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Professional Skills – The big ones

Welcome readers, to the first blog post of our ‘optin’ series! During semester 2 of 2020, FPSA has been running a series of professional development sessions for students in the PSYC1102 class. We intend for these blog posts to complement these sessions by providing an ‘in writing’ version of the content and expanding on the topics we cover.

As always, please get in contact if you have questions!

Picture this: your boss comes up to you one day at work. With a look on her face that puts you somewhere in between alarm and panic, she asks you if you can present your recent research to the rest of the department. How would you react? Would you feel nervous but confident in your abilities to convey your ideas to others? Would you have a momentary heart attack and start looking for the nearest exit?

For many, public speaking is a key example of something we’d rather avoid. However, public speaking is just one of several professional skills that you need if you want to excel at your career. Some of these skills will be hard to execute, some will come naturally; all of them are important.

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What are professional skills?

It’s hard to know exactly what professional skills are. Some people refer to technical skills, like the one you learn in your degree as professional skills. However, there are a lot of professional skills that uni will not explicitly teach you. Generally, professional skills are skills that are career competencies – they are skills that you need to execute your job well. Again, this is a little nebulous. Sometimes, these skills are very specific. For example, if you are a clinical psychologist, you need to administer a range of assessment instruments. Sometimes, these skills are less well defined, for example, being a ‘good team member’.

Here, we have grouped these skills into big skills and small skills. We will talk about some big skills today and save the small skill for next time. We will completely ignore specific technical skills (like administering tests) for now.

Big skills

Big skills are the skills you’ve probably heard a lot about: public speaking, teamwork, leadership, communication, time management. We group these as skills that are involved in the more formal aspects of a job, they are ‘bigger picture’ and involve a broader degree of responsibility.

Communication skills

Professional communication skills include professional etiquette, written expression and public speaking. The degree of formality you may encounter with each of these varies between organisations. However, there are some good basic practices it is important to get used to.

Professional etiquette

Professional etiquette forms the basis of all effective communication and is a vital aspect of both getting a job and keeping a job. It involves being open and communicative. For example, ensuring you notify your collaborators if you cannot attend a meeting or being open to a supervisor if you need to extend a deadline. Professional etiquette also involves being polite and professional in your written and verbal expression. In most cases, you are not going to talk to your boss as you would to your friends. If you must ask yourself whether what you are saying is appropriate, it probably isn’t.

As a rule, over-communicate. It is better that the details of a project are overshared (within the realm of confidentiality) rather than no one have any idea what is going on!

Written expression

Writing in the professional world is a lot like writing in the academic world; good grammar and spelling is a prerequisite. You always want to put your best foot forward and that involves an attention to detail. Written communication will come into practice most often when communicating via email or letter. However, depending on the area you go into you may be required to write grants, reports, research papers or technical papers. These all require slightly different focuses and skills, but in general, you can’t go wrong with good basics.

Regarding tone, especially in emails, if you are unsure it is best to err on the side of formal. Once you get to know someone you may be able to relax, but never assume. Ultimately, writing is about getting your ideas across. Most of that is about being clear and concise, but part of that is conveying the appropriate respect so your ideas will be received well.

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Public speaking

Public speaking can turn many people off, however like all methods of communication it is a way of getting your ideas across. Think of public speaking as an opportunity to show people what you are all about!

There are many things you can do to help improve your public speaking. For example, ‘fake it till you make it’. Pretending that you are confident can go a long way to making you feel more confident. Consider creating a persona, a version of you who is more outgoing or extroverted. Step into this persona when you go on stage. Remember to breathe and smile. When planning your presentation, keep things simple. Don’t necessarily memorize the entire speech, rather focus on becoming confident with the content of the speech and the general ideas. This will allow you to be more adaptable in front of the audience and help if you get flustered.

Finally, remember that the people you are presenting want you to succeed! They want to hear your ideas, and no one likes seeing someone else struggle or fail. The biggest threat to your success is your mentality, and that is something you have complete control over.


There are very few jobs, perhaps even none, that don’t require some level of collaboration. As psychology graduates, you will almost certainly find yourself in a professional environment where a cooperative and functional team environment is vital. Unfortunately, like the ever-dreaded group project, this team environment may not exist. Still, there are many things you can do to ensure that you are being a good team member. There are also many things you can do to take control of an errant team environment and help to improve things.

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Being a good team member

Being a good team member encompasses a lot of what makes good professional etiquette. You want to be committed, reliable, actively listen to others and communicate well. Make sure you follow through on what you are assigned to do. If you can’t, communicate about it. Update your team and reach out for support if you need to. Conversely, be supportive of others and check-in to see how people are going. To paraphrase a famous quote; ‘be the team member you wish to see in the workplace”.

Another good rule of thumb is to treat others how you would like to be treated. Would you appreciate it if a colleague left it an hour before a project was due to tell you that they had been unable to finish their part? How about if they ripped into your presentation without thinking about how unfettered criticism would make you feel? Not great, right? Respect and support form the basis of all good teams, if you give it to others, they will more than likely give it to you.


Being a leader is not reserved for a special class of person, anyone can step up given the right circumstances and the right motivations. For some, such a position may come easier than others, but like all other skills, leadership skills can be improved.
Leadership in the workplace is all about guiding your colleagues toward a successful outcome. This could be as simple as managing a small grant application, or it might involve leading an entire department. Leaders should do everything a good team member does; communicate, be reliable, committed and actively listen. However, the pressure ratchets up as you take on a larger share of the group’s responsibility. Don’t let this scare you though. Responsibility can be off-putting, but it also allows you to innovate and put your ideas into better practice. Don’t be afraid to have vision if you find yourself in a leadership position!

It is also important to consider everyone’s perspective and treat everyone with respect. You should always lead how you would wish to be led. Don’t over-commit either, it is okay to delegate the workload between group members. Find out what the strengths are of your team members and maximize them to the group’s advantage.

Conflict resolution

You’d be hard pressed to find a team that doesn’t have conflict from time to time. Some might be more cohesive than others, but more than likely you will find yourself in a situation where you butt heads with someone. So, what do you do? Every conflict is different, it depends on the people involved, the leadership, the workplace. However, there are some rules of thumb that can help you stop a situation from getting out of control.

It is always a good idea to reach out to a team leader as a mediator. You don’t have to deal with conflicts alone. It is important to be patient. This can be hard but will serve you in the long run. No matter the other person, you can always manage your own reactions, so try to remain calm and objective if possible, avoid blame. Try to find common ground with the people involved. If you have a shared goal it is easier to resolve conflict. Make use of your communication and professional etiquette skills, always remain professional in your interactions.

Finally, be self-aware. Reflect on your point of view, it is always worth asking yourself the question: am I the one who needs to compromise in this situation? It’s okay to be wrong.

Hopefully you have finished this article with more clarity about professional skills than you started. The most important thing to remember is that everything we’ve talked about is achievable for you to both learn and excel at. It is worth reflecting on some of the skills mentioned and begin asking yourself what ones you are good at and what ones you could probably improve at. Use your strengths to bolster your confidence and use your weaknesses as goals for improvement.

Next time we will talk about small skills and how best to put all of this into practice. You may also notice that we have ignored time management for the time being. Keep your eyes out for a special “Time Management 101” post coming in the next few weeks!

Author: Rosie Coleman, Adapted from Victoria Saris’ presentation

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