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Career Advice

Doctor who?

Marketing your transferable skills for employment beyond academia


“Someone who knows more-and-more about less-and-less.” It’s probably the most broadly accurate definition of a PhD candidate I have ever heard. But for those facing the vagaries of the non-academic career market, the snug fit of that description leaves them feeling less than comfortable. By socialization and direct training, most PhDs have come to define themselves as dyed-in-the-wool specialists, and rightly so. The dissertation process is ultimately aimed at the generation of new knowledge, and the pencil-powered pioneers who go down that road will be asked to draw some clear lines around their very specific contributions to the field. That specialization is, for better or worse, the means by which hiring committees, the discipline, scholarly journals and, most importantly, candidates themselves will come to define their place and potential in the academic world. What happens, then, when that “world” is itself left behind? How do you survive in a world that talks PowerPoint, when you only speak petri dishes and postmodernism? You’re probably better prepared than you think, but translating yourself and your skills for this market requires an active strategy.

Just what are those transferable skills? Transferability is difficult to define. It depends largely on the utility that an individual employer or hiring committee ascribes to the skill in question. Considerable and surprisingly consistent survey data does exist, however, on the types of working skills broadly valued by employers of all stripes. Just a few among these would seem to benefit directly from the experience of graduate studies:

Communication skills

Advanced communications skills, particularly the ability to write effectively, are typically abilities that graduate candidates can offer in spades. While the content of your dissertation might seem overwrought and even esoteric to many non-academic employers, still, many aspects of graduate work offer concrete illustrations of efficient and targeted communication. Consider, for example, a garden-variety literature review you may have written for a seminar paper or presentation. While the topic might be firmly grounded in a specialized field, the process of collating and contextualizing such a huge mass of information is not. Your ability to quickly provide a reader with a clear, comprehensive, well-written rendering of such a volume is not an altogether common aptitude. Few that are fresh out of an undergraduate program would have anywhere near the repeated experience with effectively distilling complex information in this way.

Collaborative skills

Speaking of (and with) students, a range of transferable communications skills are also well demonstrated through your work as a lecturer and teaching assistant. In the lecture hall, you are able to re-gear complex material to suit the audience before you, both in writing up the lectures and in the way you adjust the content in response to questions and quizzical looks. In your own office, that process continues as you respond to individual student requests for information and advice in person and, increasingly, by email and other virtual communication. In short, resist being categorized as an interpersonally-awkward “jargon jockey.” The daily grind of graduate work is very much about communicating effectively with varied audiences. The span of an afternoon can find you in front of hundreds, across a seminar table from a star in your field, or facing a student in need.

Research skills/analytical ability

You might well think that, as a graduate candidate, your powers as a researcher and analyst speak for themselves. While these are skills typically associated with advanced study, it is critical that you make them sound more relevant to your target employer. The process of dissertation research is not very well understood or appreciated outside academia; part of your task is to amiably educate that lay audience. While thorough experience with SPSS+ or demonstrated facility with “Western Blotting” might not itself be of direct interest to all employers; the arc of the research process is a very useful and entirely transferable category of professional experience. It takes patience and intellect to pursue advanced research. While many in the workforce might be able to do research on questions or matters that have been delegated to them, far fewer have experience in formulating the agenda itself. Your ability to ask the right questions and to disaggregate the relevant issues is a key function of your experience in pursuing doctoral study. For non-academic employers, make sure your CV, cover letter and anecdotes at interview all help to demonstrate that you can handle and distill large quantities of complex information, integrate other perspectives and be constructively critical in processing “data,” whatever form it takes.

Self-reliance and organization

A consistent feature of graduate work remains the relatively isolated nature of the process, particularly in the social sciences and humanities. To be sure, it is one of the aspects of doctoral study that students themselves find most frustrating, even paralyzing. As uncomfortably disconnected as the dissertation process itself might be, PhD candidates typically emerge better able to take initiative and schedule their time, and with inspiring demonstration of their commitment to their work. Supervisors very rarely come close to dictating the terms and tempo of day-to-day work for students completing a thesis. The candidates themselves must find and format an appropriate working schedule, line up the necessary financial and information resources and, most importantly, muster the motivation to continue and succeed. All of this happens with little positive feedback or accountability, let alone compensation. In short, successfully completing a PhD is a massive project-management problem, and surviving the process is proof positive that you have what it takes to tackle other initiatives of similar variety and scale.

But wait, there’s more: A quick collection of other transferable skills that might be useful on your next CV or covering letter:

  • Leadership: At the head of a classroom of undergraduates, among colleagues in your department, as part of organizations in your field, you do have leadership experience to talk about.
  • Creativity/resourcefulness: You shepherded a massive project to completion in the face of unexpected setbacks and with very few resources at your disposal. Your power to find the ways and means forward is proof positive that you can create solutions to other challenges.
  • Teamwork/collaboration: While much of graduate study is done in relative isolation, the exceptions are important. The scope and substance of your collaborative work, whether it be on a research team or as co-author of a paper, is important evidence of your ability to work at a high level with others.
  • Inquisitiveness: Call it intellectual enthusiasm or a willingness to learn, but your proven passion for self-education is a highly attractive quality, and a genuinely useful skill for a broad spectrum of potential employers.

The one thing usually lacking…

For all the skills a PhD can bring to the table, self-realization, for want of a better term, is generally not one of them. Of the thousands of PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows I have met in career advising sessions and campus workshops, the biggest barrier to wider employment is not their ability or intellect, but rather their inability to imagine and then articulate these capacities outside of an academic setting. They take the content of their research as their exclusive credential, and they discount as irrelevant or mundane the powers they might have developed as a function of the process of thesis research and writing. Success on the non-academic market begins with a candidate’s own belief that they do, in fact, hold tangible skills for work beyond their discipline. I believe that the evidence required to convince themselves (and, hopefully, target employers) is all around them in their experience as graduate students. Do you know “too much about too little”? In some ways, yes. But the process of building such depth and content specialization has required you to develop a formidable range of general skills categories that any employer can be made to value.

Jeff Osweiler, a former web editor of University Affairs, was previously a graduate career counsellor at McGill University.

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