In terms of physical fitness, cross-training involves participating in a variety of exercise activities on a regular basis. As the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s health center reminds us, a diverse fitness program promotes “total body strength, endurance and flexibility.” In today’s improving but far-from-robust economy, graduate students should approach their work in a similar fashion by diversifying their skill set.
Academic, professional, and personal cross-training will prepare advanced degree holders for a variety of post-graduation situations, including, but not only, employment outside of academia. In fact, based on my experience, cross-training can help one to land an academic position in a glutted academic job market. On the one hand, a diverse skill set might make increase one’s attractiveness to search committees. On the other hand, a diverse skill set might create more job opportunities by expanding the kinds of positions for which an applicant can apply. Cross-training, then, engenders the flexibility needed to navigate challenging employment climates. (As for cultivating the emotional strength and endurance for the job search, that’s a different post for another time — and one that I hope to write for GradHacker soon.)
Post-graduation plans have loomed heavily lately: I’m on the academic job market, and I’ll defend my dissertation in May. Recently, I found out that I’ll likely be moving on to full-time academic employment in the fall. The road to this point had its bumps, and the destination—gainful employment in my chosen field—wasn’t something I always was sure I’d reach, and the goal definitely transformed from time to time: I entered my PhD program to be an English professor, but as the years wore on and the economy worsened, I knew that desire (and even the strongest CV I could create) might not be enough. Larger (market) forces beyond my control were at work. Accordingly, leading up to my debut on the academic job market, I worked diligently on my dissertation and also developed other aspects of my CV-especially my teaching record. At the same time, I explored employment possibilities outside of academia.
My relative success in all of these job searches lies partially in my earnest attempts at cross-training throughout my graduate school career. (Truthfully, I also think my success stems from learning to envision myself enjoying and thriving in non-academic fields or in different kinds of academic positions. I didn’t have occupational life-rafts; I simply saw myself as captaining other boats).
Below are some basic strategies for “cross-training” during one’s time in graduate school. These are culled from my experiences, and so you may have your own to offer — please share in the comments section, as I’d love to hear from you.
Develop a comprehensive digital skill set by learning how to use software, etc. that extends your technological skills. I’m a writer, so Microsoft Word is my tofu and brown rice. I’ve taken graphics design courses to learn how to produce, and not only compose, documents like newsletters. Moreover, such courses have helped me to teach professional writing courses, as we focus on the rhetoric of visual design.
Create a digital calling card by developing a strong (and appropriate) web presence. Employers will use search engines to find out more about you. You can, to a certain extent, shape what they learn about you, your education, your employment history, etc. by creating a website, blog, or twitter feed. For more advice about creating a web presence, see a recent post by GradHacker Katy Meyers.
Seek out opportunities for collaboration, particularly if you are not in a lab-oriented discipline. I’ve helped to organize several national, graduate student conferences sponsored by my department. Alternatively, if you frequently work with your peers, work on leadership skills by overseeing a project. I organized campus visits for incoming, admitted students to our PhD program, and part of my duties involved delegating tasks to other grads.
Learn how to network; twitter is a great place to start. If you’re not on twitter and want to know why anyone in their right mind would be, read Anne Trubeck’s blog entry, “Why Tweet? (And How To Do It),” which makes a compelling case for twitter as a professionalizing activity. (And if you are on twitter, connect with me @ambulantscholar, where I tweet about American literature, higher education, and teaching.)
Teach different courses (or a different department) if such activities are a major part of your graduate school work (they are for me). You’ll demonstrate to academic search committees that you can teach a variety of material. Also, you can avoid being a “one-note” instructor. In doing so, you can expand the kinds of academic jobs to which you can apply. A range of teaching experiences also allows you to develop diverse skills that non-academic employers will value. As an instructor of record, you can tell a non-academic employer that you are organized and can work independently; as a section leader who works with several peers under the leadership of a professor, you also can tell a non-academic employer that you are able to work collaboratively. (Of course, you should be able to provide concrete evidence for these claims.)
Some final advice about diversifying your skill set: Check the job listings for academic and non-academic positions, even if you’re a few years from this stage. You’ll discover the skills and attributes needed to succeed in certain fields/positions, and you can adjust your cross-training accordingly. Also, if you don’t have much experience with resumes, learn how to write one. They aren’t CVs, and a good resume should be tailored to the position by providing a relevant snapshot of your work history. Finally, learn how to translate your research and college teaching skills—that is, your graduate school dossier—into a language that is legible and meaningful to the employer in question.
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