Writing and Communication
Strong skills in professional writing, oral communication, and digital media are fundamental to every career. Explore how your activities as a graduate student can develop these abilities and prepare you to apply them in diverse settings.
Communication skills & steps you can take to develop them *
Professional Writing Skills
A major outcome of graduate education is the ability to write well in a variety of genres to different audiences. From seminar papers and grant proposals to dissertations and research publications, graduate education equips you with one of the most highly sought after skills in all careers: excellent writing skills. Take time during your degree to develop writing skills in a variety of genres to prepare for the writing you will do in a future career.
Steps You Can Take
Participate in a Writing Workshop, Writing Group, or Course
Start early. From the outset of your graduate program, think strategically about the resources that can help you develop your writing skills.
The Graduate Writing Center (GWC) offers workshops for all stages of the graduate career, from “How to Write an Academic Grant Proposal” to “Writing the Dissertation: Strategies and Pitfalls.” The Center features workshops on writing proposals for specific grants such as “Applying for a Fulbright-IIE Grant” and prepares students to conduct responsible research through its two-part series on “Human Subjects Research: What is it? How Do You Navigate through the IRB Process?” Each spring semester, the Center also offers a 2-unit seminar course (GSPDP 320) on Academic Writing for Graduate Students. The Center also offers writing groups, writing boot camps, and a limited number of individual consultations.
You can also hone your writing skills and receive peer feedback through a weekly writing group hosted by Berkeley’s Humanities and Social Sciences Association geared to early career researchers (including graduate students, postdocs, and visiting scholars) affiliated with the University.
Whether you are seeking feedback from peers or faculty members, it’s important to articulate what type of feedback you are seeking for a particular piece of writing: see “How to Get Better Writing Feedback and Make Better Use of It,” Academic Coaching and Writing (2015).
For advice on how to start a writing group, see “The Writers’ Workshop at Work,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2011). For tips on establishing and maintaining a regular “writing date,” see “The Writing Date,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2008).
Write a Research Prospectus
Doctoral students may be required to prepare a formal research prospectus as part of their progress to degree. Even if the prospectus is not required, there is intellectual and professional value to be found in writing them. A research prospectus, like a grant proposal, shows that you know how to define the scope of a project, understand the steps needed to complete it, and recognize the kind and scale of resources needed—skills valuable in academic and professional careers.
Guidelines and expectations for the research prospectus vary by field, but many include or address the following types of categories: research problems, research questions, assumptions, theoretical issues, literature review, general research plan, anticipated difficulties, anticipated contributions. Your department may retain a file of prospectuses submitted by previous students, or you may wish to consult more advanced students to track down samples.
Write a Grant or Fellowship Proposal
Skills in grant writing are vital to success in a variety of academic and professional careers. Graduate students at Berkeley often write proposals for University or external funding to support their research. External sponsors of research include organizations such as the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the Fulbright program, National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), Social Science Research Council (SSRC), and many more. The act of writing this type of proposal further develops widely valued skills. It provides opportunities to frame your project for different audiences and purposes—a process that helps further illuminate your research methods and findings.
For a list of major University and extramural funding sources, see “Graduate Fellowships and Awards,” Berkeley Graduate Division. The UC Berkeley Research Development Office provides a general list of proposal-writing resources and specific information about preparing proposals for major grants from institutions like the NIH and NSF. Field-specific grant-writing resources are often provided by professional associations.
See also these resources:
- How to succeed in grant writing: “Grant-Writing Tips for Graduate Students,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2010)
- Tips on the pitfalls of grant writing: “How to Fail in Grant Writing,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2010)
- On the “outreach” grant proposal: “How to Write an Outreach Grant Proposal,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2006)
Publish a Paper in a Professional Journal
Opportunities to publish occur throughout graduate school, not just after the dissertation or thesis is complete. Assess your course-related writing at regular intervals and identify contributions that might be ready for submission to journals in your field or related interdisciplinary journals. A publication is increasingly necessary on the academic job market, and it is also a strong indicator that your professional writing skills are ready for multiple career paths.
One of the most important steps in seeking publication in a professional journal is assessing “fit,” or selecting the right journal for submission of your particular paper. Reading back issues of journals will enable familiarity with the journal’s conventions (focus, style, length, organization) and it is important to tailor your paper to fit a journal’s specifications, which are usually listed on their websites.
Develop Skills through Writing Your Master’s Thesis or Doctoral Dissertation
Writing a Master’s thesis or dissertation has payoffs far beyond writing up the findings of your research; it develops your ability to analyze ideas, synthesize concepts, and communicate knowledge to technical and professional readers. It also helps you develop transferable skills such as problem solving and project management. Much of the advice about how to embark on large writing projects ultimately boils down to various strategies for making them more manageable: writing for a short stretch every day rather than in periodic marathons; thinking in discrete chapters, sections, or even paragraphs; leaving your writing at a point that’s easy to pick back up again the next day; and so on. Some recommend practicing these skills from the earliest point of your postgraduate career by treating seminar papers as practice for dissertation writing (see “Your Dissertation Begins in Your First Seminar,” Chronicle of Higher Education 2016).
To gain a sense of what dissertations look like in your field (or, even more specifically, when working with your particular dissertation chair), visit the Campus Library’s website on locating Berkeley dissertations written by previous Ph.D. students.
Write Abstracts for the Dissertation or Shorter Pieces of Writing
In many fields, dissertation abstracts are required as part of fellowship and academic job applications. Even when this is not the case, writing an abstract for personal use provides a chance to synthesize the major claims, methods, and stakes of your project in a holistic way—a useful exercise to undertake and reevaluate at various stages before the entire work is completed.
It may also be useful to maintain provisional abstracts for shorter works—such as dissertation chapters or articles—to help remind yourself of the broad questions and overarching contributions as ideas develop.
See “Abstracts,” The Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill
Oral Communication Skills
Whether through research presentations in seminars, lab group meetings, or at professional conferences, or through explaining concepts while teaching, graduate school provides many opportunities for you to develop your skills in oral communication, skills that are vital for your success in a wide variety of academic and professional careers.
Steps You Can Take
Teach as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI)
Teaching as a GSI is a required component of many graduate programs at Berkeley, but it also provides an excellent opportunity to cultivate the widely utilized academic and professional skills of oral presentation and communication.
Be aware that opportunities to work as a GSI may also exist outside your home department. Each department has its own hiring procedures and process. In particular, interdisciplinary departments, centers, or institutes—such as the American Studies Program or the Gender & Women’s Studies Department—often seek GSI assistance for large courses. Many of the large science classes also draw heavily on graduate students in other programs.
In addition, the Humanities and Social Sciences Association offers an Opportunities for Interdisciplinary Teaching Series that aims to increase knowledge exchange across disciplines in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and to create a learning community for developing teaching skills among graduate students, visiting scholars, and visiting student researchers.
For tips on improving your presentation and communication skills in the classroom, see the newsletter on “Oral Communication in the Academy” (esp. “Public Speaking as Non-Fiction Performance” and “Speaking with Power: An Interview with Award Winning Teacher Guadalupe Valdés”) from the Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning (2001).
Give a Guest Lecture and Receive Feedback
Many opportunities exist at Berkeley to give guest lectures—you just have to find the right situation and make your interest and expertise known. Consult course catalogues in your department or related fields to find lecture courses being offered in your area of specialization. Contact the professor to ask if they would be willing to let you offer a guest lecture in one of their course sessions that semester—many are happy to let graduate students gain the lecturing experience and to offer subsequent feedback.
Present a Poster or Paper at a Professional Conference
Conference experience can be important not only in academic employment, but in other careers where the ability to analyze information, synthesize concepts, convey and exchange ideas, and receive and respond to feedback is valued. Annual campus, state, national, and international conferences provide regular opportunities to practice these skills.
For advice on presenting at conferences, see “Simple Guidelines for Speaking at Conferences,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2016) and “A TED Speaker Coach Shares 11 Tips For Right Before You Go On Stage,” TED Blog (2016)
To learn how to find the conferences best suited to your work, see “How To Keep Track of Academic Conferences Without Losing Your Mind,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2009). Be aware that some conferences are scams; for advice on how to assess the legitimacy of a conference, see “Red-Flag Conferences,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2009).
Practice and Get Feedback on Your Job Talk
Before presenting your research to potential employers (academic or professional), you should practice in front of multiple audiences, in a timed setting, to understand the mechanics of a good presentation. Learning to tailor your talk to different audiences is an invaluable communication skill in any employment setting. Invite friends—whether academically trained or not—to observe your presentation and ask questions (you may wish to provide them with sample questions, or types of questions, to ask). Afterward, ask for feedback on various aspects of the talk: how clear it was, whether you spoke quickly or slowly, if you engaged the audience, etc.
For advice on how to prepare an academic job talk, attend the Berkeley Career Center’s workshop on “Nailing the Job Talk.” For additional resources, see “How to Deliver a Halfway-Decent Job Talk,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2014); “Talking the Good Talk,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2012); “Giving a Job Talk in the Sciences,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2001).
Develop Your Research “Elevator Pitch” and Participate in Grad Slam
In academia, the elevator pitch is a succinct summary of your dissertation or thesis research for academics or professionals in other fields. The ability to clearly explain complicated concepts in a short time period, and to people previously unfamiliar with the material, translates well to any number of professional careers. In fact, you may wish to develop multiple versions of your elevator pitch; depending on the type of question asked (What is your topic? How did you develop your topic? Why does your topic matter?), you may need a range of “elevator” explanations.
See “Creating an Elevator Pitch—Two Minutes or Less,” University of California, Santa Barbara Career Services.
Participate in Grad Slam, a UC systemwide competition in which graduate students present their research in a three-minute presentation.
Present Research to Academic, Professional, or Community Groups
Fostering interest in your research both within and beyond academia can generate career possibilities. Identify groups for whom your research is relevant and seek out opportunities to speak about your research in public venues such as local libraries, museums, and relevant professional or community institutions. You may find that stepping outside the academic setting affords a fresh perspective on your research and audience provides invaluable experience for a variety of professional opportunities.
Cultivate Public Speaking and Interpersonal Skills
Berkeley offers diverse resources for helping students cultivate self-confidence, clarity, and efficacy in public speaking. CAL Toastmasters meets weekly to help students, educators, and professionals develop confident and effective public speaking techniques. Toast of Berkeley is part of Toastmasters International, a world leader in communication and leadership development. In addition, the Townsend Center for the Humanities hosts annual workshops on “Public Speaking for Graduate Students,” led by Lura Dolas, public speaking coach and Head of the Acting Program, UC Berkeley.
For STEM graduate students, Berkeley Science Leadership and Management (SLAM) offers a seminar series on navigating typical opportunities and issues that arise in the scientific workplace, such as how to lead and mentor others effectively or negotiate interpersonal challenges and difficult conversations.
Conduct Practice Interviews
If you are offered an interview with an academic or professional institution, it is important to practice interview skills with multiple audiences. Ask your committee, your colleagues, your friends, and your family members to conduct “mock” interviews—even if you have to provide the questions ahead of time, it helps to rehearse your answers out loud and in front of an audience.
For many jobs, interviews are increasingly conducted over Skype or other video-conferencing services. For these types of interviews, practice with anyone who is willing to work with you to ensure that you get the details right: how close to sit to the monitor, where to look (e.g., directly at the camera), and whether your internet connection is sufficiently strong, etc.
For advice on various aspects of the process—from etiquette tips and how to dress for interviews to negotiating job offers and salaries—check out the Berkeley Career Center’s site on “Interviewing and Job Offers.”
Digital Media Skills
Whether you are pursuing a career in academia, government, industry, or the non-profit sector, knowing how to use digital media is increasingly important. Digital media can help you to widely disseminate and publicize your research. Additionally, creating an online professional presence is beneficial for building your professional identity, networking with others in careers that are of interest to you, and creating visibility of your work that can support you in finding jobs within and beyond the academy.
Steps You Can Take
Use Video, Digital Media, and Other Tools to Present Your Research
To reach wider audiences, it can be useful to use digital tools to present your research and ideas in a visually compelling form. You can post videos on YouTube and publicize them through Twitter or on blogs, or apply for the UC Grad Slam competition. In this UC systemwide annual competition, graduate students compete to communicate their research in a concise, accessible, and engaging form—and to earn a share of $10,000 in prize money in the process.
See “Scholarship Beyond the Word,” Educause Review (2015)
Apply for an ORCID
ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor ID) is a registry that associates a unique numeric code with your name. It provides a way to ensure that others will properly identify you as the author of published work, even under different versions and spellings of your name. While the ORCID community includes university-affiliated researchers, it also includes institutions such as national laboratories, commercial research organizations, research funders, publishers, national science agencies, data repositories, and international professional societies. To register for an ORCID number, visit their website.
Contribute to Blogs and Use Twitter
Don’t wait for others to discover your research and understand its potential applications. Consider contributing to group blogs or using Twitter to share your expert opinions on current issues and start your own web presence. At the same time, remember that material published online is hard to erase—so think carefully about what and how much to share.
Establish Professional Profiles on LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and Discipline-Specific Forums
Develop a presence on these types of professional networking sites to make sure you are recognized as a subject-matter expert by potential employers, colleagues looking for participants in projects and conferences, people conducting research across disciplines, or members of the media. It is important to take an active role in developing the online presence you want others to find; see “Creating and Maintaining a Professional Presence Online,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2012), “How to Curate Your Digital Identity as an Academic,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2015) and “How to Overcome What Scares Us About Our Online Identities,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2014).
For specific information on developing and maintaining a LinkedIn profile, see the Berkeley Career Center site on “Using LinkedIn To Develop Your Career.”
You may also wish to consider establishing a personal website, an arena in which your sphere of control over the content is greatest. For advice about the pros and cons of personal websites in academic life, see “Do You Need Your Own Website While on the Job Market?,” Chronicle of Higher Education (2011). For advice on how to use search engine optimization (SEO) to improve the ability of digital audiences to locate your work, see “Intentional Web Presence: 10 SEO Strategies Every Academic Needs to Know,” Educause Review (2012).
* Some skills serve in the development of more than one competency. Some skills may apply more to one discipline than to another. Keep in mind that the list of skills and steps you can take to develop these competencies is not exhaustive.
Communication skill-building workshops & events
|September 22||How to Write an Academic Grant Proposal||Graduate Writing Center|
|October 19||Editing and Revising Writing Workshop||Graduate Writing Center|
|November 8||Writing the Dissertation: Strategies and Pitfalls||Graduate Writing Center|
|November 14||Scientific and Technical Writing Workshop||Graduate Writing Center|
Selected resources to help deepen your Communication skills
|Consultations on Academic Writing||Graduate Writing Center|
|Graduate Services in Doe Library||UC Berkeley Libraries|
|Graduate Assembly Travel Award||Graduate Assembly|
|Conference Travel Grants||Graduate Fellowships Office|
|GSPDP 320: Academic Writing for Graduate Students||Graduate Writing Center|