Mastering communication skills in graduate school

Graduate school is about more than just memorizing the necessary facts and information in your chosen field. It can be a time to hone communications skills you will use throughout your personal and professional life.

The ability to communicate effectively is a useful skill in any career or personal domain. Communication encompasses numerous things, including how to listen and reflect what you hear, how to resolve conflict, and how to relay ideas and points with clarity and brevity. A firm grasp of key concepts like implicit bias or active listening can help you to create shared meaning and prevent misunderstandings. It may also benefit you to understand how the brain processes information. Understanding how people think can help lead to approaches that are more effective.

While in graduate school, you can expect to work on articulating your ideas and viewpoints through writing and in impromptu conversations. You will give both solo and group presentations. You will collaborate with others and negotiate the ever-tricky act of task sharing in big group projects. And, you will learn to provide constructive feedback to others. All of this development takes place in a safe environment where you’re expected to express yourself and test yourself.

Below are a few ways graduate school will help you tune up your communications. We also provide some resources for how you can get started.

1. Presentation skills are an important subset of communication skills. Most graduate schools provide many opportunities to practice effective information sharing with audiences of varied sizes through presentations of varied length. For example, the elevator speech is a short snapshot of your research interests or your current project objectives.

Want to see an example? Check out some of CEHD’s Ph.D. students competing in our Three Minute Thesis competition. Or, watch Dr. Nicole LaVoi from CEHD’s School of Kinesiology as she provides practical tips on presenting.

2. Writing skills also support career success. Good writers want their work to be easy-to-read, concise, and engaging. They use active voice and avoid terminology that audience members are not likely to know. They also know good writing takes many drafts and benefits from outside editing for content and grammar.

My favorite books on writing are How to Write A lot by Paul J. Silvia and Howard Becker’s book, Writing for Social Scientists (now available for free download here)Additionally, the University of Minnesota’s Graduate School offers academic and professional development workshops and resources, including student-friendly content on writing.

3. Group facilitation is an invaluable skill in collaborative work environments. It is extremely beneficial to be able to ensure a group achieves its objectives, and at onset, to be able to see what roles group members fill and if any critical roles remain unfilled. This is a useful skill because collaborating often results in more efficient and creative problem solving, and working in teams can facilitate high-quality deliverables. An example resource you might find helpful for learning group facilitation practices is The University of Minnesota has an academic subscription to the online learning platform. Current students can view career development courses and videos free of charge.

Practicing all of these skills is part of a strong graduate school experience. For example, in the Department of Family Social Science, students rehearse these communication and facilitation skills in course-related activities, during their pursuit of a thesis or special project, and in volunteer and other work experiences. Whether you are in our Family Social Science Ph.D. program, or in a master’s program in Family Social Science, Prevention Science, or Family Education, our courses include many opportunities to present, and we have students formally and informally talk about their research interests as often as possible. This ensures students have the skills and knowledge they need to be successful.

If you are considering applying to graduate school (or even if you are already in a program), you should give some thought to how you will seek opportunities to hone your communication skills. You might look for professional practicum opportunities in your program, select courses with hands-on components, or find a student group focused on upping your game.

Story by Kristen Johnson, FSoS Prevention Science Program Coordinator.