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Skills you'll have after grad school (part 1)

In addition to some extra letters after your name, the ins and outs of grad school should leave you equipped with the following set of peripheral skills. And they're nothing to sneeze at; grad students are hard workers and their own greatest critics, but we often overlook the boring professional development going on behind the scenes. Many of these build on skills from elsewhere in life or from previous education. They translate well to the outside world, especially to whatever your eventual career will be.

1. Giving a talk. This is no small feat; people in general are terrified of public speaking.

We learn from experience how to pull a chunk of research and make it digestible to an audience of experts or nonexperts; how to organize it; how to deliver it in an allotted timeslot and how to answer questions. The best way to work on this skill is to practice: at informal presentations and local conferences. Then you're ready for the big leagues. Remember, no one likes too much text on slides. 

2. Listening to a talk. This might sound like a no-brainer because we've been listening to teachers since kindergarten. But in graduate school, listening to talks is a professional skill, and doing it badly will get you noticed. Elements of this skill include being attentive, taking notes or marking down items of interest, following the course of an argument as it unfolds, and being able to ask a good question. The latter will serve you well at major conferences where your question will be heard by experts in your field, so it's important to get lots of practice until you can listen to a talk, think up an appropriate/non-obnoxious question, and deliver it to the speaker in a clear and comprehensible way. Many departments have regular talks or seminars that students are obligated/secretly expected to attend, and those are a great venue to learn how to listen.

3. Navigating a bureaucracy. Universities seem like undecipherable bureaucracies with separate departments for nearly every aspect of your studies/employment there. It takes a while to get your bearings but eventually you will know which line on which floor of what building to stand in and get your problem fixed, when it's worth being on hold, what tax forms you need, and how to squeeze every dime you can for conference reimbursement, health insurance spending accounts, dependent care, and a million other tiny pots of money that each have an application form. Knowing that having your paperwork in order means you get paid on time is a very useful skill. Bureaucracies are frustrating and often inefficient, but you'll most likely be dealing with them forever and you'll be much better equipped after grad school.

4. Working in an office (formal). Although grad school is rarely 9-to-5, there are days when you're stuck in Office Space.

 You learn the ins and outs of often outdated computer equipment, how to interact with administrative assistants (who are usually the ones really in charge), useless vs. important paperwork, where to find the supplies you need, and hundreds of other skills that are an essential part of modern office life.

5. Working in an office (informal). Way more critical than #4 above, this set of social skills will make or break you in the eyes of your colleagues. Water-cooler talk, keeping a shared kitchen clean, personal hygiene, coffeemaker etiquette, and habits in common workspaces (loudness of voice, smelliness of lunch, etc.) combine to determine your people skills in the office. Again, these will be pivotal no matter where you end up working.

Next week, part 2.


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