It’s not enough in today’s competitive job market to know things. You have to be able to demonstrate what you can do and do better than most to gain the positive attention of a hiring employer. This was a recurring conversation during last month’s National Career Development Association (NCDA) conference as attendees, mostly career counselors, discussed ways to help students emerge from their educational experiences with the ability to show that they can do something, not just that they have gained knowledge.
Developing a portfolio of work samples is one strategy for demonstrating your skill. It’s not a new concept, but online options have gained a lot of ground in recent years and there is new encouragement to make these even more convenient via mobile technologies. NCDA’s keynote speaker Temple Grandin – who overcame the challenges of being an autistic child to forge a career as a scientist, academic, and livestock equipment designer – included portfolios in her presentation. She credited a lot of her success to showing people her work, her diagrams and ideas, whenever she could. Grandin urged the audience of career advisors to tell their clients and students to “put their portfolios on their phones.” She noted that she “had to sell my work, not myself,” and “you never know when you’ll meet someone who will open a door.”
Employers are Interested
But will anyone want to see your career portfolio? In a study of employer priorities for college learning and student success, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found that employers are more interested in portfolios than they used to be: “In addition to a resume or college transcript, more than 4 in 5 employers say an electronic portfolio would be useful to them in ensuring that job applicants have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their company or organization.”
To clarify, we are not talking about learning, working, or study portfolios, all common terms used to describe collections of work often developed in academic courses as a means of assessment. With a little work, these can be transformed into career portfolios that focus not on assignments and grades, but instead on accomplishments, applied practice, and demonstration of skill. So what should you include in your career portfolio and how can you best present it?
Spend a little time thinking about how you want to structure your portfolio. This will help you decide what should be included.
- Create a list of categories. Some portfolios are organized with the same subheadings you find in a resume (i.e., education, training, work history), while others use a list of skills or topics. You may even want to use a set of established skills and competencies in your field as a guide (e.g., National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers, Texas Nurses Association Competencies, American Management Association Critical Skills).
- Select specific items to include. Often referred to as portfolio artifacts, what will you use to demonstrate your skills in the categories you choose? The format could range from PDFs and presentations to images and video. Think of this as a showcase that presents only the best examples of your work, whether from your courses, employment, and volunteer or other related activities. Make sure you have permission to include any items that you did not create on your own, or that you developed as part of a work agreement.
- Collect and curate. Brainstorm all of the possible items you might include, then narrow them down to those that are the most relevant to your goals, and representative of the depth and breadth of your skills. Keep in mind that you want to make sure your collection includes recent material and is updated periodically as you have new, better artifacts to include, and as your needs and goals change.
- Add detail. Careful and thoughtful addition of material to guide the viewer makes your presentation a portfolio, and not just an online resume or collection of links. Include brief descriptions of each item you use; explain why you selected it and how it is important to you and your career.
- Don’t forget the basics. In addition to work samples and other items, make sure you include some sort of introduction that tells the reviewer a little about your background, goals, and the presentation you’ve put together. Also think about how you want to be contacted by someone who sees your portfolio online and provide these details in a prominent place.
Choose a Platform
You don’t have to be a web developer or programmer to create a professional looking online portfolio. You can choose from countless user-friendly platforms and Web 2.0 tools that help you craft your presentation. Some are designed specifically for portfolios, while others have similar features and are flexible enough for multiple uses, including mobile access – and most are free.
- Blog sites: You don’t have to use a blog site as a blog, posting chronological updates and articles. The many features available allow you to style the interface to meet your needs, including career portfolios. WordPress, Blogger, EduBlogs, and Tumblr are just a few of the popular blogging tools out there. (WordPress is my personal favorite and sparked a separate collection of resources and examples titled, Blog Your Portfolio presented at another conference.)
- LinkedIn: Augment your basic profile with some of the more advanced portfolio display features offered by LinkedIn. You can now, for example, add links and upload files to separate work and education entries, along with brief descriptions.
- Mobile Apps: New tools intended specifically for smaller devices are also available. Search the app stores related to your smartphone or tablet operating system for career portfolio applications like Portfolio for iPad and Portfolio To Go for iOS. Many of these apps focus on the display of images, so it’s important to think about the visual aspects of your artifacts.
- Pathbrite: This portfolio-specific platform encourages you to “collect, organize, and share a lifetime of learning and achievement.” I was introduced to this one by another NCDA speaker, Tony Wagner, as one way to “document progress, skill development, evidence of mastery.”
- Websites: Similar to the blog suggestion above, you can establish your own website using intuitive, and low- or no-cost platforms like Wix and Weebly.
Your school may offer student portfolio accounts through career services or academic offices (e.g., Chalk and Wire, Optimal Resume) or within the learning management system. These can be a good place to start, and may be required in your program, but I encourage you to also think of options outside of your institution’s systems, so that you’ll continue to have access and control over your account and content even after you graduate.
Portfolios in Action
As educator Greg Williams states on the American Society of Training and Development’s (ASTD) blog, “your portfolio is a career tool. It won’t do any good unless you know how to use it properly.” Here are just a few ideas for making a career portfolio work for you:
- Share the link. Most of the online options allow you to share your portfolio with a single URL. Add this link to your resume, online social profiles (e.g., LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+), and your email signature, especially if you are openly searching for a new position.
- Create a portfolio pitch for networking. What will you do when you find yourself in a conversation about skills and jobs? From the proverbial elevator pitch to casual conversation at networking events to formal job fairs, have a plan ready for introducing your portfolio.
- Develop a portfolio presentation for interviews. Make it brief, but relevant to the needs of the position and employer. Review your portfolio in advance of each meeting to tweak and target as much as possible. If you are targeting multiple types of employment you may want to create multiple portfolios, or use a tool that is easy to modify for each situation as needed.
- Make it mobile. Make the most of the quick and convenient access possible with smartphones and tablets. You can use a special portfolio app, like those mentioned previously, but it’s not required. Many of the other tools and websites are designed for viewing on a variety of screen sizes. Do some tests on your own devices and ask a few friends and family members to access your portfolio on their devices to review how it both looks and works.
- Research your industry. Just as with resumes, different industries will have different trends related to common practices in career portfolios. What are the expectations in your field? DePaul University’s Career Center provides a few tips and career portfolio examples organized by industry.
Remember that even if your career portfolio isn’t seen by a lot of hiring managers, the process of building it requires a good deal of reflection and practice in articulating your strengths and specific accomplishments. This is great preparation for a job search and may result in identifying a few gaps in your skills or qualifications as targets for improvement in the future. You’ll also develop a few tech skills as you work with the platform you choose for your portfolio presentation, and it then becomes a positive and professional addition to your online presence and digital footprint.
The first draft is the hardest, and the most time consuming, but once you establish the basics, it’s a matter of maintaining it from that point forward. Find a platform that is easy for you to use, so you’ll return and make updates, and easy to share. There are basic guidelines to follow, but no set format. Your portfolio will be unique to you, so make sure it speaks for you when viewed by a new member of your network or a prospective employer.