Skills to Develop in Graduate School


Your primary task in graduate school is to develop skills that will help you develop and succeed in your professional life: researching, teaching, and therapeutic skills.

Research Skills

There is often the least amount of structure with respect to developing skills in this area. It is unusual for a faculty member to approach a student to request that the student help with the faculty's research, therefore, the student should make an effort to introduce him- or herself to faculty members with whom he or she is interested in working. Prepare beforehand by reading the newest published studies that this faculty member has authored. Discuss the possibilities of doing research with the faculty member. Find out what kinds of tasks for which you could be responsible.

Try to work with a number of faculty members over the course of your graduate career. This will help you develop a number of different research skills and knowledge bases. In addition, you have a larger number of people who know you in different situations and can write recommendations for you when you go on.

Besides developing skills in research design and in asking interesting and important questions, it is also important to develop skills in writing successful grant proposals. Try to work with a faculty member who has expertise in this area and is willing to share his or her strategies for success with you and to critique your efforts in writing grant proposals.

Teaching Skills

Even if you're sure that you don't want to teach, learn how to teach and get some experience doing it. Keep your options open. You will probably be required to teach as part of your job at some point (training, seminars, in-service). You may find that you love teaching and want to continue doing it.

Learn to be as good at it as you possibly can because this is an important professional skill whether you continue in academia or not. If you have had experience teaching and you are good, you are more likely to be considered for an academic position (except at a research university). If you have taught before, you are more likely to have course lectures developed, which is less preparation you have to do when you teach full-time.

Learn how to teach. If your graduate program offers a course on teaching, take it. If it doesn't, talk to faculty and other graduate students who are good teachers at the undergraduate level. Find out what their strategies are; what their perspective on teaching is; how they handle assignments, tests and test preparation, what they think about lecture versus discussion. In addition, contact the publisher of the text that is being used in the course(s) with which you are assisting or teaching and make sure that you get the auxiliary materials--test banks, instructor manual (with lecture suggestions, audio-visual aids, demonstration and activity ideas, and advice and tips for the novice instructor), transparencies, and complimentary videos, CDs, or videodiscs.

Development or sequencing of experience. Usually, one begins teaching by being a teaching assistant for quiz sections of general or developmental psychology. Often one will be responsible for a number of sections that meet once or twice a week. If one has a teaching assistantship, the assumption is that, including in-class time, he or she will be working about 20 hours each week.

Depending on one's area and the demand for teaching assistants, he or she can then move to being a teaching assistant for lab sections of laboratory courses. The TA has more independence and responsibility in this position. He or she is required to explain laboratory procedures and psychological theories in a lecture or discussion format; to maintain, set up, and put away equipment; to assign questions and papers and to grade them; and to supervise and help students as they complete lab projects.

Many schools offer summer school courses and if the faculty do not want to teach these courses, experienced graduate students are paid to teach them. These courses are usually general, adjustment, or developmental psychology. On rare occasions, outstanding graduate students may also teach a course during the school year as well.


Search for and take the most challenging internships at which you can be successful. Research the sites beforehand; talk to people who have been at them. Find out what tasks, expectations, and responsibilities are involved. Find out what kind of training and support are available from the permanent staff.

You want to develop and hone your skills in a work setting, but you want to do it in an environment that fits your present abilities. Make sure the site is a good match for you. These are the professional skills you will be using a good part of the rest of your life, so do the best you can to learn everything you can.

Depending on your more long-term goals, your internship, teaching, and research experiences may be focused in different ways. Do some realistic thinking about what you want to do upon receiving your graduate degree and get the experience and skills you need to accomplish those goals.