At the end of each semester, I ask my students to reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown in my course. Teaching the rhetoric course required of all incoming University of Iowa students, I know that many of my students are only taking my course because they must and are likely to never take another course with the Rhetoric Department, so I ask them to think especially about the skills they can transfer to other courses. Every semester, I am surprised by their creativity and thoughtfulness, and often, incredibly grateful to discover that I have been able to make an ever so small impact on their learning. I’ve taught Rhetoric for four semesters now and after starting my internship with the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA), I have realized that I should have been paying a little more attention to my own lessons.
Let me back up a little. I am a musicologist. I research music, composers, and performances, and my particular area of interest is music in late-nineteenth and twentieth century Great Britain. So, although I was excited to be an intern for OSA, I was a little concerned. What could a musicologist bring to archaeology? How would I ever be able to contribute anything to a field so distant from my own? “What should I be doing to prepare myself?” I asked my OSA mentor, Elizabeth Reetz. “I can’t think of anything,” came her cheerful reply. I was so used to being prepared, so used to being expected to offer expert opinions, that I forgot the simple advice I taught my students: don’t forget to think about your transferrable skills.
I’m not alone. Based on the number of university career websites that a quick Google search returns, grad students need reminding that they have transferable skills and that their skills are valuable to employers. Maybe, like me, they get caught up in the specialized knowledge and jargon required to succeed in their field. The more degrees we achieve, the more specialized this knowledge gets, so I think it’s easy to forget what skills we’re actually using or even the spark of curiosity that drew us to the field in the first place. Additionally, there’s also the pressure to ‘know it all,’ so it’s important to remember that we don’t and can’t know everything—learning itself is a skill and any job will have a learning curve.
Like many PhD students, I have many transferable skills. PhD students know how to construct and manage research projects. We can manage and organize large amounts of data and use it to make creative connections. We have written and oral communication skills we can adapt to vastly different audiences. We can manage our time, solve problems, and work without much (if any) supervision. We have excellent interpersonal skills to help negotiate relationships with advisors, peers, and students. We might even help organize events or countless other examples of service to our departments and our fields.
We certainly aren’t lacking the skills, so what are we missing? According to Katina Rogers, in her book Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, it’s a “matter of translation.” We don’t need to learn new skills; we just need to figure out how to translate our current skill set into new situations. Even better, Rogers says that “conducting this translational work can help surface unrecognized skills and achievements.” In hindsight, this is also what I tell my students to do: reflect on what you’ve learned so you don’t lose it, but can use it in the future, otherwise, what was the point?
So, what am I taking away from my internship? That research isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about asking the questions. That having curiosity and a desire to learn is all you need to get started. That research is research, no matter where you go.