graphic representation of what being T-shaped means

There has been much discussion regarding employer dissatisfaction and the lack of readiness among college students for workplace success.

by Korine Steinke Wawrzynski, Ph.D.

There has been much discussion regarding employer dissatisfaction and the lack of readiness among college students for workplace success (Fischer, 2015).  Companies and organizations seek graduates who possess a balance of “field specific knowledge” and “demonstrated proficiency in skills and knowledge that cut across all majors” (Hart, 2015, p.1).  These desired qualities of future employees mirrors the qualities of a T-shaped professional.  The vertical bar of the “T” represents the disciplinary specialization, while the horizontal bar represents those “soft skills” of success, such as effective communication, teamwork, project management, critical thinking, or the “know-how” needed to navigate a project through challenges until completion.

MSU offers several high-impact learning experiences, such as undergraduate research and creative activities, that can cultivate disciplinary-based knowledge as well as the  professional skills required for long-term career success, but a critical component is missing—active reflection, or how a student’s research or creative experience develops disciplinary expertise and professional skills.  Undergraduate research and creative activity opportunities are well-positioned to develop the desired knowledge, skills, and attitudes employers seek in college graduates, and with additional coaching from research mentors, our students will be better prepared to understand, connect, and articulate how their research and creative activity experiences prepare them for them for the workforce or post-graduate studies. Hundreds of research and creative work projects are available to MSU undergraduates.  Research mentors (e.g., faculty, research associates, post-docs, graduate students) and academic advisors should talk to their undergraduate researchers about these three points:

1.      Understand what they’re researching— a major benefit of engaging in an undergraduate research experience is that students spend an extended amount of time studying a topic in-depth under the guidance of a mentor. This deep, extended learning opportunity, which frequently lasts over two to three semesters, enhances the disciplinary knowledge gained through coursework. Quality undergraduate research experiences can help develop one side of the vertical bar of the T, expertise in a disciplinary area. Research mentors should take time to ensure their students understand what they’re studying and can explain it to non-expert.  What is their “elevator pitch” or 30-second summary of their research or creative project?  How would they explain what they are studying to a parent or grandparent? Being able to break down their work into easy-to-understand language, helps students comprehend what they’re studying.

2.      Understand the significance of their work—In addition to being able to explain what they’re studying to others, students need to understand the importance of their work—both in their respective fields and to society at-large.  Knowing why their work is important and how it contributes to society begins to develop the other vertical bar of the T, the understanding of systems.  Systems describe major services, such as healthcare, energy, education, transportation, or food that affect the quality of life and are comprised of many interrelated components (T-Summit, 2014).  Understanding the importance of one’s research provides context, places it within a broader societal scheme, and begins to illustrate how their work may connect and/or influence related areas and systems.  

3.      Reflect on the Knowledge and Skills Developed— too often undergraduate students undervalue and under-explain their research and creative projects.  For example, a microbiology student described her research experience on her resume as “undergraduate research assistant in the Smith lab studying environmental microbial processes.” This one-dimensional description provides little insight into the student’s daily experience.  What was her role in the lab?  What skills or techniques did she use to study environmental microbial processes?  Did she learn how to run assays? Culture bacteria? Prepare mediums to support bacterial growth and division?  Isolate and screen microorganisms?  Students should document the daily skills and tasks preformed during their research.  This practice of documenting skill sets is applicable to areas outside of STEM as well.  For example, learning how to construct surveys, create interview questions, and code qualitative research, access archival materials, design and manage databases — these research skills are critical to projects.  In all majors and disciplines, students need to do a better job reflecting on the skills developed.  Research mentors and academic advisors can assist by asking students to consider the skills developed through the research or creative process.   

The learning outcomes rated most highly by employers were written and oral communications skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and applying knowledge real world settings (Hart Research Associates, 2015).  These desired outcomes align with many qualities of a T-shaped professional, and nearly all undergraduate research and creative projects can address these preferred learning outcomes.  

·        Communication--Students need to be able to articulate what they’re researching and its importance.  Have students explain their work during lab or research meetings.  Presenting an oral or poster presentation at one of MSU’s undergraduate research forums (UURAF or Mid-SURE, insert links to both) is good preparation to practice communication skills.  

·        Teamwork—very few projects are done in isolation. Many student researchers begin by taking on small roles; it is critical for students to understand how small roles contribute and support the larger work. In addition, learning to work with people who have differing work styles and personalities is critical to being a part of a successful team.

·        Ethical decision making— all disciplines have standards of conduct and methods to study problems (Resnik, 2011).   It’s important to teach students about proper procedures as well as to discuss past dilemmas and deviations due to ignorance, lack of training, or carelessness.

·        Critical thinking—most research experiences address problems that don’t have a right or wrong answer. This type of thinking dramatically differs from classroom pedagogy, which often emphasizes obtaining the correct answer.  Coaching students to understand that failure isn’t always bad and can influence future direction requires a different type of mindset, which can be valuable to employers.

·        Applying knowledge to real world setting—again, understanding and being able to explain how one’s work impacts the field and society at large are critical abilities. Research and creative projects not disseminated do not contribute to the good of the public.  

Employers value applied learning, such as internships, apprenticeships, and senior capstone projects (Hart Research Associates, 2015).  Undergraduate research and creative activity opportunities can yield similar benefits of internships and co-ops experiences if students, with the help of their research mentors and academic advisors, are more intentional at reflecting and articulating about the knowledge and skills gained through their research or creative process experience.


Fisher, K.  (2015). A College Degree Sorts Job Applicants, but Employers Wish It Meant More,

Hart Research Associates (2015).  Falling Short?  College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC.

Resnik, D. B.  (2011). Why ethics in research & why is it important?,