By Vlad Mackevic
When you are at university, you can draw valuable lessons and extract benefit from almost every activity you do. Despite how much fun partying and participating in student societies is, academic work remains your main activity at uni – and, if you do it well, it can teach you quite a few valuable skills that every employer values.
As you have probably heard countless times from the news, the main problem that modern students face is not the lack of employment opportunities, but the lack of employability skills. Although modern graduates do have great degree-related skills, their weak point is the soft, or transferable, competencies.
So, let’s have a look at what academic work can teach you:
1. Communication (written and spoken)
One of the most obvious ways to enhance your communication skills at university is by writing assignments (essays, reports, research papers or your dissertation) and by giving presentations in front of the class. If your degree course involves those things (especially oral presentations, because that’s the field in which many students do not have much experience), you must use every opportunity to practice your communication skills.
Take every assignment seriously – especially your first year essays because they are the ‘training ground’ where you can practice your skills with minimum risk and discover your unique writing voice that you will find very useful in the future. Employers value employees who are able to express their thoughts clearly, in an organised manner.
Moreover, if your academic work is good, you could take it further and have it published in undergraduate research journals. After all, not many undergraduates can boast having publications and these achievements can add a competitive edge to your employability.
2. Analytical and Research
Once again, your academic work can help you here. Academic writing is all about looking for right information in the library and on the internet (research skills), selecting what is relevant to your assignment question, examining your findings and interpreting them, telling fact from opinion and being critical about your work and that of others, which means knowing the potential drawbacks of the dataset and the methods (analytical skills).
P.S. Browse through this blog – it contains some good articles on academic assignments and how to write them successfully! Watch this space, too – a dozen or articles on academic writing is due to appear in September!
There are very few jobs in the modern world that imply working on your own all the time. You will have to collaborate, to work with others, which means you need to show your teamwork skills.
Working in a team can mean many things: effective communication, being easy-going, open-minded, being a leader, taking initiative to complete tasks, dividing the tasks between the members so that everyone is motivated but not overloaded and feels that his or her contribution is meaningful.
University assignments will be extremely useful for developing those skills – but only if they are group assignments. When working on a group project, you will inevitably have to divide the tasks, assume responsibilities, and, if the group is not doing too well, someone will have to take initiative and make sure something starts working. All these skills are vital for future employment.
Another great way to develop your teamwork as well as organisational skills is to establish a study group for exam revision. It works according to the same principle: the tasks are divided between the members, everyone is pulling their weight, team meetings are organised, and everyone is responsible and willing to help one another. Give it a try – it will take some effort to make the gears spin, but it’s totally worth it.
One of the larger issues that the world of work has with the academic world is too much emphasis on individual tasks and too little attention to group assignments – especially in arts, humanities and social sciences. Of course, it is a problem, but another skill you can develop thanks to this feature of higher education is taking initiative and working independently.
Despite what I said above – that organisations emphasise teamwork – in real life you can often be left on your own to deal with a task. Moreover, employers value workers who do not need a manager breathing down their neck to do the job and feel motivated. Successful individual assignments can be a great way to demonstrate your ability to work on your own.
5. Organisational skills
Once you get into university, being organised is paramount. First of all, unlike in school or college, your study hours are irregular and contact hours with lecturers can also be rather few, with a lot of reading and research to do on your own. Secondly, it can be hard not to make a mess of all your lectures, seminars, labs, assignments for all your modules, society meetings, attempts to find a part-time job, lack of time when you find one, etc. Even academic work alone, with its multiple assignments and clashing deadlines is enough to teach you all about time management, but when it comes to full university experience, you’d better learn to organise yourself early on, while you still have time.
The first year is an introduction to university life – both its academic and the social side. It allows you to understand how this system works, find your unique academic writing style, meet a lot of intelligent people, realise where you stand as a person and as a future professional, what you like, what you’re good at, and so on. Becoming organised in your first year means that you won’t have to do it later, when the time comes to look for a placement and take your studies more seriously. So get yourself a diary and regard every free minute as a chance to do something useful – whatever you define as useful.
6. Information Technology (IT)
The definition of sound IT skills can vary from person to person. For some it’s merely the ability to format a Word document and to create an acceptable spreadsheet; for others, it means being able to write a working piece of software in a few hours. My understanding of this concept is closer to the first definition. Having sound IT skills means being able to work with most popular Office applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint), conduct efficient internet-based research and have great sense of email etiquette. You will have every opportunity to learn all that during your studies.
First of all, let’s define what a leader is. To me, a leader is a person who can spot a problem before anyone else does and solve it – whether by himself/herself or with the help of other people. Leaders must have most of the skills I have mentioned in this chapter. They must be able to communicate effectively, to work hard on their own and in a team, to be organised and able to analyse situations from all angles. Moreover, they must have great interpersonal skills, be friendly and helpful.
Some people think that leadership is something they can never achieve. ‘I’m a follower, not a leader,’ they say. I say: it is time to stop saying that. Stop using that as an excuse for your unwillingness to become great at what you’re doing. Get involved, develop those skills and you will be a leader – I can assure you of that. All it takes is just a little courage.
In short, if you are just starting your studies, then prepare to double your speed, take your academic work seriously from the first day of the first year, and develop those skills. However, if you are nearing the end of your course, then reflect upon everything you have done at university and start extracting little achievements from your academic progress. Everything you do at university can help: that study group you have started in order to revise for the toughest exams, that time when you managed to finish four essays that were due on the same date, and that top-class essay you wrote in your second year. Anything and everything can be a source of successfully learning the skills needed in the real world – and it’s up to you to make best use of it!
P.S. This article is based on a chapter from Vlad Mackevic’s new book CAMP UK 10/2012: THE ULTIMATE POST-2012 UNIVERSITY SURVIVAL GUIDE, in which Vlad explains how to make the most out of your university experience. The book is coming out in October 2012, but extracts from it as well as related articles will be published on The Lecture Room as well as www.FirstYearCounts.com throughout the rest of the year.
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