Communication: The Skill You’re Probably Taking for Granted

By Lindsey Martin

This post marks the third in a series on what we’ve come to call the Career Diversity Five Skills—five things graduate students need to succeed as professors and in careers beyond the academy:

  • Communication, in a variety of media and to a variety of audiences
  • Collaboration, especially with people who might not share your worldview
  • Quantitative literacy, a basic ability to understand and communicate information presented in quantitative form
  • Intellectual self-confidence, the ability to work beyond subject matter expertise, to be nimble and imaginative in projects and plans
  • Digital literacy, a basic familiarity with digital tools and platforms

Graduate students in history should be encouraged to hone their communication skills for a range of audiences and media so they can develop the confidence to speak with whoever is on the other end of the line. Image: Women working at the US Capitol switchboard, Washington, DC, Library of Congress

For anyone embarking on a graduate program in history, a few things are certain at the outset: you will participate in discussions and debates with colleagues; you will write a lot, including research papers and a dissertation; you will attend countless presentations, and likely deliver a few yourself; and you will teach, a responsibility that includes lecturing, leading discussions, and mentoring students.

These tasks are all framed as essential to the process of transforming students into historians. Yet this training very rarely asks students to pause and reflect on how this transformation occurs, or what skills they acquire along the way. As a graduate student, I would have been hard pressed to articulate what specific, employable skills I gained through activities such as teaching and research. But only a year after completing my degree and applying my training in a new professional environment, it is now clear that these seemingly disparate parts of graduate school all worked to cultivate different facets of one indispensable skill: communication.

The definition of communication—the process of conveying and exchanging information—and its relevance to historians may seem self-evident. But while graduate programs in history do heavily emphasize one form of written communication—the scholarly article or monograph—they do so at the expense of all others. Few provide opportunities for students to learn how to draft a memorandum on a tight deadline, hone their public speaking skills, or to write anything for a nonacademic audience.

This narrow range of communication skills prioritized in programs presents challenges to students as they navigate their career prospects. AHA Career Diversity for Historians has identified the ability to communicate to different audiences across different media as essential to flourishing in careers both within and beyond the academy. Yet I have found that there is no quicker way to induce panic among graduate students than to suggest that it would be worthwhile for them to write an op-ed or create a visualization based on their dissertation research. For many already struggling to fulfill rigorous program requirements, these all seem like “extra” skills with an uncertain payoff that would distract them from the work of research and teaching.

But to graduate students who think this is a daunting prospect, I have some good news: whether or not you recognize it, you are already communicating to different audiences in different media. Opportunities to hone a broad range of communication skills are readily available in graduate programs. For example, conference presentations and classroom lectures constitute examples of public speaking—the act of delivering a speech with the goal of informing and engaging an audience. Both require a presenter to craft a persuasive argument and to distill complex information and ideas into a digestible, easy-to-follow narrative. Ensuring this narrative is compelling requires paying attention to the performative aspects of speaking, like structure and delivery. It also requires sensitivity to the ways that different audiences place unique demands on a presentation. A lecture about the Reformation for specialists will be very different in tone and content, for example, than one given to a group of physicists or freshmen.

Participating in classroom discussions and workshops further provide opportunities to develop interpersonal communication skills like evaluating and debating arguments as well as confidently and clearly articulating one’s ideas. Leading discussions among students or colleagues also allows for moments to cultivate active learning, and to develop the ability to hear and respond to others constructively to help a group arrive at mutual understanding. In an environment where everyone is constantly writing, it is also easy for students to overlook that clearly conveying ideas in print is also a valuable skill. In particular, the type of writing fostered by graduate training—the ability to carefully weigh evidence from various sources and distill this massive amount of information into an argument—is a highly valued skill in careers and contexts outside the academy.

Unpacking the various skills that buttress historical training reveals that the learning curve for diversifying communication skills is not as steep as students might first think. Appreciating these skills, however, also requires acknowledging their limitations. Although graduate programs provide the building blocks for learning how to share information with diverse audiences and different media, it is unavoidable that this training clearly prioritizes certain mediums and audiences over others.

Of course there are many ways programs can broaden their graduates’ range of communication skills. One is simply to hold workshops that raise awareness about the value of skills such as public speaking and how to improve them. These skills can also be incorporated into existing curriculum by, for example, challenging students to distill their research into short, accessible talks rather than writing another research paper. Changes such as these would signal that improving and diversifying communication skills is far from a distraction from the real work of historians, but rather an essential part of what it means to be trained in the discipline.

Students should also feel empowered to cultivate new skills and audiences. Developing the intellectual self-confidence to think flexibly about how and where to apply your expertise is an important first step. Current events like the World War I centenary provide opportunities for historians to participate in public discussions by writing op-eds, curating an exhibit through collaboration, or producing a podcast. A student could also identify a particular skill they would like to develop such as popular history writing, and then cast about their work for a topic that might be well suited to the genre. The possibilities are many. It is simply a matter of appreciating the communication skills you already have and recognizing the ones worth cultivating further to take you where you want to go.

For more information on communication and the rest of the “five skills,” check out our new page and the rest of the contributions to this series.

LindseyMartin_photoLindsey Martin is the coordinator of Making History Work, the AHA Career Diversity initiative at the University of Chicago, where she practices communicating in different media by tweeting at @makinghistwork. She received a PhD in Russian history from Stanford University in 2015.

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