after the LTA · job notes · work

Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

Since I completed my PhD last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about non-academic work opportunities for people like me. I’ve discussed the kinds of work I might be interested in with a range of successful, gainfully employed friends and colleagues. When I describe the work that I did as part of my PhD with friends who work in the private sector, they are usually optimistic that my skills and knowledge sets would serve me well on the job market. And yet, in speaking with my post-doctoral colleagues, many of us have struggled to find appropriate non-academic job opportunities. When we do find something to apply for, it seems our resumes simply drift out into the abyss, never to be heard from again.

There is a very clear disconnection between how we articulate our academic skills and the kinds of work experience that are privileged in the private sector workforce. Yet, rationally, it seems that we should be qualified for many jobs. Indeed, when I have participated on committees and special contracts in the private and public sector, I felt that my academic training allowed me to excel in these positions.

The problem, I believe, is one that Aimée Morrison cleverly touched upon a couple of years ago. Her post “The degree is the job: a modest proposal for the PhD” really struck me when I read it. To summarize, Morrison argues that the PhD should be treated as a job, not as a path that leads to a job. The PhD is too long a distraction from life and career building if we use it as a time-out, rather than a career stage. This is important advice (seriously, go back and read her article!).

If we take the degree as a job, then we need to learn how to articulate our time in the degree as time spent working at a job. (We also need to change the way the private sector perceives time spent in graduate school – I’ve started working on this little problem here).

But let’s talk about our skills shall we? Where do all of those little jobs that we have been doing go on a normal resume? The thing about a resume is it is short and to the point. The list of skills that we provide at the top needs to somehow be reinforced by our work experience, which takes up the bulk of the resume. The problem is, a list of TA-ships and sessional positions doesn’t really account for the design, management and completion of a major research project, the dissemination of multiple, peer-reviewed research papers, the mentoring of undergraduates, the committee work, the grant applications, the EVERYTHING that we have done over the past 5-10 years of our lives.

How do we translate academic into non-academic? Here are a list of things that I recommend doing. It is incomplete. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have done some research… 😉

1) Find a way to incorporate all of the things that you have accomplished over your graduate career into the Work Experience section of your CV. Employers want to see evidence of your skills. Listing “research design” as a skill, then showing an exclusively teaching-based work experience does not convince anyone of this skill. Key terms for describing the dissertation as a job include: researched and wrote; identified research problem; developed evaluation criteria; developed a timeline; public dissemination; public speaking.

2) Frame your experience according to skills, rather than knowledge. What did you actually do? Also, in describing teaching experience, focus less on what you taught and more on skills such as training, scheduling, mentoring, coaching. Get your private sector speak on. Other terms include: delegate; coordinate; manage groups; provide performance feedback; supervision of research team; professional communication; writing; editing.

3) Give it a name! Every research contract or project that you worked on needs to read on your resume like a job. Jobs have titles, duration, responsibilities, employers and supervisors. Research assistant for some professor they’ve never heard of is not a sufficient description. The project needs a tittle, it needs to be compelling, and the actual work you did (not the knowledge that you helped create) must be described in detail.

4) Translate your skills. Read the non-academic job posting carefully and repeat key terms from it in your application (you know, like the way that undergrads repeat the exam question in their answers on final exams). This is especially important for electronic applications which are increasingly fed through a software application which searches for these keywords. If your resume and cover letter do not have them, they will be trashed without over being seen by an actual human. Also, a resume is only two pages (max) and a cover letter is one.

Look, I’m as angry as everyone else is about the corporatization of the university and the steady neo-liberal creep that is deteriorating independent scholarship and forcing precarious labour conditions on ever greater numbers of teaching faculty. I’m not saying go do public relations for an oil company intent on destroying a vital ecosystem. But for what you get paid as a sessional, couldn’t you offer your superior research, communication, and mentoring skills to a non-profit or local company whose mandate or product you happen to agree with? Not only that, but if your job actually involves research, you may actually continue publishing in academic journals – something that sessionals and LTAs often don’t have time to do which then almost guarantees they will never be back on the tenure-track.

You know that if that small business, non-profit, government department, big tech company, etc hired you with your many years of carefully honed skills – your advanced research, writing, and editing abilities – that that organization would benefit profoundly. But you need to get in the door to prove it. Getting them to give you a chance means making sure that your education, the greatest investment you have ever made in yourself, doesn’t count against you. This means communicating your wealth of skills and experience in a language that they actually value and understand. It may be obvious to us why someone with our skill set would be a valuable addition to their company, but this is big picture stuff. The manager interviewing applicants probably doesn’t have that kind of long-term, strategic plan in mind. They’re just looking to check off boxes in a list of required skills and previous work experience, then make sure you aren’t unbearable to work with during your interview. So, don’t be argumentative – outside of the academy, most people find this to be anti-social behaviour. Don’t expect your obvious intelligence to be the key to getting a job. Skills, work experience, and your ability to play well with others are what most organizations are really looking for.

Here are a few of resources I found for translating your academic work experience for the private-sector:

Any readers have experience going from the academic to the non-academic track? How did you articulate your skills?

2 thoughts on “Articulating academic work experience in a non-academic world

  1. Great post, Danielle. There are lessons here for the tenured faculty too. Just for simple starters, when hiring research assistants, how hard is it to write project titles, job descriptions, and so on, in a way that will actually be helpful to an RA in the future? Time for all of us to start thinking about this.


  2. Great point! I think that would really help. I was also thinking that perhaps one of the reasons the flow between academic world and non-academic world is easier for those in the sciences (apart from research funding) is that science students tend to be organized into labs where they have job descriptions, titles, etc. Organizing students more clearly into work groups might allow more of their phd experiences to translate onto their resumes as work experience.


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