#alt-ac · #alt-ac 101 · #post-ac · careers · flexible academic · jobs

The #Alt-Ac Job Search 101: Identifying and Describing Transferable Skills

While you’re starting to get a sense of what you might want to be doing as a job, whether it’s through self-assessment or informational interviews, you’re also going to want to start getting a sense of the places where your skills match up well with the ones required by positions or fields that you’re interested in. Doing that seems like an easy task–just compare the skills you developed in all the various aspects of your PhD to the ones listed in the job description.

Except that it’s not easy, at least not at first.

We don’t tend to talk about skills in the PhD, unless you’re an administrator like me, and then sometimes that’s all we seem to talk about. The course outcomes for graduate courses tend to be knowledge based, not skill based–learn a new field or subfield, not a new set of skills. And unless we have really extraordinary course directors, or a supportive teaching centre offering training, the vast majority of us aren’t being taught how to identify the skills we develop in the classroom either. This reluctance to teach PhDs to identify the skills they’re developing while they develop them is compounded by the often myopic perspective on what the skills developed in graduate school are for–often, they’re only imagined as being good for use on the tenure-track. So even if we are able to identify some of the skills we’re developing, we often have trouble seeing the places where those skills could be put to use in other careers.

The good news is that these problems are very solvable, and quickly, too. All it tends to take, for a lot of people, is having someone translate the things they do regularly as a graduate student into the language of skills and competencies. This is an exercise I do often with PhDs in the context of professional development workshops or career transition coaching: I have them list the things they do all the time to me, and then I repeat back those same things, but in the language of skills, the language that shows up on job postings and in resumes. I’ll give some examples below, using the job description for my current role as an example of the language in which skills might be translated.

Things I did in the PhD
Job Skills
Teaching tutorials and giving conference papers
superior oral … communication skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “public speaking skills”
Founding and managing a peer-reviewed online journal; co-coordinating my department’s annual colloquium; taking a lead role on my program’s steering and social committees
excellent organizational, planning and coordination skills,” “demonstrated ability to exercise initiative,” “strong leadership and team building skills”
Writing articles and papers
superior … written communication skills”
Leading tutorials and sitting on department tenure and promotion committees
effective interpersonal and public relations skills,” “tact and diplomacy,” “discretion and [ability to] maintain confidentiality”
Researching and writing a dissertation
strong research and analytical skills,” “articulating and assimilating complex information,” “computer proficiency”
Writing scholarship applications and project reports
excellent report and proposal preparation skills”

All of the language in the right-hand column is taken directly from the position posting for my current job. And I didn’t skip any–the skills the posting asked for were all skills that I’d developed during my graduate training. I just needed to learn how to think about what I did in the PhD in terms of skills and expertise. Admittedly, my job is in academic administration, which might make you think that the skill set needed is skewed more closely toward what we develop in the PhD. That is true, a little, but I’ve recently done this same exercise with people looking for jobs in wholly different fields from academia, and it still works. Employers might not looking for people who are experts in 19th century French literature. But they are looking for people with communication skills, with the ability to process and communicate to others high volumes of complex information, with the ability to create project plans and see them through, with the ability to work with and for a wide variety of people. PhDs learn how to do all of those things, and often much more.

If you’re having a hard time figuring out or describing your transferable skills, here’s what I suggest: if you’ve already done a couple of informational interviews, go back to your notes and see what kinds of skills your interviewees identified as most important. Write them out, then look to your experiences in the PhD and see in what part of your graduate training you developed those skills. If you don’t have a sense yet of what skills might be important to a field you’re interested in, or you’re still exploring fields and positions to see what might be a good fit, you can do this in reverse: identify the skills you developed during your graduate training, and then look at lists like this one find positions or fields that are looking for those skills.

Finally, I’d like to say one thing to anyone reading this who is starting to think about non-professorial careers but still believes, deep down, that being a professor is all that they’re cut out to do: it’s not true, not even a little, despite the fact that the culture of academia leads you to believe it is. For some people, that belief–along with a genuine love of the job–is what keeps them in precarious employment situations like those that have precipitated the ongoing strikes at York, University of Toronto, and UNBC. But being a flexible academic is far less about acquiring new skills than it is about identifying the ones you already have. So get to it!

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