Elizabeth Keenan

Columnist at vitae

Ph.D.s Do Have Transferable Skills, Part 3

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Image: "Defehrt epinglier pl2," designed by Goussier, engraved by Defehrt. Diderot's Encyclopédie (1762).

So you’ve identified your skills and a field you want to work in. Congratulations! Now comes the hard part: convincing someone else to hire you.

Last time, I wrote about my very first informational interview, where I realized that a lot of people have weird career paths. The woman who graciously offered me her time had a crazy background: She’d been a club kid, an electronic dance music journalist, and a personal assistant at a niche record label. Her bachelor’s was not in marketing. None of her past experience screamed “head of marketing at a traditional media company,” even though, by her mid-30s, that’s what she was.

Very few people at her company knew about her meandering career path, though — and she wanted it that way. She gave me what would turn out to be the single best tip for my career switch: “No one has to know everything about how you got to where you are. They just have to know enough that it makes sense for you to be there.”

In other words, the person hiring you doesn’t have to know about the nights you spent feeling like an academic failure, or about your faculty job-market drama, or about the six other career options you investigated before you decided on this one. You only need to make your experience — your transferable skills — line up in a way that: (a) people understand, and (b) makes you seem like a risk worth taking for their organization.

Craft a Positive Personal Narrative

Present your relevant experience via a personal narrative — a story of how you became what you are, somewhat like a memoir but without all the parts that are intended to make readers cry. You will need a beginning (how I gained relevant skills), a middle (what I’m doing to develop them further), and an end (how I can help you at your company with said skills).

It’s easy to become frustrated and unhappy at this step. When you began to question your life in academia, you probably developed a maudlin personal narrative for your friends and family, detailing all the things that went wrong in your life and needed to be changed. (Please do not present future employers with that narrative. Critiques of academia and your place in it don’t really endear you to future bosses. I speak from experience.)

Your personal narrative should explain your transition in a positive way. Once you nail it down in your head, practice telling it to anyone who will listen (i.e., people who love you unconditionally and won’t get annoyed as you refine your narrative). Be able to tell your story clearly (and without academic verbiage) in a minute-or-less capsule, as well as in more detail. It should become second nature to you, and, most important, you should keep telling yourself the narrative until you believe it. If you don’t, no one else will. As you apply for jobs, this narrative should emerge in all of your job-search materials — your cover letter, your résumé, your references — and should reinforce why you want to embark on this new career path.

Your Narrative Starts with Your Résumé

I’m a talker, sometimes (often?) to my detriment. The hardest thing for me during my job search was winnowing down my talking points for interviews. I was no different when I dipped my toes into writing a résumé (for turning a CV into a résumé, see these essays for advice). My first draft was a little too kitchen-sink: freelance editing and research, volunteer work with different organizations, teaching — pretty much everything I’d done ended up in the first draft.

I contacted someone who had literally written a book on résumé writing, and he told me that mine made me look like a dilettante (which is a somewhat accurate description of my employment history). It was hard to hear. My résumé went through eight drafts before I applied for my first round of alt-ac jobs (before I made the plunge into real estate). I didn’t get interviews until I started tailoring the résumé to each job.

Still, I almost lost out on the job I have now because my résumé made me look “too scary,” as my boss confessed about three months after I got hired. What was so scary? I had included so many research credentials for a job that was only partially about research (i.e., the salaried portion of my position) that I looked like I had no practical skills. The lesson here is to focus, but not with such a laser-beam that you look frightening — or possibly like a useless egghead — to a nonacademic employer. Your résumé should make sense for the position, even if that means leaving off a few accolades.

Whatever You Do, DO NOT Write an Academic-Style Cover Letter

Speaking as someone who’s read and written a ton of them, academic cover letters are the worst. They’re overly long, filled with jargon, and, for junior scholars, often just as much about your adviser as they are about your own work. They are, by necessity, stiffly phrased and overly formal, because you never know whom you may piss off with an ill-phrased sentence. (We’re all familiar with that one person in our department who gets upset when someone uses their first name, but how can we possibly know the version of that person in someone else’s department?)

A job letter in the corporate world should be short. Aim for 300 words. You’ll probably still end up with twice that, but you can winnow the letter down to three solid paragraphs. Each paragraph should address something important: why you want this job, what experience you can bring, and how excited (but not creepy-excited) you are to change careers.

“Short” doesn’t mean vague, boring, or lacking in details. It means concise, engaged, and direct.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Additional Training

Maybe you’ve found the perfect career, but you don’t have any (or enough) experience to craft a coherent personal narrative.

The last thing I wanted to do when I decided to leave academia was go back to school. But guess what? When I decided to go into real estate, I had to get more training, or else the state of New York wouldn’t give me a license to do the commission-based part of my job (which is where I make most of my income). I sucked it up and took the licensing course, which I’ll be following up later this year with some required continuing ed.

Even if it doesn’t require state certification, your new occupation may require you to expand on your skillset in some measurable way. Make sure to demonstrate that you are aware of the standard requirements of your new field. I’m not saying you have to go out and get an entirely new degree and go (further) into debt, but you might have to brush up on statistics or get a certification in your desired field. This kind of continuing education shows commitment, which, you know, employers like to see in people they hire.

You Still May Not Get the Job, Even After Getting (and Acing) the Interview

The only time I felt like I stuck the landing on a perfect interview — ever — was during my academic days. “Your interview was just perfect,” said my host, the chair of the search committee. “I can’t say anything for certain, but I feel very good about this!”

I didn’t get the job. However, I did get a very apologetic email from the chair.

Job interviews outside academia are the same way — hit or miss, with factors beyond your control. Before I got my current position, I went on a bunch of alt-ac job interviews, some of which I thought went well and others that, well, let’s just say I felt pretty awful the time I went to an interview and, less than an hour after it ended, received an automated email notification from HR that the job had been filled.

In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t get those jobs. The first would have turned my marriage into a long-distance relationship, and the second had an abysmal salary. I’m definitely not an “everything happens for a reason” person, but I am quite happy that I landed a job that better suits me.

Yes, Changing Careers Is Difficult. But It’s Not Impossible.

It’s hard to get a job, let alone change careers, in an economy that favors part-time work and piecemeal freelancing. It’s an added difficulty to make that change from academia, which has a different type of work culture than most industries. It’s incredibly frightening to think about those factors as you change careers — you can lie awake nights just drowning in fear. I know I did. But despair does you no good in the end.

Focus on the positive aspects of your narrative. Hone your résumé. Take breaks when you feel overwhelmed. Talk with others — professionals, if necessary — about your fears, but keep your game face on when interviewing.

Who knows? You may end up with a whole new career that you like even more than academia.

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