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by Erin Vaughan | August 21, 2017


Woman taking online course on laptop in bed

So you’ve graduated college—congrats! However, don’t think your learning days are over. In order to stay relevant in today’s fast-moving markets, employees need to keep their skills current, and often the best way to do this is through independent learning. Celebrated MIT economist David Autor has found that you increase your salary potential with every year of learning you put under your belt. Online courses—many of which are free or low-cost—provide the perfect opportunity to brush up on cutting-edge skills, whether you’re a first-time job seeker or just looking to transition to a higher position.

To help you get started, we’ve picked out four of the most noteworthy online courses available. When making our selection, we avoided classes that center around technical skills. Instead, we chose ones that feature transferable soft skills—the kind that will help you in multiple roles throughout the span of your career. However, you shouldn’t skip over the technical stuff; sites like Codecademy, Coursera, and Udemy offer specialized training in various vocations that make a great companion to the classes below. So dust off your thinking cap and get ready to learn—your future earnings may depend on it!

Learn How to Effectively Lead Teams and Groups

Some of us are born leaders; the rest have to learn the hard way. Of course, the trial-and-error approach to management isn’t always all that effective, particularly when you’re trying to coach your first team through a challenging project. Unfortunately, that’s all too often the path managers and supervisors take to teach themselves how to lead a team, which results in a lot of missteps along the way.

In today’s era of digital access and collaboration, the majority of work happens in teams—regardless of whether the individual members are all sitting in the same room or across the globe from one another. And yet performance outcomes from these groups can be glaringly different. As you probably remember from all those group projects in college, team structure, interpersonal dynamics, and culture influence the quality of the final work product—and often, it’s management that sets the tone for these factors. Whether you’re planning on eventually moving into a managerial position or just want to understand how to be a better team player, this free leadership course will help. Offered by the University of Michigan, this four-week class teaches you how to assemble and structure diverse, effective teams—and avoid the pitfalls and dysfunctions that commonly afflict members of groups. Learn how to get over these hurdles and you’ll be virtually unstoppable.

Teach Yourself to Concentrate

Cal Newport, the Georgetown University professor behind 2016’s breakout Deep Work, claims that “focus is the new IQ.” His point is that digital distractions so thoroughly impinge our concentration that focus will eventually become a highly prized skillset in an employee. The book itself has plenty of practical advice for achieving laser-like focus; however, for those who need a guide to keep them on track, this Focus Mastery course from Udemy is designed to give you an inside-out approach to honing your ability to concentrate.

This class offers strategies to sharpen your focus, but it also highlights habits and behaviors that may be influencing your concentration, such as missed sleep and anxiety. The impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive retention is well-documented; it’s been suggested that the lesser-known sleep stage slow-wave sleep (SWS) plays a critical role in consolidating memory, which helps you learn and recall information. Sleep also influences how you feel, so it contributes directly to anxiety and other mood alterations that limit your ability to focus. This course gets to the root of distraction, offering techniques to deal directly with stress and anxiety, rather than presenting small surface-level suggestions like avoiding Facebook. For that reason alone, it gets big ups from us!

Prepare Yourself for a Lifetime of Learning

Technical skills get a lot of play in today’s market, and for good reason: Knowing code adds to your marketability and improves your cognitive thinking skills—even if you never program anything in your career. However, while these hard skills are important in today’s digital ecosystem, the soft skills at work behind learning will set you up for life.

Taking a firmly neurological stance, the Learning How to Learn course offered by University of California in San Diego acquaints students with behavioral patterns that sink their career, such as imposter syndrome, procrastination, and feelings of being overwhelmed. The class gives you the tools to digest new information quickly, whether you’re trying to master a new programming language or pick up an instrument. That skill is important, since experts agree that most Americans will go through several careers in their lifetime, a number that’s predicted to rise both from increased economic instability and faster technological progress. In that atmosphere, being adaptable will set you apart from the competition—and this course will give you the know-how to do just that.

Become a Master Communicator

The crux of this course lies in the belief that the people who have the most to say on a topic—such as experts, professionals, an interview subject—often have the hardest time putting their thoughts into words. Communication experts believe that all too often, we fail to effectively convey our ideas because we are trying to say too much at once, listing everything we know on a topic rather than paring our thoughts down to the most essential information. Presented by experts from Purdue University, this class lists techniques for structuring ideas to ensure audience comprehension.

As technology continues to influence how we interact in the workplace, effective, concise communication is key. HR professionals are already seeing the transition in their roles: Often they’re being asked to work directly with communications to deliver company-wide information that closely fits an organization’s culture and goals. Learning how to tune into an audience’s perceptions and hone in on the information that’s most important is a critical skill in a world in which most people are already set to “information overload.” Master the ability to speak with precision, and it will take you a long way—from your first job interview all the way to your retirement speech.


Erin Vaughan currently resides in Austin, Texas where she writes about workplace culture and human resource solutions for Pingboard. Pingboard is real-time, collaborative org chart software that makes it easy to organize teams, plan for growth, and keep everyone informed.