In a recent Q & A, the current Senior Advisor at the National Science Foundation discusses her experience with graduate studies, the importance of graduate education and the need to enhance communication in the industry.
You are an alum of Kansas State University – received your Bachelor’s and Master’s in English Language and Literature/Letters. Why did you decide to pursue your Masters in English Language and Literature/Letters?
Gail McClure: I pursued my master’s in English Language and Literature/Letters, because I loved the content and felt motivated and passionate about it. In large part, I decided to pursue my master’s because I felt I would gain stronger analytical and conceptual skills. It’s hard to be a good writer if you are not a clear thinker, and becoming a clear conceptual thinker takes practice and exercise. So I thought the master’s program would let me hone in on those skills that would form a solid foundation for a PhD program or a career in business/industry.
Did your graduate degree enhance your communication skills?
Gail McClure: Definitely. I had excellent faculty who insisted on conceptual clarity, consistency and logic in verbal and written expression. I am very grateful to that group of professors in the ‘60s who took the time to give me the feedback I needed to grow and develop. I was all over the place, at times, as my enthusiasm outstripped my ability to structure and convey a clear cognitive analysis and argument. It took repetitive effort and the Graduate School gave me the time and space to do that.
What has your Master’s in English Language done for your professional career?
Gail McClure: It has definitely made me the preferred candidate in many positions that I applied for. So it gave me competitive edge and it also helped to keep me stay focused and disciplined. For instance, I did a lot of work with international development–often working in multi-disciplinary teams on overseas assignments. Even though I had my own technical skill-base in education, what I also had, that others often lacked, was the ability to translate, clarify, organize and produce synthesized documents that the team could all agree to and sign off on. I believe my master’s helped me develop most of those skills.
Do companies have higher expectations of graduate students to have better written and verbal communication skills?
Gail McClure: Yes, and graduate students should have. The world has only grown more interconnected and complex during my lifetime. The tools and technology for communication are outstripping the human communication skills. As businesses continue to become increasingly global and sensitive to context and culture, realize that they need people who can lead, who can work in teams, who can think, analyze, write and persuade through reason. These are not necessarily the skills learned in most disciplines–at least not in a contemporary sense. I suppose if I had my way, anyone headed for advanced study would need to at least minor in communication. That’s how important I think it is.
How important is enhancing communication skills for graduate students?
Gail McClure: It is very important. I think of communication skills broadly–not just the ability to structure a good sentence, although that is important too. Today, we refer to these skills as “non-cognitive skills” (a term I do not like) and in the recently K-12 arena, it has been called 21st Century Skills. But in general, it is the demonstrated ability to work well in teams with all types of people, to listen, to be a life-long learner, to think clearly and logically, to be able to structure expressions that are suitable to the occasion both verbally and in writing. Too much of the advanced degree work (of necessity) is inward looking — narrow and deep. Professionals are socialized within their specialties and that includes the communication training. It needs to be broader and more comprehensive.
Any advice for current graduate students? Future outlook for graduate students and graduate studies?
Gail McClure: Develop yourselves as fully as possible and that means honing your communication and professional skills-set as well as your technical knowledge. Often this means putting yourselves in situations where you are not comfortable or where you do not feel as confident as you do in your specialty. Our world has many challenges and it will be your job to help us find the new frontiers and keep us curious, humane, creative, innovative and committed to discovery. You can do that better with a foundation of strong verbal, written and interactive communication. So even if it seems hard–dive in; it will serve you well.
Why should K-State Alumni support and invest in graduate students professional development and communication skills?
Gail McClure: Well, I am investing in the Graduate School as an ideal “hub” for investing in graduate student’s professional development and communication skills. In partnership with other disciplines and departments, they are uniquely situated to serve the whole and to help K-State develop advanced graduates who have strong verbal and written communication skills and the professional skills to lead and work in groups. The recent Dissertation Boot Camp, which was a partnership with the Department of English and Writing Center, is a good example. I think there is a terrific future for this effort and it can be an area in which K-State excels.