Talking with grad students about "soft skills" for the academic job market

By Jennifer DeBoer, Postdoctoral Associate for Education Research

On Monday night I had the pleasure of sharing my experiences on a panel hosted by the MIT Graduate Student Council’s Academic, Research and Careers Committee.  (Video of the panel is forthcoming for those who could not attend.)  The discussion was focused on “soft skills” for the academic job market, those skills and experiences beyond a publication record that often get forgotten with the laser-focus on articles and conference papers. 

These skills might include community outreach and engagement with broader society, leadership, and teaching.  In my comments to the group, I noted that the traditional academic job market still prioritizes publications and research work.  However, once a certain bar is met, candidates can stand out with unique experiences that demonstrate their other skills.  Taking on a leadership position in a professional organization, mentoring junior colleagues in the lab, or seeking out opportunities to conduct guest lectures—these experiences won’t guarantee a faculty job by themselves, but they’ll make a candidate stand out.

Teaching is primary among these skills and experiences.  Whether you’re looking for a traditional academic tenure-track job or an "altac" job, it is helpful to show that you can teach or mentor.  Plus, teaching experiences can foster the development of other skills, too, for example, communication and presentation skills.  Some jobs ask about teaching experience very specifically, and all academic search committees are thinking about you as a potential future fellow instructor.

I noted to the panel that I’m actually going through a job search right now, so I’ve combed through a large number of job ads in the last few months! Again, while departments are first and foremost interested in your research credentials, many job apps also explicitly ask for a teaching statement. They may ask for evidence of teaching effectiveness or for a thoughtful reflection on what classes you could teach and how you would structure your courses.

And, where can you learn about teaching and learning? TLL offers a for-credit course as well as a Teaching Certificate Program (TCP). The TCP includes seven workshops + two videotaped microteaching opportunities.  One of the workshops specifically focuses on writing a teaching philosophy statement, while the microteaching sessions give participants and opportunity to present a brief lesson to practice what they have learned.  Senior Associate Director Janet Rankin blogged about one of the core topics of the TCP here. In an upcoming blog, you’ll hear from a TCP alumnus, Matteo Seita (Materials Science & Engineering), about his experience in the program.