Develop Job Skills Without Getting Another Degree

In 2014, Derek Attig graduated with a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois. Attig is a born communicator. As a high school student, he was editor of his school’s newspaper. In college, he wrote press releases and did graphic design for several clubs on campus.

It wasn’t a stretch, then, that he wanted to be a historian, a job that requires you to breathe new life into sometimes very old (and sometimes very dull--lookin’ at you, 100 Years War) stories. Attig (left) graduated with several awards for writing and teaching under his belt, and a dissertation made up of 109,947 of what he loved best: words. (His dissertation is on bookmobiles in early twentieth-century America; you guessed it, he wrote that many words about how people moved words around the country.)

After graduation, Attig wanted to combine his communication skills with his passion for helping people who were still alive. He took a job in communications and everything was great.

Until the website had to be redone.

“As a graduate student, I learned how to write a lot very quickly,” Attig says. “From my training as a historian, I knew how to write content and how to work with a team to determine what we needed out of a website. But I didn’t know for sure how to make the site look exactly the way we wanted.”

So he went back to school for a four-year web design degree.

So he quit his job to apprentice at a design firm.

So he hired a design firm to make the site for a gazillion dollars.

“I used to help me adapt the skills I learned in graduate school to the new context of web design,” Attig says. is an online learning company. It offers thousands of video tutorials on just about any subject you’d like to learn, like how to create websites or build an app or become a better public speaker. Even better, these tutorials are offered for every skill level, from beginner to expert.

And thanks to Technology Services, is free--like, absolutely, mind-bogglingly free--for all students, faculty, and staff at Illinois. A basic subscription to usually starts at $245 per year.

Attig discovered he could teach himself the specific skills he needed by watching a few clips and then trying his own hand at doing what he’d just learned. Rinse and repeat.

“With the lessons broken down into short videos, I could pick and choose what I needed,” he says.

The website was a success. So when Attig joined the Graduate College Career Development Office and started helping graduate students develop the skills they need to get the jobs they want, he introduced them to his old friend


There are approximately 2,000,000 graduate students enrolled in the U.S. Over 10,000 of them are right here at Illinois.

What do people do with advanced degrees? The real question is, what don’t they do.

“People who get advanced degrees have an enormous range of options available to them,” Attig says. “This includes faculty careers, staff positions, industry, government, non-profit, you name it, grad students can do it.”

In his role as the Assistant Director for Student Outreach, Attig helps a lot of grad students think carefully about what they already know how to do and what they want to do. Then he helps them create a plan to bridge the gap.

The Career Development Office sees over 100 graduate students per month each semester. They use a mix of in-person appointments, all-campus workshops, and tools like to help graduate students develop the skills they need. Between 10-70 people attend each workshop.

Thanks to their time in grad school, grad students already have most of the skills they need to get many kinds of jobs. The top-rated skills that many employers look for include critical thinking, reading, and writing abilities, the ability to conduct research, and technical skills.

“The experience of getting an advanced degree equips a grad student to pursue any number of exciting, interesting career paths. We’ve worked with students who’ve become consultants, statisticians for the census bureau, educational technologists, non-profit development specialists, employees at NGOs, research and development experts at pharmaceutical companies, and data scientists. I’ve also helped grad students and postdocs who have editorial positions in publishing, marketing, and communications jobs,” Attig says.

But no one grad program covers all the skills each student needs in order to take any job, of course.

After setting goals and identifying skills, students have to make a concrete plan to develop in particular areas, whether that be programming in R or in public speaking.

That’s where comes in.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Students have different needs when it comes to what and how they learn. Online education helps support these diverse needs, but so does traditional higher education.

This is especially true when it comes to graduate education.

Attig says that grad students are particularly well-equipped to use to develp skills because a lot of grad school is already independent and self-directed.

“Because grad students already have the drive and ability to learn on their own, is perfect for them,” he says.

In this way, is like other online learning environments like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Studies show that online learning works best for students who can motivate themselves to learn in a non-traditional environment.

Students who use are both student and teacher at the same time. They have to decide what they want to learn and then find the best course or courses to teach them.  And, of course, they have to make themselves practice.

“With, and in concert with other resources, the student is in charge of their own development. There’s no one size fits all answer; instead, there are a lot of tutorials to choose from based upon what the student wants to do,” Attig says.

Using for the first time might feel like being a kid let loose in candy store with a Black Card clutched in one sweaty hand.

But Attig says the Career Development Office staff work hard to help students not feel overwhelmed by their choices--or by learning something new.

By the time they’re introduced to, grad students have thought carefully about their career goals by meeting with staff or going through career development workshops like GradMAP (logo on left). GradMAP is a ninety-minute interactive workshop that helps grad students set goals, identify skills, and make plans to connect with campus resources to get those skills. For more information, see

This means that students come to knowing what they want to do, and how courses offered by the site will help them get to where they want to be.

And they often rely on the recommendations of their advisors, all of whom, like Attig, were grad students once themselves. Many of the humanities and arts students Attig works with, for instance, want to go into communications-heavy fields. For these students, he often recommends courses on Adobe InDesign and CSS.

“I recommend those because those were the ones I used when I transitioned from grad school to my first post-Ph.D. job in marketing and communications. I remember those courses well so I’m quick to pass them on to others,” Attig says.

To start developing your career skills or to polish them up, log in to at