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Professional Portfolios: Showcasing Your Experience

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Thomas E. Poulin
November 28, 2020 

It is easy to demonstrate educational accomplishments through the use of diplomas and transcripts. It is not so easy to demonstrate experiences relevant to your professional capacities, creating future challenges for you when seeking greater opportunities in the public sector. One means to prepare for this is developing your professional portfolio.

A professional portfolio is a collection of materials showcasing your competencies and talents in a concrete fashion. They are materials which might support your professional pursuits sometime in the future. When creating a portfolio, do not fret about including excessive materials; you will be selective when presenting materials with applications, but will be well served to have a wealth of materials from which to select. Materials you might wish for inclusion include:

  • Reports where you were the primary author or where you made a major contribution as a team member.
  • Documentation letters on official letterhead which briefly describe your performance.
  • Performance appraisal reports (including course evaluations).
  • Tangible artifacts you created such as programs, job aids or course syllabi (ensuring always they are not excluded as proprietary).
  • Tangible artifacts provided to you including certifications, awards or plaques.
  • Public information on organizations where you have worked (working for organizations with strong reputations increases your credibility).

When seeking professional advancement, especially when doing so in another organization where your reputation and performance are an unknown quantity, a professional portfolio serves as a means of showcasing your talents. It is one thing for you to claim an experience in an interview or a resume; it is far more powerful to be able to validate and illustrate this experience through the contents of a professional portfolio where you are able to present decisionmakers with evidence of your capabilities.

Public administration largely revolves around problem-solving, moving from project to project and program to program. This might contribute to a work history difficult to document retroactively. Consequently, those in public sector agencies would be well advised to begin early in their careers to document their work history, skills sets and professional development. Both the leadership and human resource management professionals of public sector agencies should stress this to “newbies” in any discipline, at any level.

Letters of reference might be included in your professional portfolio, though differing from performance documentation. Typically, letters of reference hold greater value when targeted towards a specific position—they are current. Letters of documentation might be older, but their importance lies in that they were written at the time. For example, if assigned to a special project, a documentation letter describing your role written immediately after captures your competencies in real-time. This might be of great value should the individual to whom you reported no longer be with the organization, as it was written when they were in their official capacity, officially documented on letterhead.

There are a host of professional certifications available based on general or specialized experiences. When seeking greater professional opportunities, holding such certification might be the critical difference between you and other candidates in the final selection. Many of these certifications require documented experience to support your application, and a professional portfolio can be a wonderful tool for earning these certifications. If you are considering seeking greater opportunities in the future, the time to start seeking these certifications is now, so you will need to develop your portfolio proactively.

When you submit a portfolio, you will wish to organize it based upon the areas of competencies and expertise for a particular role, and these shall be unknown until you are applying for a specific role in a specific organization. Consequently, you do not necessarily have to concern yourself now with how to organize the materials—you just need to ensure you are collecting them. However, keep in mind when you do apply for a position, you must organize and present your portfolio materials in the most suitable, most powerful manner to support your application, not just as a loose collection of items.

Throughout your public sector career, moving from role to role, and perhaps from agency to agency, you will collect many valuable competencies that prepare you for future challenges and opportunities. A professional portfolio is a powerful means to document and present your competencies, increasing the likelihood you will be afforded the opportunity to engage in these challenges and opportunities by demonstrating your capacity and your professional growth over the arc of your career. If you have not yet done so, you should begin creating your portfolio, and you should begin to do so today.

Author: Thomas E. Poulin, PhD, MS(HRM), MS(I/O Psych.) is an Independent Scholar and HR Consultant. He served in local government for over thirty years and as full-time faculty in public administration-related programs for more than ten. He is the President of the Hampton Roads Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. He may be reached at [email protected]

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