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.”