Skills That All Students Should Acquire

Last night, I attended a public meeting of various government science advisors, hosted at the University of Ottawa. As is my wont, I kept myself engaged by frantically live tweeting every innocuous thought that came into my monkey brain.

I draw your attention to one particular tweet that got a bit of attention:

I was referring to universities’ current penchant for creating graduate programs that, in my opinion, have questionable intellectual depth, but which are easily marketed to a population of students seeking credentials without hard technical work.

As an example, a student recently pointed out to me a glaring error in a textbook she had been assigned. The textbook was not a statistics textbook, but had a strong statistical and methodological component. The book had presumably gone through peer review, yet the error was fundamental and not due to any typographical mistake.

The authors of the textbook had doctorates in strange transdisciplinary fields with no apparent depth in statistics or methodology. So it was not too surprising to me that they would have made such an error. What is troubling, though, is that their error is being propagated across generations via the textbook and via inattentive instructors, as expertise is increasingly diluted in several disciplines.

But I digress. I’m not going to spend time in this space right now describing such programs. Instead, I want to spend some time talking about the essential skills that any graduate should seek to master. Given that university programs are increasingly neglectful of investing in students’ marketability and disciplinary rigour, it’s now more important than ever for students to take a more active role in defining and directing their own learning. Frankly, professors and staff are often far too overburdened to take much of an interest in individual students’ progress, needs, and deficiencies beyond their performance in our classes.

This blog post was mostly inspired by this web article from Concordia university, promoting their new program for training graduate students in “leadership skills”.

Now, I’ve worked a tiny bit in the management recruiting industry, and have been involved in training, hiring and recruiting for NGOs, government and academia. Every management position I’ve held has begun with the requisite management training workshop, which always included conflict management and leadership skills development.

This is what I’ve learned from having experienced –and having provided– such training multiple times: I don’t think it is possible to teach leadership skills. Leadership acumen is acquired through life experience and acquired wisdom, if ever at all. And frankly, I’m not sure that a lack of “leadership skills” is indeed the rate limiting step preventing new graduates from finding work.

In my opinion, students would be better served investing in measurable marketable skills, rather than poorly defined generic leadership skills, while the latter should be pursued as a matter of course through increasing personal challenges in life.

So what should students do to increase their chances of an easier path to employment? Note that I have specified that this advice is for the seeking of employment, with the full realization that we go to school for reasons beyond simply economic participation. Higher learning is for the betterment of the self, the blossoming of the intellect, the maturation of the machine of cognition, all that wonderful stuff. But in this era of criminal tuition hikes and crippling student debt, it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge that investment in higher learning now necessitates a monetary return on that investment through well remunerated employment.

I have lectured widely on how students should prepare, and have recorded some of those lectures for my podcast. The pertinent episodes are:

So in this space I will offer two bits of advice, distilled from those lectures:

(1) Be a T-shaped person

Imagine a capital letter “T”. The vertical portion represents depth in one thing, maybe the thing you did your degree in…. let’s say statistics. If you have depth in statistics, then maybe an employer would like to plug you into a statistician position.

Increasingly, however, employers want candidates that can serve in a variety of functions. So it is no longer sufficient to just have profound depth in one (or two) things. You also need breadth in some other things: perhaps bookkeeping, office management, driving, conflict management… who knows? The horizontal portion of the capital “T” represents that breadth.

In other words, don’t rely on that one special skill that you have well honed to carry you through your career. You need to bolster it with other skills to give both depth and breadth.

But what kinds of other skills?

(2) There are only two skills

The world is changing and we older folks might not be in touch with how the emerging economy looks, or with what opportunities are around the corner. So it’s important to take any advice with an enormous glacier of salt. However, in my opinion, there are two categories of skills that are eternally valuable, regardless of era or sector: communication and analysis.

And, frankly, you should invest in acquiring lucidity and deftness in both of them.

Communication skills include interpersonal engagement, public speaking, conflict management, mentorship, and all that wonderful soft stuff. Increasingly, in my experience, it really means writing.

It is frankly heartbreaking watching how each generation of students I encounter present with ever poorer writing skills. This includes basic sentence parsing, paragraph formation, and –most prominently– a shrinking vocabulary.

Unsurprising, job ads in pretty much every industry now stress writing skills as a desired candidate attribute, as they are becoming an ever rarer trait in each subsequent generation of graduates.

The ability to write reports, grants, and evaluations are of obvious value. But one very potent writing skills set that is now rarely taught, but remains of paramount value, is precis writing

When I served the Canadian federal government as a Chief Scientist, my hourly activities were not dominated by deep scientific contemplation or high level meetings with Ministers, but rather by the writing of multiple one-page summaries for decision- makers who relied on my fluency to guide their hands. Confident and skillful writing, beyond all other skills, has served me best in my career growth.

Analysis skills can be divided into two categories: qualitative and quantitative. The latter are obvious: mathematics, statistics, econometrics, anything involving numbers. Master the latest techniques and software, know their limitations and proper applications, and be able to dissect their philosophical underpinnings. In an increasingly innumerate world, a guide through the terrifying jungle of quantification is valued as both prophet and messiah.

Qualitative skills can be equally as in-depth: focus group management, interview acumen, text content analysis, etc. The challenge here is that many people think they have qualitative analysis skills simply because they can hold a conversation. This is not true. Seek out acknowledged, formalized methods that you can describe in a resume and possibly even teach others.

 What else?

I feel that there is a host of additional strategies that students and recent graduates are well advised to adopt in order to maximize their career potential. But its getting late and I want to watch TV.

But if any of this is appealing, let me know in the comments section, and maybe I will find time to go into further detail via ebook or podcast.

Good luck!