For graduate students, ‘practical experience’ can mean a lot of
different things. For some of us this means traveling to foreign
countries for digs and research, volunteering in labs, internships at
potential employers, or simply participation in conferences and
papers. Regardless, practical participation in our fields is extremely
important to our future success.
These days it seems like even “entry-level” jobs are asking for
candidates with experience. It’s a little tricky, but not impossible,
to round out your resume and skill set while you’re in school. This
semester, I have been working as an intern for a marketing/design
firm. I’m not paid, but was able to get some credits toward my
Master’s for my work while I’m there. The work I do for my internship
is invaluable and is giving me experience in lots of areas I’m
interested in pursuing for my career. Many places take interns, and
many more would probably be willing to make an internship if you ask.
It’s also definitely worth doing the legwork to find out how to get
school credit for the position! Although a little clichéd, volunteer
work is another way to get experience while in school — especially if
you can be involved with the organization for a longer term than just
a semester. Work your way into a position that can be applicable to
your career, and always look for opportunities to take leadership
positions. Finally, it is relatively quick, easy, and non-committal to
job shadow someone in your field. You can see what the day to day of
the job is like and hopefully learn a few tips or skills that will
help you in the future!
As a graduate student (or as my partner likes to call me, a “lifelong
learner”) I soon realized early in my career that in order to be
successful, I had to leave my classroom comfort zone. I had that part
down pat. But in order to gain professional experience, I needed to
learn how to write, present, and research outside the classroom.
Ultimately, this means presenting at conferences, submitting articles
to journals, and doing multi-disciplinary research.
A vital aspect that underlies all these out-of-classroom experiences
is collaboration. The professional experience that you will need to
accumulate derives from the ability to work and do research with your
peers, faculty, and advisors. Collaboration is essential to the
process of becoming a professional in your field, and it is vital to
the learning experience. By collaborating with someone on, lets say a
journal manuscript, it
not only gives you experience in research, writing, editing, and
ultimately getting your name in print, but also shows that you work
well with others. And this isn’t limited to multi-authored papers.
Read any acknowledgement section in a book, article, or dissertation
and you will see successful collaboration at work. For me, the road to
experience starts with collaboration.
Practical experience for my discipline is a little different than other peoples. As an archaeologist we are expected to do field work. This means an extended excavation, potentially in a foreign country. We need to show that we can plan an excavation, know the steps for gathering primary data, and use our theories in a practical sense. Doing field work is extremely rewarding in that we gain a wide range of experience, deeply connect with a range of individuals in the profession, and work from the ground up on data and interpretation. However, the requirement to be away in the field for months at a time can be very draining and stressful. It is difficult to balance having a life here and be away for a large amount of time. Once in the field we are faced with uncommon languages, foreign cultures, and in general faced with an unknown world (See Charlotte’s post on fieldwork for more information on what we face). Right now I’m faced with the problem of deciding whether to have a library based dissertation, or one that will take me out of the country for a couple months but will give me both primary data and practical experience. Getting this experience is not necessarily part of our program, so its up to us to be proactive and gain that experience. I’ve been involved in fieldwork where I’ve paid to attend, been a volunteer teaching assistant for, and also been paid to conduct. It is often this range of experience that gets noticed on my CV. In the end, our discipline is known for getting in the dirt and doing field work, so its essential for us to get this practical experience however we can and to get a wide variety of it.
Gaining experience in your discipline is one of the most critical parts of being in graduate school. For PhD students, the obvious training comes in research: the majority of our time is spent on learning how to conduct, structure, and write about research. However, this is really only part of the battle: getting an advanced degree is also about learning how to be a professional. Included in this is how to teach, how to present your research, how to engage with the public (who likely supports your research), begin active in your professional societies, and how to work effectively with your colleagues. No matter how good you are at your research, these other components of becoming a professional will be critical to your success. Most graduate programs don’t work these elements into their programs, although the training can be found elsewhere. In some cases it comes through your advisor or another faculty mentor, through programming offered by your graduate school, or through your involvement with professional organizations. If your discipline is like mine (I’m in anthropology and archaeology), there may also be opportunities to work professionally in your field, or to gain additional experience through teaching at a community college, assisting in a lab, or getting an internship of some sort. Regardless, it is important to remember that getting an advanced degree is more than just learning about how to be an effective researcher, it’s about learning to be a professional, and that includes a wide array of experiences and skills.