A professional portfolio used to be literally a portfolio or large binder used by professional artists and designers to transport examples of their work to job interviews. These days, the concept of “portfolio” has expanded well beyond that early use, and now generally refers to a highly effective means of documenting your career achievements. (It’s also an increasingly popular way for academics, educators, and students to document their learning and research, but for this guide, we’ll take a more generalized approach.)
Professional portfolios are physical or virtual collections that document your work and career achievements for a potential employer or client. A living document that grows along with your career accomplishments, a professional portfolio can be thought of as a career “highlights reel” that provides proof not only of what you know (your skills) but also of what value you’ve added through those skills.
Although conceptually it’s a bit like a resume, your professional portfolio can offer many more opportunities to demonstrate your real value by providing examples of your work, letters of appreciation from others, commendations from bosses, and similar “indicators” of what a great asset you’ve been throughout your career. Essentially, you’re showcasing your past to prove your future potential.
e-Portfolios, also known as electronic or online portfolios, take these benefits a bit further by enabling you to have your portfolio working for you 24/7. Whereas having a physical portfolio is useful primarily in an interview situation, where you can open it up and share materials in response to a specific question, an e-portfolio is available for review by anyone who might be researching your professional skills—including recruiters, hiring managers, project managers, consultants looking for subcontractors and others who would like to check you out before reaching out to you. A well-done e-portfolio might quickly convince them that you’re just the person for the job.
What goes into a professional portfolio?
Your portfolio should cover four bases: work-related accomplishments, demonstrations of personal qualities and strengths, education, and selected non-work engagements. Here are some of the items you may want to include in each area:
- Your resume
- Write-ups of key projects worked on and/or results achieved
- Performance reviews (the best ones!)
- Write-ups of international work experiences
- Military training, professional licenses and citations if applicable, security clearances
- Awards and acknowledgements
- Reports, white papers, articles, blog posts or other materials you’ve published – nothing proprietary of course – as examples of your thinking/writing skills
- Samples of your professional area(s) of expertise (for example, a marketing brochure or sales campaign)
Demonstrations of personal qualities and strengths
- Management skills
- Successful project management
Because these are more intangible, the best way to document this type of information is through brief write-ups similar to mini-case studies. (Essentially, a mini-case study consists of three brief paragraphs identifying the problem your organization faced, the solution you created/led, and the positive outcome.) Additionally, any recommendations from people who have overseen your work and can speak to your strengths are invaluable.
- Awards, honors, honor society memberships
- Internships, apprenticeships, special projects
- Workshops, seminars, conferences attended
- Independent learning (things you’ve learned on your own or taught yourself)
- Special training (military, business, etc.)
- Student materials
- Student leadership activities
How much you include in your education section will to a great degree depend on whether you have a substantial amount of material to include in your work-related section. The more work accomplishments you can document, the less you’ll need to rely on indicators of accomplishment during your degree-seeking years.
- Volunteer leadership positions
- Service project participation
- Relevant professional memberships
- Public speeches or presentations
- Awards and acknowledgements
- Knowledge of other cultures and languages
Your non-work activities can include items that demonstrate work-related strengths as well as personal passions that you feel present a more well-rounded picture of your value.
Mind the gap
What if you don’t have projects or work experience that will help document your key strengths and abilities? The good news is that putting together your portfolio will help you quickly identify where you have gaps you’d like to fill. The “get-going” news is that your best way to do this is to create your own portfolio opportunities. Volunteer strategically by approaching organizations and proposing projects that will 1) benefit the organization and 2) give you documentable experience using your professional skills. Or look around your company or library to see what cool initiatives you could propose, create, and then lead (assume you’re volunteering here as well).
Still a student? Then consider using your class assignments or independent study projects to further build out your portfolio. Whether student or practitioner, this type of “strategic volunteering” will serve you well throughout your entire career, building not only portfolio credentials but also your professional network and reputation.
Your career portfolio is a living document
Your portfolio ishould be considered a living document, one that grows as you progress throughout your career. This is most easily done with an online or e-portfolio, where you can quickly update your information with new examples of signature work.
In addition, your portfolio can help you chart your next career moves by demonstrating what further steps (related education, freelance projects, certification, etc.) you may need to undertake in order to move toward your career goals.
You may decide to go the minimalist route and use a very robust LinkedIn profile as your e-portfolio or take a more in-depth approach and create a website for your accomplishments. Whichever route you take, why not get this great professional marketing tool working on behalf of your future career opportunities?