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From Grad School to the Real World: Three Perspectives on Essential Skills

Steven Zhou, Bharati B. Belwalkar, & Lisa Kath

In the ever-evolving landscape of higher education and the professional world, the transition from graduate school to the workplace can be both exhilarating and challenging. In this TIP article, we are privileged to share our perspectives on crucial skills we wished we had honed during our academic pursuits. Each of us brings a unique viewpoint based on our own experiences. Join us as we delve into our collective journey and discover the lessons that will hopefully tweak (if not shape) your approach to education and career development if you are a student or early-career professional and to curriculum designing and training if you are an educator.

Who Are We, and What Do We Wish to Talk About in This Article?

Steven Zhou, MA, is a PhD candidate in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology at George Mason University and a Survey & Measurement Methods lead at Purdue University. Besides research on leadership, psychometrics, and the academic–practitioner gap, Steven is passionate about teaching and pedagogy; he received the 2021 Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award for his redesign of the undergraduate statistics curriculum. As he began teaching and applied work while finishing his PhD, he quickly realized that public speaking is one of key skills for which students are not intentionally and adequately trained. Steven’s public speaking experience stems from competitive speech and debate in high school, for which he served as the president of his school's 150+ student team, which consistently placed in the top 1% in the nation. He has also taught and coached competitive public speaking and debate in the years since graduating, and recently he was a top eight finalist in the 2022 APA Psych Science-in-3 speech competition and the first-place winner of GMU’s Three Minute Thesis competition.

Bharati B. Belwalkar, PhD, PMP, is an I-O researcher at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). At AIR, Bharati has been leading various short-term and multiyear projects as a project director and/or task lead; she previously worked with local government agencies where she predominantly led medium-to-large-scale projects related to assessment development. Soon after entering the workforce, she realized that project management is a key skill that anyone, irrespective of their academic or applied focus, should invest in learning. Bharati, therefore, earned her Project Management Professional® (PMP®) certification offered by the Project Management Institute (PMI). She is a member of the Project Management Academy, a professional learning community and a PMP certificate-prep group at AIR, which hosts annual bootcamps for junior and senior researchers wanting to get PMP certified, get continued education (CE) credits, and/or lead consulting projects at AIR. Being able to manage (a) multiple moving pieces of a project, (b) team members responsible for those pieces, and (c) client requirements are an inevitable part of applied I-O work, and therefore, she thinks that it will serve students well if they learn project management skills early in their careers.

Lisa Kath, PhD, is an associate professor in I-O psychology at San Diego State University. Lisa teaches/mentors both undergraduate and master’s level students in I-O psychology, and with her students, she conducts research on workplace safety and stress, most recently in children’s hospitals in the U.S. She loves occupational health psychology’s focus on worker well-being, and she has served as the president of the Society for Occupational Health Psychology. As an educator and proponent of occupational health, Lisa understands that the need for building eminence of I-O psychology starts with educating non-I-Os about what we do, and social media related skills play a huge role in this area. Moreover, it helps build a personal brand. Lisa, therefore, runs the @iopsychmemes account on Twitter (4000+ followers), Instagram (7000+ followers), LinkedIn (2000+ followers), and Facebook (1000+ followers). She is connected to many I-O psychologists on those platforms with her personal account as well, and she occasionally contributes to responses on the r/iopsychology subreddit.

In summary, public speaking, project management, and social media marketing skills are critical to success as both an I-O academic or practitioner; for example, public speaking is vital for conference or report presentations, project management is vital for juggling research projects or consulting contracts, and social media is vital for publicizing research findings, networking, and recruiting new clients. We turn the spotlight on these professional skills that we argue are critical to success as an I-O academic or practitioner yet are left out or underemphasized in most I-O graduate programs.

Why Do We Think These Skills Are Important?

The SIOP Guidelines for Education and Training (SIOP, 2016) provide an excellent summary of the core competencies for any I-O graduate. Fourth on the list are a set of professional skills such as communication and project management. However, these professional skills are often integrated into the curriculum of other content courses; rarely are they given a spotlight with explicit instruction and dedicated curriculum. Relative to the crucial content areas of knowledge that I-Os must graduate with expertise in, it is understandable and reasonable for such professional skills to be underemphasized in I-O curricula.

We believe that everyone would agree that project management is important to success in 21st century I-O careers, but, for example, students generally are not taught the leading theories of lean and agile project management or the appropriate software such as Asana and Notion. Likewise, everyone would agree that verbal communication is important, but rarely are students given explicit instruction in the strategic use of verbals (e.g., varying pitch and pace) and nonverbals (e.g., hand gestures and footwork) in public speaking. Finally, although everyone would agree that I-Os need to do a better job of sharing their work publicly and impacting a broader audience, few courses are dedicated to teaching best practices in engaging social media (e.g., timing and location of posts) and software (e.g., Buffer).

Public Speaking (Steven Zhou)

Ingraham (2014) reports that the number one greatest phobia is public speaking, with 25.3% of Americans reporting a fear of public speaking, even higher than the percent afraid of heights, bugs and snakes, and drowning. I can relate. Back in elementary school, I was encouraged to run for fifth grade class president, only to quit in terror when I found out I would have to give a speech at a class assembly. But fast forward a few years, and I somehow found myself invested in competitive speech and debate as my main extracurricular activity all through high school. I was lucky enough to be in a massive team of over 150 students, and our team consistently ranked in the top 1% in the nation. To this day, I look back at my experiences competing on the team, serving as its president, and later coaching/instructing teams as foundational to my interests today in teaching courses and giving research presentations.

One key takeaway from these experiences is that public speaking can be taught and practiced. Certainly, there is the initial fear to overcome. However, too often, there seems to be an assumption that graduate students will just "figure it out" when it comes to public speaking. Some programs give excellent instruction in how to teach a class, but such instruction (rightfully) focuses on curriculum, managing students, grading, and other teaching strategies as opposed to the core skill of public speaking. The result? I have heard far too many lectures or presentations that drone on for far too long, lack any variance in tone or speed, show little to no planning in footwork or hand gestures, and either sound like they are reading off a script or rambling without a clear direction. Perhaps that was too harsh, but I am confident that most of us have experienced at least one, if not many, of such presentations.

Engaging in public speaking is critical to success as an I-O academic or practitioner. An hour (or more) is a long time for today's students to pay attention during a lecture, yet a skilled public speaker is able to keep the audience engaged for far longer than the average attention span. Faculty can have the most organized, instructive, and engaging assignments or curriculum, but a poorly delivered lecture will still be a major roadblock in student learning (Li et al., 2016; Mowbray & Perry, 2013). Likewise, practitioners must regularly give presentations of research findings or consultant reports. An engaging presentation can make or break a massive consultancy contract. More generally, verbal communication is usually the number one most valued skill for any employer, even above teamwork and problem solving (NACE, 2016).

Although there are ample coaching and teaching resources on competitive public speaking, I recommend actively seeking opportunities that would give hands-on practice in preparing for it. Typically, public speaking involves taking an existing topic, walking through the process of planning how one might deliver the presentation, and practicing it. For example, one exercise used early on in a public speaking curriculum would be to read an existing short speech. This allows one to focus on their delivery skill, both in their verbals (tone, intonation, pace, pitch, and timbre) and in their nonverbals (eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, footwork, and use of the stage). Being able to evaluate one’s own and others' public speaking on these detailed verbal and nonverbal criteria, among others (e.g., use of filler words), is also a critical element of public speaking. All it needs is initiative, dedicated practice, and some intentional public speaking exercises and lessons in the graduate school curricula!

Project Management (Bharati B. Belwalkar)

Project management has always been practiced informally but began to emerge as a distinct profession in the mid-20th century (Larson & Gray, 2015). The PMI defines project management as the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to achieve project requirements. It is accomplished through the application and integration of the processes such as initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing. It is, therefore, not surprising that an increasing number of organizations are turning to project management as a specialized practice for consistently delivering business results and to consequently stay ahead of the pack in the global economy. Every job, therefore, has some elements of project management, and most people (like myself) learn project management skills on the job (Thamhain, 1991). Take our I-O work for example! When an I-O psychologist offers professional consulting services to a client (as an external consultant) or to an organization (as an internal consultant), they have to—knowingly or unknowingly—use project management strategies and techniques. Indeed, “one cannot be a successful consultant unless one is a successful project manager” (Jeanneret, 2008; p. 215).

As both an internal and external consultant, I have led/managed multiple medium- to large-scale projects for a variety of clients and have had to wear many hats in the process: planner, communicator, delegator, problem solver, quality controller, to name a few. I hope this gives you a sense of the various roles any project lead has to fulfill, often simultaneously! Although I did receive some lessons in project management during graduate school, most of my training in this area was on the job. Subsequently, studying to get a PMP certification helped me understand the theoretical bases of project management. I would like to see more intentional education and training of project management in the context of I-O psychology, though. Additionally, topics like project teams are important for smooth functioning of any project (Heagney, 2016); therefore, I think educators could intentionally discuss how traditional I-O topics (such as leadership, employee attitudes) are related to the stages of project management. After all, quoting a noted project management expert, Cornelius Fichtner, I say: “The P in project management is as much about people management as it is about project management.”

To help understand the key concepts of project management, educators could encourage students to practice project management on their I-O “consulting” projects. If a real-world consulting project is not available, hypothetical case studies could be used to walk students through the standard process from the beginning (scope) to the end (closing out) of the project. With respect to early-career professionals, I acknowledge that asking your employer or self-sponsoring a project management training/certification may be cost and/or time prohibitive. But there are a plethora of online resources, practical guidelines, and tools to help you learn project management from planning to completion. If nothing else, it will teach us to think in terms of different elements of any project (i.e., scope, quality, risk, cost, timeline, and key stakeholders) and slowly, eventually, “agile” and “waterfall” will not be jargon anymore!

Social Media (Lisa Kath)

There are three primary reasons that I-O psychologists may want to get involved in social media: (a) helping to close the science–practice gap by sharing empirically based recommendations with organizational leaders, (b) reaping the benefits of being an active/interactive member of the I-O psychology community, and (c) engaging in outreach about I-O psychology as a field and potential career. Yes, there are other ways to achieve these goals, but social media can be an effective, efficient, and (dare I say) fun way to engage with a wide variety of people in ways that benefit yourself and others.

To start, I would recommend that people who are new to a social media platform start small. I like to train the algorithm by being generous with my “likes,” teaching each platform what I would like to see more of. Then, when my feed is curated so that I can see what I want to see, I observe the behavior of active participants to get a better idea of how people on that platform engage. I might graduate to commenting on posts and then try out making some posts.

Social media is everywhere, and it comes in a lot of different varieties to suit different needs and personalities. My anecdotal experience of the different “personalities” of social media platforms comes from the engagement metrics for memes that I post across these platforms. I post the same meme across all platforms, at the same time, on the same day, and the meme may be very popular on one platform and much less so on another. Given the different personalities of social media platforms, a second, “take-home” point is that it is vitally important to align your purpose with the platform(s). Go where you feel comfortable because that’s where you’ll be the most authentic. And if there’s anything that I think is a common thread across social media platforms, it’s that people tend to respond positively when they get a sense that you are being authentic.

To start, follow a simple process: create, schedule, and post memes on your social media account(s) that could include some conceptual advice for good science communication or some tangible advice on the various ways to make memes (i.e., using your smartphone’s photo editing capabilities, using apps or websites designed for this purpose) and using scheduling services (I have used Hootsuite and Buffer in the past). This mini activity will help you pick up some tips on the decisions you will need to make and the tools that may be available to help you engage effectively on social media.

Finally, I would offer the same advice to you that I offered to my kids when they were getting started on social media: check in with yourself when you’re done engaging and ask yourself, do you feel the same or better than when you started, or do you feel worse? If you feel worse, is there a change you can make to improve your experience? If not, get out. Social media is not required to be successful in I-O psychology (or elsewhere in life!). But, as I noted earlier, it can be an effective, efficient, and fun way to share our knowledge, commune with like-minded folks, and engage in outreach for our field. I would love to see more I-O psychologists using social media in creative ways toward these aims.

Our Concluding Thoughts

In our collective journey from graduate school to the professional world, we've shared our perspectives on these three essential skills that we believe deserve some emphasis in academic and professional development.

  1. Public speaking is not just about conquering a fear but mastering a crucial skill that can captivate audiences, enhance communication, and boost career prospects. As both educators, students, and practitioners, investing in public speaking training can lead to more engaging lectures, presentations, and client interactions, ultimately fostering a more impactful educational and professional environment.
  2. Project management, often learned on the job, is an indispensable skill that permeates every facet of our careers. Learning project management early can help students excel in their roles as internal or external consultants, facilitating smooth project execution, client satisfaction, and career advancement. By incorporating project management principles into I-O psychology curricula, educators can equip future professionals with the tools they need to thrive.
  3. In today's digital age, social media is a powerful tool for I-O psychologists to bridge the science–practice gap, connect with their community, and amplify their influence. Embracing social media with authenticity and purpose can lead to more effective knowledge dissemination, networking opportunities, and a stronger presence in our field.

As we conclude, we invite students, educators, and early-career professionals to consider these skills seriously and find ways to develop them in their academic and professional pursuits. They can not only enhance your professional journey but also contribute to the broader impact of I-O psychology at work and outside.

References

Heagney, J. (2016). Fundamentals of project management (5th Edition). American Management Association.

Ingraham, C. (2014, October 30). America’s top fears: Public speaking, heights and bugs. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/10/30/clowns-are-twice-as-scary-to-democrats-as-they-are-to-republicans

Jeanneret, P. R. (2008). The keys to successful project management. In J. W. Hedge & W. C. Borman (Eds.), The I-O consultant: Advice and insights for building a successful career (pp. 215-226). American Psychological Association.

Larson, E. W., & Gray, C. F. (2015). A guide to the project management body of knowledge: PMBOK® Guide (5th ed.). Project Management Institute, Inc.

Li, Y., Gao, Y., & Zhang, D. (2016). To speak like a TED speaker: A case study of tED motivated English public speaking study in EFL teaching. Higher Education Studies, 6(1), 53-59. https://doi.org/10.5539/hes.v6n1p53

Mowbray, R., & Perry, L. B. (2013). Improving lecture quality through training in public speaking. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 52(2), 207-217. https://doi.org/10.1080/14703297.2013.849205

NACE. (2016, February 24). Employers: Verbal communication most important candidate skill. NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition. https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/employers-verbal-communication-most-important-candidate-skill

Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. (2016). Guidelines for education and training in industrial-organizational psychology. https://www.siop.org/Events-Education/Graduate-Training-Program/Guidelines-for-Education-and-Training

Thamhain, H. J. (1991). Developing project management skills. Project Management Journal, 22(3), 39–44, 53. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/learning-leadership-developing-skills-5334

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