Melissa Dalgleish

Professional and Career Development Specialist at The Hospital for Sick Children

With Support From

Oh, The Things You Can Do!

Full thinks you can think cover 1

Original Image: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!, by Dr. Seuss

You’re sitting at your computer, clicking around Indeed or Monster or Workopolis, when you think to yourself, “I’m not qualified for any of these jobs.” You keep looking, but all the postings seem to be written in a foreign language — one that you don’t speak.

If you’re a Ph.D. or a graduate student looking for nonacademic jobs, chances are, you’ve had plenty of moments like that. In my work offering career programming to students and postdocs, I see many of them struggling to understand where the skills they’ve developed in graduate school match up with the ones required by nonacademic careers.Figuring that out seems like it would be an easy task — just compare the skills you’ve developed in your doctoral training with the ones listed in job descriptions or mentioned in informational interviews.

Except that it's not easy, at least not at first. And the fact that it’s so difficult is not at all your fault.

It is, rather, an institutional and a cultural problem. We don’t talk nearly enough about skills in Ph.D. programs. The course outcomes for graduate courses are knowledge-based, not skills-based — you learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. The skills we develop in the lab, or in pursuing dissertation research, are almost always implicit. And the other activities via which we develop useful skills — committee work, peer review, working on journals, student government — are framed as service that will get you a new line on your CV, not a new skill set.

That reluctance to teach Ph.D.s to identify the skills they're developing — as they’re being developed — is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what those skills are for. Usually, they're only imagined as being of use on the tenure track or as an academic scientist. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we're developing, we often have trouble seeing the career paths where those skills could be put to use outside of the professoriate.

The good news: This problem is solvable, and quickly, too. All it takes is to:

  • Have someone teach you to translate the things you do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies.
  • Then apply those newfound translation skills to your academic and nonacademic background.

This is an exercise I do often with graduate students and postdocs in the context of professional-development workshops or career-transition coaching: I have them list the core parts of their graduate and postdoctoral work, and then I translate their comments into the language of skills that shows up on job postings and in résumés. For example:

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the job description for my first full-time, nonfaculty job. The listed skills were all ones I had developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think in terms of skills and expertise, rather than content knowledge (because I can guarantee that no one was going to hire me for my expert knowledge of 1950s Canadian poetry).

My first nonfaculty job was in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed was skewed more closely toward what we develop in as Ph.D.s. That’s true, but I do the same exercise with students and postdocs who are looking for jobs outside of higher education — in corporate project management, not-for-profit program coordination, facilities management, communications, fund raising, consulting, policy analysis — and it still works.

Why? Because you have the skills to do all kinds of jobs, even if you don’t know it yet. You just need to learn how to: (1) identify those skills, and (2) frame them in language that makes sense to people outside of academia.

Employers might not be looking for experts on 19th-Century French literature or CRISPR-Cas9. But they are looking for people who can speak and write effectively, process and communicate high volumes of complex information, create project plans and see them through, work with (and for) a wide variety of people, identify gaps (in knowledge, processes, understanding) and propose how to fix them. Ph.D.s learn how to do all of those things, and much more.

Maybe you're having a hard time figuring out your transferable skills. Here's what I suggest:

  • If you've already done some informational interviews (and if you haven’t, I suggest you start), go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important to their fields and careers. Write down a list of those skills, and then analyze in what part of your graduate training you might have developed them.
  • If you're still exploring career options, do that exercise in reverse: Identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one to find positions or fields that are looking for people with those abilities. You can also start by looking at lists of the skills that Ph.D.s typically develop and identifying which most fit your own experience.
  • Next, create a master list of all the skills you have and all the evidence of your ability to deploy them. In the first article in Vitae’s new C.V.-to-résumé series (this is the second), Fatimah Williams Castro talked about how to do that in the language of résumés. Once you’ve created your master list of skills, you’ve got almost everything you need to create résumés and cover letters for the jobs you want, and you’ll be fluent in the language of job postings — and easily able to identify the ones that fit with your skills and experience.

One last thing for any readers who are starting to think about nonfaculty careers but still believe, deep down, that being a professor is all that they have the skills to do: It's not true. Not even a little, however much the culture of academia leads us to believe it.

For some people, that belief — along with a genuine love of teaching and research — is what keeps them in precarious employment situations. For others, it keeps them from exploring other careers that might actually be a far better fit for their skills and work preferences. Happily, your ability to move into a nonfaculty career is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. Time to get to it.

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