Professional Skills for Social Science PGRs
Before starting my PhD full-time, I had to earn my living with a part-time job at a charity as office manager. Coordinating my PhD and work-tasks was a challenge in itself, but everything got worse when my boss fell ill and left me to run the organisation. Fun times! (Needless to say, my PhD got very little of my attention in those weeks.) Together with our board, the team and I managed somehow to keep the organisation running, but difficult situations came up. I’m especially thinking of one stressful Friday afternoon when everybody was quick tempered and one of my colleagues started to openly undermine me in front of everybody. After a heated 15sec argument, he left the office. I started crying and basically couldn’t stop for a couple of days. My response was due mostly to the general situation and pressures that were weighing on me at the time, but I also had no idea how to handle conflict in a workplace and how to make the team work together in our moment of crisis.
Whereas this situation might have been very specific in situation and characters involved, it’s also descriptive of a more general problem facing PGR students: we are (not always but often) lacking professional skills needed to succeed in the workplace. A study undertaken by the UK’s Department of Business Innovation & Skills reveals that many employers have serious concerns about the quality of graduate applicants who they often interviewed but did not hire. Mainly, their concerns focus on areas of interpersonal skills (especially communication); attitudes towards work and workplace behaviour; and career management and employability. Even though these results include all graduates (not just PGRs), my own experience and impressions tell me that we are not necessarily excluded from that. Especially when it comes to teamwork or assertiveness, I think we have some way to go.
Our university has responded to these deficits and started a Professional Skills Programme (PSP) in 2017 for PGRs of the Graduate School for Social Sciences. The programme, which is accredited by The Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM), recognizes that many skills cannot be developed overnight and emphasise a long-term development approach. In that spirit, PSP is spread out over a three-year period with a 2-3-day block of training every year. I am in the first cohort of the programme and have just recently finished my second-year training block. I’m not going to lie, I was sceptical at first. I’ve never particularly liked the business and profit-making world, I do not like manipulating people, and I certainly don’t fancy the notion of having to ‘sell’ myself like an asset that would improve someone else’s money-making chances. So when reading topics to be covered, such as assertiveness & influencing or workplace performance, I went in very sceptical.
But Alec Pearson, one of the trainers of PSP with a lot of senior managerial experience under his belt, surprised me. Yes, he’s definitely a business man with a lot of commercial experience and exactly from that world that I often have my problems with. But that’s not where his focus lies. He doesn’t try to mould you into someone you’re not just in order to be productive and make profit. Instead, he emphasises that knowing yourself inside out – strengths, weaknesses, what you want out of life – is the key to making your way in the working world. So when he talked about team work, for example, instead of telling us how to best get a team in line with your own demands, we discussed emotional awareness of yourself but also of others, of knowing which role you like to take best in a team and how to resolve conflict in an assertive, yet respectful way. We went deep, instead of shallow.
No doubt, that can be scary. When I volunteered to be helped in a problem I am facing and would like help with, the training almost turned into a counselling session. There I was, explaining how I’m dreading my first data collection because it involves walking up to strangers and asking them for 10-15min of their time to answer some questions, and 10min later we were discussing my fear of trusting others and myself. Sounds scary? Absolutely bloody was. But it was extremely helpful. No one advised me to just get over myself and to get on with it. Instead, I was reaffirmed that I’m clearly not the only one facing these fears (anyone?) and together we found ways I could comfortably collect my data without constantly increased anxiety levels. Those 15-20min definitely weren’t easy, but they were worth it. This is not a training through which you sit, let everything wash over you and then walk out with a nothing-meaning certificate at the end of the day. This is real training which will be exhausting, demanding, challenging but also fun! That’s the only way to learn.
Besides that, it can open up possibilities by merely making you believe that you can take them on. In year 1, we spend a whole day on presentation skills. Before that day I didn’t dare sign up for the 3-Minute-Thesis competition. But after that, I just did it – what did I have to lose? What resulted was amazing: I didn’t win but I got through to the finals where a member of UofG staff heard me speak about my PhD topic (the Maker movement) and referred me to co.lab, a makerspace initiative on campus that was looking for an intern. I got the internship, a lot of invaluable experience and contacts, and can now say I’ve had practical work experience in my field. Participating in PSP might not have the same effect for everyone, but the point is that it will make you believe in yourself just a little bit more and that can open up new opportunities.
You might still be thinking: “She can say what she wants, this totally sounds like a super corporate programme and that’s just not me.” And you’re right. PSP is definitely infused with corporate experiences and business skills. But, to be honest, which place of work doesn’t operate like that anymore? Academia, charities, social enterprises – they all operate more and more like businesses. The point I’ve been trying to make is that despite that focus, the priority in this training is you and you alone. It’s about discovering your strength, working on and with your weaknesses, and getting to where you want to be in your life - if corporate world or charity. At the end of this programme, you will not only end up with a ILM certificate, but with much more self-awareness.
If none of this has scared you off but made you curious, click here to find out more and sign up to one of the next cohorts.