In the graduate program in book publishing at Portland State University, our graduation requirements are slightly different than those of other master’s degree programs. Instead of defending a thesis, we must participate in a three-part process in order to be eligible for graduation. This includes submitting a portfolio, composing a research paper, and completing an oral exam. The entire process spans the first half of the student’s last term in the program; after a student turns in her portfolio, she is given ten business days to research and write her paper, and the oral examination follows about a month later. For many of us, these final steps toward graduation are daunting and seemingly impossible, but ultimately we prevail. I should know: after months of losing sleep over the content of my portfolio and research paper, I recently passed my oral exam.
Like many students, I feared the portfolio submission the most out of all the graduation requirements. The Ooligan workroom contains a trove of portfolios from alumni, and although they are meant to be used as examples and inspiration, I found them more intimidating than helpful. Some are heavy and dense, with several hundred pages of text. Others are impeccably designed and produced, almost indistinguishable from the books you’d find on the shelves of a bookstore. Although flipping through the pages of these portfolios made me question my abilities in making my own, it also comforted me to see that there is no single formula for a successful portfolio. After all, the content of any portfolio is entirely dependent on the experiences of the student; as someone who has focused primarily on editing and marketing, my portfolio has little in common with those of the designers in the program. And that’s okay! We all take different routes in this graduate program, and the portfolio is a reflection of our unique choices and experiences.
Although no portfolio is identical, I found that there are certain steps one can take in order to create a portfolio that is both professional and unique. The first is creating an outline. It’s difficult to tackle the portfolio without having a clear vision of the content you want to include. I organized the projects in my portfolio by first writing down every course and internship I participated in during my time in the program. Then, I dug through my computer as well as my physical collection of completed assignments to find my best work from every class and internship I took part in. It’s important to be picky and keep your audience in mind—you only want to include work that you’d be proud to show a prospective employer or freelance client. The goal is to convey the quality of the work you produce, not the quantity. Once I knew exactly what I wanted to include in my portfolio, I organized the projects by type; I lumped all of my marketing, editing, and sales work into separate sections. These sections and their content make up a skeleton; the next step is to build up the flesh of the portfolio.
Creating context for the content of the portfolio is almost as important as the projects themselves. For every piece I included in my portfolio, I gave a short description of the assignment and class it correlated with as well as the expectations for the project. The goal is to avoid confusion and answer any questions your reader might have when examining the work you’ve included. Your projects should tell a story of your journey in the program, and your explanations and reflections should serve as the reader’s guide. Like any story, your portfolio should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Your introduction should bring up questions that your content will attempt to answer, and your conclusion should convey a sense of finality while at the same time looking to the future. Of course, these aren’t requirements for the portfolio, but I found them to be helpful ways to look at the portfolio-making process. There is one requirement that can’t be overlooked, however: editing. Edit, edit, take a break, and then edit some more.
Although I spent a lot of time stressing over the completion of my portfolio, I’m happy with the finished product. It certainly feels good to have a collection of my best projects in one place, instead of floating around my hard drive and various drawers in my desk. Perhaps the best part about completing my portfolio for my master’s degree, though, is that its value extends far beyond its purpose for the graduate program. It is a physical representation of the skills I have gained throughout my time in the book publishing program, so it is especially useful for prospective employers. As I apply to jobs and work on gaining more clients for my freelancing career, I have found my portfolio to be an indispensable resource. Whether you’re a student in the publishing program or not, I encourage you to stop fearing the creation of your professional or academic portfolio and give it your all. The time, effort, and stress is worth it in the end.