12 Course Areas You Might Want to take Enhance Employability Prior to Graduation

Field-Based Teaching & Research, Lao PDR 2014

In today’s economy and with the number of graduates each year, employment post-graduation is what every prospective and recent graduates contemplate on as the day approach for that final moment and as the student loan repayment period gets activated. So, before you start receiving those pretty letters in the mail of the so-called reminder, getting your feet down as soon as possible is very essential. It takes about 6 months depending on several factors to get a job after graduation; that is, if you start searching immediately prior to or after graduation like a squirrel gathering nuts before the fall ends in preparation for the winter months ahead.

But, if you are still in school or planning to go back to school, don’t waste time on courses that would limit or restrict your chances of employment after graduation. Apart from the degree required core course requirements, use your elective courses for skills or theory-based courses that could increase your chances of employment by serving as a opportunity to learn new skills that can be built on. Employers look at a wide range of qualities in prospective jobs applicants in order to make a decision.

Prior job experience, which seems to be the most important and salient predictor of employment apart from education, the skills that you possess are also very important in the eyes of employers.

Generally, skills are what we used on the job to get the job done, which we highly linked to our past experiences. Overtime, we developed new skills and also improve on old ones while on the job. Thus, while some skills are learned on the job, others can be learned while in school or at your own timing, will and motivation.  When you have time, try visiting YouTube and learn new skills by following closely on tutorials videos that might interest you. Those skills learned while in college are as important as those learned on the job. However, always practice to avoid forgetting. The more you practice the more you become superb.

Education is the key to everything we do. From the time we were born until the day we meet our maker, life is an educational adventure full with positive and negative lessons from which we repeatedly learn and relearn. Education never ends and don’t be fooled that by the time you receive your degree; that’s it. There is a reason when you graduate, the occasion is called commencement.  When you graduate from a specific program, you are actually just starting, thus, you are “commencing.” Thus, the process continues and it only ends the day we kick the bucket.

There are various ways in which we can learn. We learn formally, informally and non-formally. However, in today’s world formal education is a paramount recipe to success. I am not legitimizing that those who learn non-formally or informally aren’t successful or that only formal education folks experience success.

Success is a relative term and it highly depends on hard work, motivation, focus, determination, and fairness. Some would argue that not all successful people pass through the lenses of these attributes. To some, what is consider success was given to them via their birth right; that is, they were born into success. For the most part, about 95% of the rest of us have to make success what we consider success to be. Thus, don’t think that there is a formula for success, because it is dynamic and depends on us. Even if success has formula, that would highly depend on us.

How success is define remains a subjective matter because we all view success differently. To some, success means receiving a meaningful education, others success means having a family they love and care about, while to others success could mean spending their time doing wonderful things in their neighborhoods to bring about peace, social justice and community development. Others view success relative to wealth and riches, while some consider success as having a great job. Yet to some, success means having their daily bread each day at the time with no waste. No matter how we conceptualize success, education is an important ingredient that could assist us achieve the success we dream off.

Personally, I view success as having an education which my siblings were not fortunate to receive, a family that I love and care for and also reciprocating the good things back to others who need assistance.

I was very lucky to be able to achieve a wonderful education after years as a refugee. The education I had today influence the decisions that I make each and every day along with common sense. But, do we sometime ask ourselves where in the educational spectrum (e.g. theory vs. applied, science vs. art) would I like to focus during my studies that would serve as a plus after my studies when seeking a job.

When I was completing my undergraduate and graduate studies, I always asked myself this question. What courses should I take that would make a big difference out there after graduation? Which courses do I have prior knowledge in that I can build on during this time of my studies? What new can I learn from other courses? Should I focus on more theory based courses compared to skill-based (applied) courses? Upon graduation, where would I like to spend my time working? In the office or at the field? In the classroom or at the clinic or hospital setting? These basic questions help you navigate your true desire for work after your college/university.

For me, I always saw myself out there in the field directly impacting the lives of those I work with and their knowledge, experiences and skills directly impacting me. With that said, whether you end up at the field working or cubed in an office setting, conditions at the time depicts your preferences of what sort of job you might land. So, unless you set that as the default preference to either seek only an office-oriented job or field-based jobs depends on you. For a matter fact, you are the one that’s going to be responsible for whatever commitment you made and should be comfortable with your choice. However, with the difficulties in getting a job it is more likely we might lax our desire to be too rigid with our desire. You can grab what is offer, if you like it, and use that to look for the stars. Never say no to an opportunity, but sometimes, saying no might be the right thing to do.

So while in school, I kept very close to both desires taking courses that facilitated skills development as well as those courses that enhance my conceptual understanding of simple to complex issues.

However, in today’s workplace, apart from your experience, employers are more interested in skills. If your credential are full with too many theory-based knowledge, you might have a job, but it might take a longer time than the average to get employ. Even though this might not be the case with everyone, having more skills could increase your chances of being employed quickly than your counterpart with a lot of theoretical background. It should be emphasized that even though skills are relevant, but experiences also matter the most.

So, if you are planning to attend graduate school in the next few months or you are already in there, after completing the required theory-based courses for your degree, I would encourage you to focus more on skill-based courses. The reason is that during these courses you get to learn a lot and if you continue to utilize those skills after classes end and is true to yourself, finding a job could be pretty easy, if not, quickly.

Even if you don’t have that much experience, the skills you’ve developed could still play an integral role in getting you hired! You could start at the Entry Level, if you have little to no experience and climb the ladder gradually or could get started by applying to mid-career positions, if you have the equivalent experiences and the relevant sets of skills.

I will now try to highlight some of the skills you might want to develop or enhance while in school. Not to forget, always do your best to attend any skill-based professional development workshop that is free or that you could attend, if funded. If you learn of a skill-based workshop and would like to attend for a good cause, you might be able to solicit funding to attend by contacting your student leadership organization on campus or talk to someone at your department or your supervisor. Always ask someone because the answers are out there ready to be explored. Not asking limits and prevents us from exploring our options.

  1. Monitoring & Evaluation Skills

If you conduct a quick search for jobs in the monitoring and evaluation sector, you will come to realize that the emphasis in most instances in the job description will focus more on the skills and experiences spectrum. Even though some M&E job functions could highlight the need for policy knowledge, the underlying issue is that you need to know and understand the science and art of conducting M&E. So, before you get out of graduate school make sure you take a course in M&E.

2. Project Management

As the name depicts, project management is a crucial skill to learn. While an entire degree awarding program can be done in PM, taking a course, if that’s your only option, could help you develop the essential skills needed to plan, initiate, implement, control, and close a project. In this course, you could also learn how to develop a project proposal as well as grant writing, if your project requires seeking grants. There are lots of jobs were these skills are major aspects that are considered by the hiring managers. Even though planning is totally a separate kind of skill, project management involves a lot of planning and iterations.

Also, if you take an intensive project management course, one skill you might developed as part of the course is grant writing. Depending on your financial status, I would recommend taking a grant writing course either as a full or half credit.

Grant writing involves a unique form of writing and the ability to persuade your audience about the need to fund a particular project. This process requires good writing, a lot of review and editing.

3. Statistics

Statistics may sound boring to some because it requires a lot of work with numbers and making sense of numbers to facilitate decisions.

In the business and financial sectors, having advance statistical skills even if you don’t have a degree in statistics, but the skills and experiences you could see yourself doing exactly what others purely trained and educated could be doing.

I encourage you to break the anti-statistics spirit and go for it. Now a days, a lot of the calculations are done with advance software installed on a computer. All you need to do is apply your understanding of the principles of numbers and statistics to make decision that could transform your organization.

4. Research

Similarly, research is an important skills to learn and master. Usually, there are several opportunities on campuses where professors hire students as Research Assistants (RAs) on a given project. I want to encourage to look for these opportunities as they not advance your research skills, but also expand your experiences. You could also do a research project towards your final thesis.

However, learning both the theoretical aspects of research and how research is actually done are very important matters. We should always bridge the gap between theory and practice.

5. Social Entrepreneurship

Today, entrepreneurs are all over the place. You can take a course or two in entrepreneurship to help you develop the knowledge and skills needed. I have few friends, who after graduating went on to established their own organizations. Today, those folks are doing a great job and putting their dreams into action. You can be your own employer. Isn’t that awesome?

6. Organizational/Non-Profit Management

Management is a very important skill to learn. Again, while an entire degree program requirement could be focused on just organization and or non-profit management learning these skills will pay back in subsequent time. Also, non-profit management is a big business and if you learn it well and is good at it you could land to great places.

7. Geographic Information System

Geographic Information System (GIS) involves a lot of different areas of focus. Learning GIS widens your chances of employment, but remember to keep refreshing yourself as people have the tendency of forgetting what they learned.

A lot of organization in the private and public sectors are now applying GIS capabilities to the way in which they make decision and operate. Thus, learning the basics or advanced GIS allows you to reach out more into the employment spectrum and stand out…brave!

8. Business, Finance and Management

I group these into one bucket not because they seem to be the same, but are very different areas of expertise.

Now a days, you need to have some sort of business knowledge to run even a small project or organization. This also applies to the finance aspect as well. It is very important that you have some kind of relevant previous knowledge and understanding of business and finance. While both fields are complex and contain different areas of specialization, getting the basics provide you with the edge against other job seekers who don’t.

I am not talking about getting a degree or CPA or CFA here, if that is not the central focus of your degree program requirement. What I am talking about is that consider yourself a Project Manager for example. While the finances of a given project you are working on might be handled by someone linked directly to the project team or the Project Management Office (PMO) of your organization or a donor agency, understanding how the finances and business aspects of the project are documented, communicated and analyzed is very important to you as the project manager.

The project manager is the  one in charge of the project and he/she should have a FULL understanding of all aspects of the project. The Project Manager is like the black box of project management.

9. Policy Research & Analysis

Policy research and analysis are skills that you might need, if you are interested in working directly with institutions, organizations and governments involved in policy issues. This relates back to the previous point made about developing your research base.

There are some really great jobs out there for which organizations are seeking individuals with policy analyses experiences and skills sets. Though taking one or two courses in policy research and analysis might not necessarily enhance your skills all that much, doing a lot of personal research on various policies of interests could expand your knowledge, views and serves as an opportunity that employers could see your ultimate career interest.

10. Decision Methods/Science

Decision is what makes an organization functions and operates in accordance with stated goals and objectives. Typically, decisions involve complex processes from the stakeholders directly to those managing projects and down to the project benefactors.

Decisions have to be made along all those lines. Decisions can be derived using advanced analytics or other forms of statistical inferences and methods.

Today, organizations from around the world are in search for individuals with expertise in decisions sciences and analytics. Courses with connections to decision science should be encouraged across all curriculum.

11. Professional Communications

Communications in the workplace is paramount to individual success, performance and the attainment of goals and objectives. Professional communication is the ability to communicate to others via whatever channel necessary and keeping a tracking systems, which allows you to monitor your inbound and outbound contacts, while staying focus on other aspect. As you grow professionally, there are so much things you will learn along the lines of communications in the workplace. It is very important.

12. Teaching

Not everyone is a teacher. Teaching is an art and also a science. While you might not want to be a teacher by profession. There are certain attributes of teaching that can be transferred to other job functions. Some attributes of teaching that can be transferred to other jobs include being patient, coaching, mentoring, training, tutoring, leading, demonstrating, presenting ideas with the emphasis to communicate knowledge and facilitate learning.

So, even though you are not planning to be a classroom teacher by the traditional sense of the word teaching, you can use all the excellent attributes as a teacher in jobs like: Training Coordinator, Education Coordinator/Manager, Tutor/Mentor, Trainer, etc. I think you get the big picture already.