Thoughts on graduate student guide to careers

In a recent paper published in Conservation Biology, Blickley et al. analyzed 60 job advertisements and interviewed 14 people from organizations working in conservation from the nonprofit, government, and private sectors.

In reading the article and this blog post, I was thinking, might there be a discrepancy between what survey respondents say they are looking for in candidates and what they actually choose when filling a position? After all, when it comes down to it the job advertisement is just a hook to try to get the right audience to sit up, pay attention, and get their CVs into the HR inbox in a timely manner. It is in the employer’s best interest to make it sound exciting to the right type of people, and certain keywords will incite interest in different kinds of people.

Interviewers may say they are looking for a number of skills from the top of the list, but nothing can replace a general feeling that you get from a person when meeting them and talking to them for the first time. How much is that feeling worth? Is it going to get you the job, or at least tip the scale in your favor? This is so intangible that we may never get a real sense for how it factors into the job seeking of hopeful graduates, but it is interesting to consider alongside the qualitative data that has been collected.

I think graduate students who are reading that paper and are thinking about their prospects for getting a job should be concerned with acquiring the skills that are highly valued for whichever sector they are aiming to get into. These skills include things like project management, IT, interpersonal, networking, written communication, etc. Some suggested ways to acquire these skills such as managing volunteers, or organizing an event or project. While I agree that these types of skills are important to develop, I also think that graduate students shouldn’t do this blindly. So what if you helped organize a graduate student congress, if you are just going to be blithe about it during an interview, it does not show much for your character or skills set. No one wants to hire someone who just does things to add them to their CV. People are naturally drawn to people who are passionate about what they have done or are doing!

Having just left the nonprofit sector to join PhD program, I can say that the things that nonprofit organizations value are accurately described by Blickley et al. (i.e. project management, program leadership, communication skills, and financial skills). This is in addition to research skills that you may have if you are recruited for a research position. Something that I did not realize before working there was that nonprofit researchers often have to manage their own grants, including filling out paperwork and taking care of budgets. This takes a chunk of time out of your day which may end up spilling over into non-working hours. Some people may end up working all the time to be able to take care of the more administrative side as well as being up on their research. Being able to juggle both aspects of the job can be crucial to surviving in the nonprofit sector.

In addition, I think what they really mean by communication skills, written communication, and interpersonal skills is having tact (besides having the basic skills of writing and speaking). It is important not to step on people’s toes, especially outside collaborators. It could really cost you your job if you say the wrong thing or piss off important contacts. It sucks to think that you have to be political when doing research or good works, but it is the truth and you have to acknowledge it!

I think another interesting thing that the authors note in the discussion is that most of the job advertisements that they analyzed were from the USA. There may be important cultural differences that would make this type of study give very different results. Having had just a little bit of time in Asia and having done just a little bit of reading (including the book titled “Quiet” by Susan Cain (book review to come soon!) and some social theory in a geographical context), I cannot say very much in the way of this, but my intuition is that interpersonal skills do not hold the same level of importance in “Eastern” cultures than in “Western” ones.

What are your thoughts? Do you think graduate students should pay attention to these or other tips?


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