Kathy Douglas, Associate Director Career Development Office, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies
Words that rhyme with expertise:
Appease, Bhutanese, breeze, cerise, cheese, éminence grise, freeze, journalese, marquise, overseas, Portuguese, seize, sneeze, squeeze, Stockton-on-Tees,
trapeze, valise, vocalese, wheeze – selections from Oxford Dictionary.com
Part of my job is to encourage students going on the job market to think about their areas of expertise. My goal is for them to confidently position themselves as candidates with specialized knowledge—not only as doers with hands-on experience to quantify on their resume with start and end dates, and not only as technical, language, or soft skill wizards with long lists of certifications and skills. Although these elements are important too.
I have read drafts of resumes where I can barely tell that a student has just spent two to six years taking courses, conducting complicated research, and learning broadly and deeply.
And so I ask them about coursework, concepts, areas of expertise.
- Student: “But I can’t include x on my resume, I don’t have any experience doing it!”
- Me: “Do you know anything about x?”
- Student: “Well, yes, [insert impromptu dissertation on x].”
During these impromptu dissertations, I jot down some of the specific, interesting keywords that roll off a student’s tongue—COP21, LCA, renewables, EPI, deforestation free, paw paw, NRDC, camera trap, biophilic, Hotshot, CEQ, ecosystem services, bioswale, carbon neutral, Clean Air Act, systems thinking, Peace Corps, biochar. I might ask for clarification of a few terms, and suddenly there are more keywords. In a career counseling session, students do not have to worry about impressing me. And if I ask the right questions, they reveal that they do know something. And usually it is a lot of something.
It doesn’t matter if I’m working with a career-changing masters candidate with 10 years of work experience or an international student straight out of an undergraduate program—transitioning from student to expert is intimidating. Most students balk when I ask them to tell me about their expertise.
Afterall, students are students. They are learners. Faculty are the experts.
Surrounded by faculty experts and by peers who know a lot of the same things, students tend to think of themselves as:
- knowing significantly less than others, and
- not knowing anything special.
While I ask questions to tease out specific knowledge and reflect it back, I suggest the following knowledge scale to help students frame and think more objectively about their expertise:
- For the past two years I have focused on…
- I have expertise in…
- I have thorough knowledge of…
- I have knowledge of…
- I am thoroughly familiar with…
- I am familiar with…
- I have heard of it.
When an advisee finishes describing the statewide coastal resiliency planning, renewable energy finance mechanisms, or conflict resolution strategies in small rural communities in a developing country they have been focusing on for two years (but failed to mention on their resume because it wasn’t part of their work experience), I hand them a Post-It note (or three) with keywords and concepts I have gleaned.
And then I prompt them with these questions:
- Are there any areas included here in which you can confidently claim expertise?
- Can you use some of this language to summarize a two-year academic or professional focus?
- Can you identify two or three topics from this list in which you have thorough knowledge?
- Do you have anything to add to knowledge and expertise you haven’t included in your cover letter and resume?
Unpacking knowledge, focus, and expertise is a key process for accurately and strongly presenting oneself. Once these elements are thought out and well articulated, they can be emphasized on a resume (in a variety of ways including a bullet or bullets under degree of Selected Coursework, Projects, or Focus, or with a separate, brief “Research Interest” or “Special Focus” section), highlighted in a cover letter, and included when answering a range of interview questions.