When it comes to building your skills, I recommend you start now, start small, and be intentional.

Here are a few core competencies that you can develop now that will serve you whether you go into teaching and research, business, nonprofit, government or entrepreneurship.

  • Leadership (of projects and people; display of self confidence and authenticity)
  • Cross sector, interdisciplinary communication (written and oral, including social media for business)
  • Strategic thinking and planning
  • Workplace professionalism (email etiquette; professional correspondence; self-presentation)
  • Project management
  • Relationship building and management (networking; collaboration; conflict management; self –advocacy particularly with supervisors; negotiation)
  • Adaptability and flexibility
  • Entrepreneurialism and business savvy (go getter; don’t wait for permission; presents ideas and solutions, not just problems)

Practice makes perfect in developing skills that you have little exposure to. You can develop these skills and competencies in the following activities:

  1. Join or start a graduate student consulting club.
  2. Start a blog, or write for someone else’s blog or other publication with a lay audience.
  3. Serve as a student member of a faculty-led committee.
  4. Do an internship or practice-oriented fellowship.
  5. Organize a campus event, inviting outside speakers and panelists.
  6. Volunteer at a political or civic organization.

During one of my campus workshops, I met a microbiology PhD who had an interest in science policy. He contacted his local representative to ask if he could lend support to help on the representative’s draft energy bill. I was so proud of this student because he didn’t wait for the position to come to him. He didn’t even wait for a formal position to open. He created the position himself, by first getting real about what he wanted in his life and career, then finding a place to pitch his expertise as the answer to someone’s problem. The representative welcomed this graduate student to his team, even though there was no existing position for him.

This graduate student does not attend Ivy League school and his university is located in a rural region where one might say the opportunities are low. Yet, he took a no excuse approach and was intentional about seeking out an opportunity to help him grow. Now he not only has more inside knowledge of the science policy process, but he also has access to strong recommendation letters, examples of work samples, and the language of this career field. By getting this experience, he has confirmed that science policy is of interest to him, and he has begun to establish roots in his target career field.

The coach in me wants you to succeed. I want you to have access to the options that you deserve. I challenge you to identify something – on small step forward – that will move you forward in your professional life. Then get about the business of doing it.


In the comments below, share one thing that you will do to move out of your comfort zone and build your skills. Or let us know what other ideas you have for gaining skills  that can help you develop for a postacademic career. Then click here to join me on April 26th for a deeper discussion about how to leverage your academic skills to have postacademic career options.

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