From the Science Student Council

Building your marketability throughout your graduate school career

How to expand your skill set while in school to be more appealing to future employers

By Winny Shen

Graduate students today face more decisions than ever before with more career options available to psychologists than in previous generations. While many psychologists choose the traditional career path of academia, there is no longer the strong expectation that all students will choose this route.  Psychologists can be found forging exciting new careers in new roles in numerous industries. As students progress through their academic careers, they may wish to keep multiple career paths open for exploration rather than prematurely focusing on just one option, particularly given the uncertain economic climate, geographic constraints, and work-life balance concerns.  The following describe some strategies to help graduate students build maximum marketability during their graduate school tenure regardless of their future career path.

Foster a broad perspective

There is increasing pressure for students to specialize during their graduate school career, to become an expert on a particular niche or domain due to the increased pace at which psychological knowledge is being generated. However, there are several benefits to fostering a broad, integrative perspective. First, being able to communicate with others from other perspectives is a valuable skill as interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research is on the rise. Additionally, individuals who can translate scientific findings into lay language are high in demand as experts for media outlets, court cases, and organizational consulting. Many graduate programs require students to acquire breadth of knowledge by taking courses in other areas of psychology or other subjects.  Students should strive to use these opportunities as a means to build a broader perspective that will allow them to interact with a wider variety of people.

Network with others

Career paths often take unexpected or circuitous routes. Most individuals, upon reflection, cannot have predicted their career trajectories or anticipated the series of events that led to their current position. Networking with others early and often throughout your graduate career will help you to ensure that there will be many individuals who know of your abilities and can attest to your skill set by the time you are looking to transition to your first post-graduate position. By expanding your network to include individuals of varying backgrounds, this will further allow you access and exposure to non-traditional career paths that will nonetheless successfully utilize your knowledge, skills, and abilities. 

Look for applied experiences

Many branches of psychology are inherently applied in nature, including clinical, counseling, human factors, industrial-organizational psychology, and many others. However, regardless of your particular branch of psychology, garnering applied experiences will be invaluable to boosting your future marketability. Generally, applied experiences allow students to identify and utilize the transferable skills (e.g., critical thinking, scientific writing, organization and planning, etc.) they have honed in graduate school. For example, many organizations and employers are interested in applicants with strong quantitative skills, which many psychologists possess. Applied experiences will also help to reinforce your understanding of links between basic and applied science, allowing you to more clearly articulate the impact of your science. It also serves as an opportunity to explore alternative career paths that you may not otherwise have been exposed to. Applied experiences could include internships with organizations, public policy and advocacy experience at your local, state, or federal government level, or community involvement with special populations.

Garner leadership experience

Leadership and managerial experience, particularly when it demonstrates initiative and proactivity, is considered invaluable in most career paths. While many scientists start out in individual contributor roles, they are often required to work in teams and manage interpersonal relationships in order to be successful. Additionally, many applied and academic careers will require supervision and mentoring of staff, either students or subordinates. Students can prepare themselves for future leadership roles by looking for opportunities to exhibit and hone their leadership skills during their graduate career, including serving on committees with senior faculty, running for office in student government, and forming and leading student clubs and organizations. Employers will particularly value leadership experience where you were instrumental in bringing about the desired outcome.

Times have changed and the career prospects for graduate students now differ substantially from those facing graduate students a generation ago. Individuals no longer assume that they will spend their entire career with a single employer, or even within the same industry. As career pathways become increasingly fluid, it is important that graduate students adopt a long-term perspective on building their marketability. I hope that the strategies discussed above will help graduate students improve both the number and variety of options available to them upon graduation.

 

Winny Shen, the industrial/organizational psychology representative on the APA Science Student Council, is a PhD Candidate at the University of Minnesota. Her current research interests include fairness and diversity issues in educational and organizational settings, the prediction and measurement of academic and job performance, leadership, and occupational health psychology.