How to build an employability ‘toolbox’ through public engagement

Organising community projects is a way for academics to hone the skills desirable to future employers, says Alice Eden

April 7, 2018

It was not until I actually embarked on a community project and designed public engagement activities that I thought seriously about good practice as an academic rather than a PhD student. By organising the Enchanted Community art project, which reached more than 39,000 people, I noticed a transition in my understanding of responsibility and accountability.

In terms of my academic CV, organising events for the project increased my knowledge of research funding and embedding impact statements in applications. I also began to develop a valuable profile in the area of public engagement.

The work provided evidence of initiative, resourcefulness, gaining funding and creating educational materials. I co-designed and delivered a series of events, much like a scheme of research or a taught course. I developed teaching resources and schedules, and delivered events to the public. These have been useful features for my academic CV and for discussing in interviews.

However, the project also reached beyond the university. I developed professionalism, contacts and experience in many other areas.

Universities are becoming more concerned with employability and offering added-value activities for students, particularly at the postgraduate level. Added-value activities can include employability workshops and training in areas such as blogging, maintaining an online profile or CV writing.

In the arts and humanities, an academic CV will prioritise publications, crucial to academic advancement. However, there are many other elements that should also feature to showcase to potential employers who you are as a person. Such skills will develop you for academia as well as other forms of employment.

My project was founded on interdisciplinary and collaborative working. I demonstrated team-working and managing relationships with people – key skills for many industries. Employers will look for personality to ensure that you are the right “fit“ for the team. Important qualities can include tact, being personable and being a team player. I could discuss the project in interviews detailing a breadth of skills and activities.

For example, self-reflection was a key component in our interdisciplinary methodologies during the project. After the first event, we created a form to record our reflections and best capture points of learning and development. There were challenges, such as time constraints, that were overcome and we had to accept events that did not go as well as others. Being able to reflect on performance, take criticism and continually develop are important abilities – often called transferable skills – for employment sectors.  

Public engagement also allows you to demonstrate your powers of communication. Nationally commissioned research in graduate employability by the Australian government has described communication as a super-skill that can be developed through extracurricular activities. Other valuable skills include leadership and using initiative.

Just a few of the skills that I gained through this work include super-skills such as writing for different audiences and public speaking. I also learned financial management and project management. I could take a rich “skills toolbox” to employers! Public engagement activities can offer you these benefits and give you opportunities to build your portfolio, network and reputation.

But, having witnessed the huge amount of time that any outreach or public engagement activity takes to organise, I would recommend that you start small. Take advantage of funding possibilities. I found internal funding through The Institute of Advanced Study at the University of Warwick. Preferably, you should build on pre-existing contacts or communication channels.

Keep in mind that every interaction with an external institution can lead to something in the future, whether it is a research project, outreach activity, recommendation, reference, knowledge or insight, job or voluntary work. Absorb everything that you can from such experiences, including alternative perspectives and needs that differ from those that you have been accustomed to as a scholar. Managing different points of view through interactions with external partners will increase your confidence and emotional resilience.

Most importantly, develop projects that you believe in and are passionate about. These will best showcase your talents and provide personal development.

Alice Eden is an early career academic and academic tutor in the history of art department at the University of Warwick.

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