Confession 1: I hate writing letters of recommendation. Of course, I still do it and I try to do it well. But I find writing letters of recommend to be relatively stressful. Each year, thousands of students graduate with an undergraduate degree in Psychology across the UK. Relatively few of these graduates continue in research (i.e. MSc and PhD programmes). The majority of graduates get other kinds of jobs, working for the NHS, schools and businesses. It is writing letters for these students that I find stressful. How can I write a good letter of recommendation that helps my Sussex students stand out from all of those other well-qualified applicants?
One approach I take is to try and communicate to the letter-reader how the skills my students have gained doing their final year research project relates to the job for which they have applied. Oh, you need someone who can be in charge of confidential information? Well, Emma will be able to do that because she has experience maintaining a database of confidential documents (consent forms, hardcopy data). The post holder should “be trustworthy because the role involves making payments”? In my lab, Matthew was entrusted to handle money and keep track of expenses (participant reimbursements). And the job requires excellent communication skills? Rosie has outstanding communication skills. As part of her research she routinely explained the goals and findings of our research to members of the public, both through recruitment emails and in person.
Skills like these are transferable skills: skills that you can learn in one domain and use in another. It turns out that psychological research is filled with transferable skills. It really is a great foundation for so many things. To do research well, not only do you need to have good “practical” skills (e.g. time management, organisation, attention to detail) you need to write strong, convincing arguments like philosophy students; write about complicated information such that someone from another discipline can understand like journalism students; be able to read and understand dense, technical scientific writing like neuroscience students and have a good understanding of mathematical principles like statistics students. These are highly marketable skills—and all programmes equip students to learn them the way psychology does.
Confession 2: I love doing research. I love pretty much the entire process from formulating the first question to creating a spreadsheet to presenting my findings with a snazzy powerpoint in front of a large audience. I especially love conducting research with young children because I have to be creative. I can’t just ask a 2-year-old “how do you know what this word means?” and expect an informative verbal answer. Instead, I need to create tasks that are easy—but not too easy!—for young children to complete that still answer the research question without asking them directly while maintaining validity and reliability.
Fortunately, I understand that even though doing a final year project where you can read storybooks to preschoolers or interact with unusual objects is fun, not everyone wants to continue in research after graduation.
So now, one of my goals is to not only tell employer letter-readers what transferable skills my students have learned, but also to tell my students what transferable skills they have learned and to help them decide which tasks they enjoy and are good at, so they can make informed decisions about which jobs to apply for. Although many of my students will not continue in research, I hope they will enjoy whatever career path they do choose as much as I enjoy mine.
If you are a current student or recent graduate, the Careers and Employability Centre would be happy to help you further with whatever stage of the process you are in: from planning to get the most out of your studies, to writing a CV, to finding employment opportunities. Drop-in appointments and one-on-one sessions are also available. The next Careers Fair will also take place on 4 November 11:00-3:00 at the Amex Stadium. Over 100 potential employers will be there.
Dr Jessica Horst is the Careers and Employability Liaison for the School of Psychology. She is a developmental psychologist and director of the WORD Lab. Jessica has recently published a book on transferable research skills https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138785328