The Soft Skills That Will Land You Your Dream Job

A student explains her research to a peer, speaking earnestly with her hands clasped in front of her.

Many graduate students are so focused on developing expertise in their field that they may neglect to realize how important it is to actively work on skills like communication, time management, or conflict resolution. These skills are critical in the workplace, and being able to demonstrate them can really help a student stand out in today's competitive job market.

—Stephanie Miller, MS Environmental Science & Research Trainee at US EPA

The hard and fast technical knowledge you learn in your classes is only a part of what's necessary to land your dream job. Business leaders are becoming more and more concerned with what they call the "skills gap" in today's graduates. They're concerned that today's generation doesn't have all of the necessary soft skills to succeed in today's workplace. And that means they need proof that you, the future employees of various fields, have the skills necessary to do so.

According to a recent Cengage survey, companies are looking for the "best of both worlds" in their new hires. These employees have more than the standard background knowledge and basic requirements of their position. Regardless of the field, they have the people-oriented soft skills employers seek, and in interviews, they can point to specific situations where they successfully applied these skills. Are you doing everything you can right now to develop the skills that will sell you as the best choice for a job? If not, it's time to get started.

Ten Soft Skills You Need to Cultivate Now

If you search for soft skills online, you'll find an overwhelming number of "top skills" that every employee needs to have in order to be successful. What you'll also find is that many of these lists talk about developing these soft skills, but never tell you why or how. The important thing to note about your soft skill development is that the process of gaining these soft skills is what will help you down the road. That process provides the evidence of your abilities.

No interviewer is going to ask you if you have a soft skill; they're going to ask you to show them how you have implemented that skill in or out of the workplace. You need to have concrete examples ready to talk about so that you can paint the picture of a well-rounded, skilled future employee who is ready to work and contribute to the company. For the time being, you should be focused on creating opportunities to work on your soft skills. The following list includes what the Graduate School believes are ten soft skills you can, and should, be working on in your daily life.

  1. Dependability/Reliability—Being dependable means that you do what you say you will, when you say you will. You can be trusted to complete any task, and you will do it well.
  2. Motivation/ Initiative—You should be able to motivate yourself to get tasks done, and take the initiative to find new ways to improve upon not only yourself and your work, but also your organization.
  3. Communication—This is one of those skills you hear about all the time, and that's for a reason. Communication is the key to any human interaction, especially in the workplace, where there are multiple variables affecting situations.
  4. Commitment—Employers want to know that you're not only committed to the company and your job, but to turning out the best work you can, every time.
  5. Creativity—Can you think about problems in a new and interesting way? Show your employer how.
  6. Problem Solving—If you're confronted with a problem, employers want to know that you will do everything you can to fix it. Your creative skills will come in handy here.
  7. Flexibility—Sometimes, your job is going to be a little like a rollercoaster. Can you adjust to the chaos?
  8. Teamwork—You're not done with group work after graduate school. Working in a team is an essential part of almost every job.
  9. Leadership—You may not be a natural born leader, but can you step up and guide either a group of people or a process if necessary?
  10. Time Management—Life gets busy, both in and out of the workplace. You need to be able to balance your workload and prioritize what gets done.

Practice Makes Perfect

It might seem a little daunting at first, but the key to developing your soft skills is to practice them. And the key to selling your soft skills to an employer is to give specific examples of times you've used them. There's no easy way around it, you have to take the time to work on the soft skills that may not be as interesting as your academic and technical work. It's going to be difficult (and maybe a little bit awkward) at first, but the more you practice, the better you'll get—and the better you get, the more examples you'll have to draw from during an interview. Like many things in life, it's up to you whether you acquire these skills or not. Bertin Ondja'a, an educational studies doctoral student and former vice president for GSGA, says that soft skills help build the foundation for success:

While graduate school prepares students for a range of intellectual and professional endeavors, students don't always know who they are and how to become influencers in the workplace at the end of their graduate training. Learning soft skills while in graduate school is a pillar for a successful career and personal development.

But how do you find the time to search out opportunities for development when you're busy working on research, classwork and life in general? It takes some focus and direction, but it can be done. We're all busy, but you can practice your soft skills anywhere. Whether it involves interacting with students, professors or the Cincinnati community, the opportunity to use your soft skills pops up every day. If you need some concrete ideas for how to work on your skills, see the list below.

Take a Class

This may not be the right fit for everyone, but if you have time in your schedule and would like some formal guidance while developing your soft skills, taking a professional development course is an option. There may be a course specific to your program or department, so you should contact your program coordinator to find out if that's the case.

Volunteer in the Community

What better way to practice skills like teamwork and commitment than to work for an organization that doesn't pay you? Volunteering not only helps out your community, it requires you to work on skills you may not use during other parts of your life. Visit the Center for Community Engagement's website for volunteer opportunities in Cincinnati.

Become a Mentor

Leadership, time management, reliability, creativity, problem solving—you name the soft skill and you can practice it while mentoring. Whether that's working with students you teach or getting involved with an organization like Wordplay, mentoring gives you real world experience helping someone else work through problems (academic or otherwise).

Participate in Class

It seems like a no brainer, but class participation is an easy way to develop your soft skills. Think about the things you're asked to do in class: presentations, group work, projects that involve solving a specific problem and adding valuable input to thoughtful conversations. These are all things you'll be required to do in "the real world" of your future career. So stop grumbling about that group project and work with your teammates to be the most successful group in the class!

Teach a Class or Learn About Pedagogy

Teaching isn't possible for all graduate students, but if you're a teaching assistant, take advantage of your time on the other side of the classroom. You have the opportunity to work on every skill listed above while gaining valuable insight into the inner workings of the classroom. This is especially important if you're planning on becoming a professor.

The Center for Teaching and Enhancing of Learning (CET&L) is a great resource for students to develop their pedagogical skills. All graduate students, regardless of whether or not they hold a current teaching role, are welcome to attend any of CET&L's workshops, covering topics ranging from Zoom to active learning strategies and more. Students can also take advantage of the Graduate Student Teaching Resources Canvas site, which includes resources such as getting started as a TA, infusing Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion into your teaching, and using Canvas. 

Get Involved in an Organization

You'll gain the same sorts of benefits from volunteering your time for an on-campus organization that you will from volunteering in the community. Plus, if you're interested in leadership, this is a great place to practice those abilities by chairing a committee, planning an event or even leading the entire organization. Check out graduate student organizations like the Graduate Student Governance Association, your department's Graduate Student Association or any of the others listed on Campus Link

Practicing and demonstrating your soft skills is important for more than just your career; it's important for succeeding in your everyday life. The best part about developing these skills is that the very act of practicing gives you concrete examples of your strengths and weaknesses to use in job interviews (and even beyond—think annual performance evaluations and promotions). Developing your skills isn't going to be a smooth ride, but persevering through the tough spots until you succeed helps show your true character to your future employer. And character (coupled with the years of hard skill expertise you've gained here at UC) is a part of the soft skill set that makes a great employee.

Original article written by Hillary Oberpeul, updated by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School Office. Please send questions or comments about this article to