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Identifying and Communicating Your Transferable Skills
with Robin Wagner & Russel Kitchner
Hosted by Paula Foster


Russell Kitchner
Robin Wagner

Transferable Skills

Presenting ABD or Ph.D. Status

Handling Interview Questions

Getting into Academic Administration

The following conversation originally took place on an email discussion list called WRK4US, which was founded by Paula Foster in 1999 as a place for people with graduate education in the Humanities to discuss nonacademic careers.

Because WRK4US has a confidentiality policy, all subscriber email addresses have been removed, and all names (except for Paula Foster's and the Guest Speakers') have been either removed or reduced to two initials which are different from the person's real initials.

If you like this discussion and would like to subscribe to WRK4US, send an email message to saying subscribe WRK4US Your Name, or email Paula at

Edited by Wendy Waters


Russell Kitchner
Opening Message

Paula Foster invited me to serve as a discussion facilitator this week, and I am pleased to do so. I would introduce my participation by way of a disclaimer: underlying any input that I might offer is my personal perspective toward work, professions, and life in general. In that spirit, it may be useful to acknowledge at the outset that my current position of Associate Director of the Career Center and Manager of Graduate Student Career Services at the University of Notre Dame does not reflect a lifelong ambition, or even a logical vocational progression. After 25 years in various academic support service roles, from entry level to vice presidential level, I happened upon an opportunity to build a program from scratch. I do not consider myself a career counselor in the traditional sense of the term, nor do I have the "proper" credentials; therein lies the message. I serve as a corporate relations advocate for the University and a mentor to its graduate students. My academic background includes a BA in history and a Ph.D. in Higher Education/Industrial Engineering. I use them both, but neither prepared me especially well for this role. This fact underscores the relative importance of both individual initiative and adaptability. Humanities Ph.D's need to embrace both qualities and consciously develop them.

In essence, my work involves developing relationships with prospective employers, both academic and non-academic. I assist faculty in identifying potential sources of research opportunities because graduate researchers represent the sponsoring agents' deepest candidate pool. I cultivate linkages with colleges and universities whose missions and agenda are most congruent with the character of our candidates. Coupled with these activities, I spend considerable time advising graduate students on such topics as credential development, search strategies, employer prospecting, and vocational choices. It is not uncommon to work with individuals for whom graduate school has led to a shifting of priorities, with a resulting need or desire to consider alternatives to their original plans. Many others are simply seeking another pair of eyes to review their vitae or resume; one visit - never to be seen again. The most challenging clients are those for whom the dynamics of the market make them feel undervalued, superfluous, and/or miscast. For those in this category whose life's calling is the academy, I try to identify options they may not have considered. Some, however, have become disenchanted with academia and are open to applying their skills elsewhere. For this group, the range of opportunities is a function of individual initiative, creativity and marketing skills.

Of the groups that I have cited above, the most challenging cohort is, and likely will remain, the Humanities Ph.D. Not only is this group caught in the jaws of a seemingly malevolent conspiracy of market dynamics, but it also suffers from a traditional sense of being vocationally unidimensional. In response, I attempt to assist these individuals with the processes of either expanding their employment field of vision or recasting themselves in relation to emerging markets. Needless to say, these are very individualized processes, taking into account a myriad of personal considerations and variables. There is no formulaic approach, nor should we strive to develop one.

This lack of generalizable proscriptive counsel also applies to this listserv, and in lieu of offering answers to questions no one is asking, I will move to the standby mode and open the floor to whatever the members would choose to discuss.

Russell Kitchner

Russell S. Kitchner, Ph.D., Associate Director and Manager of Graduate Career Services

Robin Wagner
Opening Message

Hello everyone,

I'm supposed to open a discussion with you about transferable skills.

I'm not exactly a big fan of long e-mail discourses, but will be happy to respond to inquiries.

I remember vividly my days toward the end of writing my dissertation thinking that I had no skills whatsoever apart from speaking and reading Chinese.

I found two experiences eye-opening: 1. I studied Margaret Newhouse's book, "Outside the Ivory Tower," (published by Office of Career Services at Harvard) and learned a great deal about how to identify the specific skills I learned in graduate school 2. I conducted tons of informational interviews and learned a lot about what kinds of skills are used in a whole host of diverse careers.

Needless to say, I advise students at the University of Chicago to do the same -- be specific about identifying the skills they have, and ask absolutely everyone they can think of for an informational interview.

Paula asked how my skills and experiences outside and inside academics contribute to my current position in academic administration.

1. My academic experience helps me understand the environment. I don't pretend to be up-to-date on Chinese history -- it's not what I do for a living anymore. Rather, I'm just clued-in to academic culture and appreciate where people are coming from. The PhD is a bit of a union card for academic administration, even when you don't "practice" the profession.

2. My corporate and non-profit experience helps in two ways. First, it provides me with ideas for advising students and real information about two kinds of careers that my students find interesting. It also has given me insights into "organizational psychology" -- how organizations work and how to be effective in them.

Finally, when I made my first move outside academics, I capitalized almost exclusively on my strongest skill, teaching, to get into an environment I wanted to be in (management consulting). I was an excellent teacher, but had to learn nearly everything about the content I would be teaching. It was easy enough for me to learn about business writing and team building, especially given that teaching in the business world is very interactive, with a premium placed on playing a facilitative role, rather than a lecturing role -- I was mostly drawing out knowledge possessed by the people in the classroom. Even though I wasn't a management consultant, I learned a lot about that career and found that I really didn't want that kind of job. In my next job, at the Field Museum, I was able to find an environment where I could use a little bit more of my academic research training and teaching skills.

Looking forward to your questions and comments,

Robin B. Wagner, Ph.D. Associate Director for Graduate Services Career and Placement Services

Transferable Skills

Question: I'm interested in knowing what, from your perspective, a 'skill' is/is not and what it means to 'transfer' one/them for PhDs in the Humanities.

Some not-so-obvious examples will be helpful.
Thank you in advance.

Question Part Two:

Russell, Robin, imagine this scenario. Into your office walks a Humanities PhD student who has just begun seriously considering leaving the academy. She has held a variety of graduate appointments, but has no idea how her experiences would look, or could look, to nonacademic employers. This person has read no books yet on the subject of academics leaving the academy and cannot expect much help from his or her department.

Russell, Robin,
what would you say to this person?
What advice would you give?

Russell's Response to Part One:

Your question warrants response, and I will endeavor to do so, taking care that we avoid letting this discussion digress to a debate over semantics. In the context of careers and employment, "skills" are broadly defined to include a broad range of abilities and talents, as well as technological expertise. One could focus on skills related to communication skills (writing, presentation, etc.), computer skills, analytical skills, and any number of other attributes - some easily measurable and some more a case of perceptions. These are all good things to offer a prospective employer; and one does not so much "transfer" these qualities as one "applies" them. The notion of tranference is that dynamic involving a set of attributes developed in and typically associated with one environment which are then applied in another. This is a concept that may lack linguistic precision, but its implications are generally well understood.

Russell's Response to Part Two:

Given your scenario (a case in point, actually), my first question would be, "Do you really WANT to leave the academy?" A negative, or even ambivalent response to this question determine my subsequent approach to assisting this person. But for purposes of this discussion, let's assume that she/he is not interested in remaining in academia, at least not as a faculty member. I would then suggest that she not read any books about academics leaving the academy. I say this only somewhat facetiously. Such testimonials may contain a grain of divine inspiration and/or a gem or two of brilliant advice, but I find that each person's unique set of issues and dynamics makes for poor generalizations. That said, I would recommend that the candidate visit a career library and look at publications that might provide insights into various careers. In addition, the internet offers nearly unlimited potential in this regard, and before I would presume to offer alternatives, I would want the individual to do some investigation on his/her own.

Assuming this person had a vita to review, I would offer to assess the credibility of his/her background relative to the non-academic market in general. I would focus on such elements as the applicability of past research and work experience. A case can be made for building upon 18th Century English literature in the context of corporate publications, for example. Likewise, the business world is increasingly receptive to those whose teaching skills have enhanced their ability to promote and market products and services, once they have mastered the appropriate corporate vernacular.

One of the most important aspects of this scenario is the relative lack of information upon which this individual can appropriately assess the range of career opportunities. One remedy that I would offer is to link this person with others whose fields of work are somewhat consistent with his/her's, and who would therefore be in a position to offer insights into the degree of fit for this person.

The above reflects something of a "benchmarking" process, the results of which would lead to the next phase . . .

Robin's Response to Part Two:

Specific examples of advice for this humanities graduate student.

Margaret Newhouse's Outside the Ivory Tower, aka "The Bible" has a wonderful chapter called "know thyself." that can lead you through several different kinds of self-assessment exercises -- ones that favor the left side of the brain and ones that favor the right side.

Basically, you need to come up with that intersection between 3 realms -- 1. things you're good at doing, 2. things you like to do, and 3. things someone would pay you to do.

For 1.: OK, in addition to the obvious generic humanities skills of research, teaching, foreign languages/cultures, qualitative analysis (ie art historians work with visual material), writing you may also be good at administration (organizing department events, symposia), computing skills (created websites, databases), social networking (working a conference, match-making), etc.[ These are all skills that are used in the real world: research -- financial industry makes use of all kinds of research to fuel investment decisions, editorial work involves research and writing, languages work may be applicable for sales or business development work overseas or translation work, familiarity with visual material is necessary in advertising, administration is good for just about any job on earth, same for computing. Get the idea?

2. Your own personal interests and tastes MATTER. You may be good at research, but if you've grown to detest it (as I had by the end of my PhD), what's the point of a job in research? You may be an avid rock climber in your spare time. Not exactly relevant to an academic c.v., but highly relevant, when coupled with editorial and computer skills, for a job as a copywriter at Get the idea?

3. This you need your superior research skills for -- go out and learn what jobs exist. Look at all sorts of job ads -- local paper, on-line job banks like ( now has an on-line job search resources section that provides some guidance to which job banks are most valuable for what types of job searches) to find out what kinds of job exist under skills and interests keywords of yours. -- for instance, type in "education" or "Spanish" or "art" and see what pops up. Then NETWORK and INFORMATIONAL INTERVIEW. Call anyone and everyone you can think of with jobs in the real world -- neighbors, family friends, second cousins, ex-boyfriends' sisters -- and ask them for 15-30 minutes of their time to tell you a bit about their careers. People love talking about themselves. You'll learn about their daily work activities, you'll learn about the skills their job requires. You'll dispel the sense of mystery you have about people in the real world. You are NOT asking them for a job -- that's absolutely TABOO in an informational interview. You're there to ask them about their career and the requirements for a job like theirs,and you're there to ask them for other leads and contacts.

After you've figured out the intersection of 1,2.and 3, you're set to do start a job search in a field or fields that interest you and for which you have at least some the skills that are needed.

Remember -- no one enters a job with all the skills up to par -- unless they like being bored. There's always new skills to learn, it's just a matter of selling some of your skills to land you the opportunity to acquire additional ones.

Paula's Follow up question:

Russell, you said
>I would focus on such elements as the applicability of past >research and work experience.

Can you say a little more about exactly how you might do this (or help the person do this for themselves)?

For example, here's a practical thing I did last year which I found very helpful. I sat down at the computer and constructed a "Skills Bank" for myself. I simply listed all of my skills and abilities, ranging from vague qualities like "getting people excited about something" to specific things I had done, such as "coordinated the work of ten grad students writing a handbook for how to get through a PhD program." I made it my mission to list EVERYTHING, no matter how small or flimsy or 'academic' it sounded.

As the items alternately poured and dribbled out onto the screen, categories started to emerge and the list become more organized. Certain items were relevant to more than one category; those items got repeated in more than one category because I wanted to be able to look at this list and instantly see everything related to each category without having to search the whole document.

Anyway, it took a few hours, but at the end of the day I had a seven-page document presenting a huge number of decent-looking skills in several categories. Even though some items were repeats, I was still astonished by how much I had done and could do, which made this exercise a major confidence booster for me. I also saw, by looking at the categories, where my skills tend to cluster: training, communication, marketing, and oddly enough, process development (figuring out how something should be done) and program development (conceiving of programs or improving existing programs).

But enough about me. That's just what one person did. Surely that can't be the only way to do it. Back to Russell and Robin then: what specific things do you do with your Humanities PhD clients to help them inventory and evaluate their own skills?

Russell's Response:

I have found that one of the most effective methods for identifying and assessing skills is to develop a "functional" resume/vita. By focusing on skills and abilities, one has to engage in a reflective process much like the one you cite by way of your own experience. I have found also that it is easier to approach this task with a specific career, if not a specific position in mind. Obviously, when attempting to consider the notion of "applicability" one must consider not only his/her personal attributes, but also the probable expectations and preferences of prospective employers. In so doing, one is required to give serious thought to the range of skills and abilities typically associated with a given field of work. I have had many people come away from this process with a new and invigorating sense of confidence in the relevance of their background.

GE's Question/Comment:

Here's a real transferable skill issue to chew on.

Without ever even delivering a resume, and based on a 'request for information email, someone in a New York Internet firm may want to offer me a very nice job doing and managing internet research. The individual and I have very good chemistry and he seems to genuinely value my background (he's actually one of the first people I've met who seems to be able to appreciate what a PhD in psych/sociology can offer). I've made it clear that I'm NOT looking for an entry level job and in fact I'm not sure he would offer me one if I was, yet this is what his uncertainty comes down to: He's not quite sure where someone like me would fit in his group. I said to him that I'm not a square peg to fit into a square hole or a round peg to fit into a round one, and we both agreed that who would want to be either of those. Yet, of course, on one level, he, and by extension the non-academic world in general, ultimately feel more comfortable with uniformly shaped pegs. Beyond this issue of transferable skills (which everyone on this list will come to recognize is NOT the question-- you have the skills and anyone who needs a lot of persuading that you do is not worth working for), this is the main issue I've come up against. It's not that firms have anything against us, they just don't know where to put us. Work outside the academy is routine, highly organized (in a sociological sense), and not particularly receptive to the sort of inventiveness that characterizes good scholarship. I started a job search in the internet sphere because I thought that there, this would be less true and it probably is-- the fact that I've gotten as far in my search and continue to remain as committed to it as I have provide something of a testament.

But how do I crack this nut. My contact is mulling over his organization and my place in it and of course my strategy is to maintain contact, to remind him that I'm here and would like very much to work for him (in large measure because he's been so receptive to what I can offer). Not knowing the details of his organization or its plans for the future, it is difficult to respond specifically to his concerns but how do you sell the kinds of contributions (it's contributions and NOT transferable skills that are the question) someone with a PhD can make to someone who realizes there value but is still not sure what to do with them.

Paula's Follow up question:

GE: would you please expand a bit on the distinction you draw between skills we possess and contributions we can make to an organization? I'd like to learn more about this.

GE's Response:

The distinction I wanted to make between a skill and a contribution was this:

A skill is something you can do whereas a contribution fills a need. For example, I'm pretty good at turning ambiguous uncertainties into researchable questions. It's a skill I have. I can make a contribution to a firm (or industry) operating on unknown or ambiguous terrain that realizes or can be convinced that this skill will help their organization. My sense is that not all businesses are interested or even aware of the importance of formualting good questions so at such firms it would be hard for someone like me to make a contribution.

Subscriber Response:

Your skill is valuable and I'd like to see some business applications of it.

If you are equally skillful in marketing that skill, you'll have a profitable part-time consulting practice

Russell's Response:

GE: You raise some good points, particularly with regard to the dilemma that Ph.D.'s bring to the non'academic market. On the one hand, most employers have an inherent, if begrudging respect for the intellectual implications of the degree. On the other, they may not be sure of how that talent can be applied in their environment. Couple this with the unfortunate image some of us have had to confront, ie., that we are arrogant, unrealistic, introverted and asocial. In short, we are not team players. This image has been earned, by the way, not arbitrarily assigned. Consequently, our success in overcoming that obstacle is largely a function of our willingness to manifest attitudes and behaviors that are conducive to the market.

That said, I fear we run great risk in overstating the homogeneity of the non-academic world of work. There are many companies that place great value on individual initiative, independent thinking, and other attributes that fly in the face of your assertion that "the non-academic world in general. . . feel(s) more comfortable with uniformly shaped pegs. Creative, "outside the box" thinking is highly valued in today's market, and not just in the internet environment. Just as Ph.D. recipients resist and bemoan the injustice by being uniformly pegged as being "an inch wide and a mile deep," so too does the non-academic employer find it wearysome to be perceived as an automoton. There are as many misconceptions of non-academic environments as there are the academy, and we would do well to get past such imagery and look at companies with the same eye for individuality that we would want for ourselves.

The applied implications of this homily are these: Pursue employment with this internet company by learning about its mission and market. If you can articulate your desire and reasoning for embracing both, then you have cleared the first hurdle. The next step is to investigate the HR needs of the company as those needs relate to your qualifications. Then, determine what value-added dimensions you bring to this company, and what unique contributions, talents, and perspectives. Finally, develop your application and overall marketing strategy on the basis of the congruence of interests that seems to exist between you and the company.

I recently had an employer tell me that he is looking for "good people." He is not concerned with finding pegs for holes, but finding good talent that his company can then build upon. His position is that if he finds the talent, he will then find the job. "Good people can learn, and good people will contribute." Try recasting yourself according to this perspective GE - I think you will find the results enlightening and rewarding.

Presenting ABD or Ph.D. Status in Resume's & Interviews


Russell - I'm curious, what specifically are some of the good and not-so-good reasons for being ABD, from the interviewer's perspective?

Russell's Response

In my opinion, the fundamental difference between a good and a bad reason is the credibility or logic of the explanation given. One might leave due to changes in career interests, family circumstances, health, program deficiencies, etc. I have also heard some long-winded justifications that, when distilled, essentially amounted to "I didn't have the ability to succeed, or the will to persevere." I say this with caution, since I am not inclined to be judgemental about such things. But for the purposes of a job application, what is important is the candidate's ability to put a positive spin on every aspect of his/her past.

It happens that I flunked out of college as a freshman, but I have used that fact, coupled with subsequent indicators of academic success, as testimony to my strength of character, or my ability to focus, or whatever. It is amazing how liberating confession can be, and how refreshing it is to employers who typically are bombarded by nothing but the fluff. All by way of suggesting that one should ask oneself, "Why am I ABD; Do I intend to remain ABD; If so, can I defend my reasons to a prospective employer?"

I hope I didn't miss the mark entirely.

Follow up:

Thanks, Russell, that helps - I was also wondering how employers might feel about someone planning on remaining ABD, that is, would they appreciate that one could have the analytical and other skills gained in a Ph.D. program without actually finishing? (Assuming that the reason was a lack of interest in a traditional academic career.)

Russell's Response:

I would say there is much you can draw upon from a graduate program, even absent the awarding of a degree. Employers would likely be very responsive to having someone indicate that he or she experiences a change of heart after beginning a Ph.D., but remained in the program long enough to acquire the skills and/or expertise that were felt to be useful or relevant to their career of choice.

Robin's Response:

Outside of academia, most folks don't get why anyone would want a PhD in the first place, so being ABD would not really matter.

To be less flip, since most of the world is not in academics, it's a big mistake to be all defensive about ABD status, or even leaving academics as a PhD. Since they aren't in the academic world, and may not even value it very much, you don't need to convince them why you didn't want to stay. Rather, you need to be incredibly convincing on the reasons why you want the job you're applying for -- that is, after all, what you're after and where they are coming from.

Russell's Response:

While I agree with Robin that one should not necessarily be "defensive" about ABD status, I disagree with her sense that anyone outside of the academy is esentially unconcerned, uninformed and/or disinterested in the reasoning behind the status. Most employers have college degrees, and many have advanced degrees. Moreover, it is their business to know about credentials and their relative importance.

Consequently, although it is not necessary to be paranoid about the ABD issue, I think it is essential that one be prepared to discuss it as part of one's academic backgound. If the matter of not finishing is left unaddressed by the candidate, we abdicate the field, leaving the employer to speculate. I would not want my career aspirations to be held hostage to an interviewer's potentially misguided speculations.

Finally, the interview is not simply a matter of convincing an employer of your desire for the position in question - that goes without saying. The process is all about convincing her or him that you are best qualified for the position, and qualifications often include subjective measures. If this were not the case, we would all be supplicants rather than applicants.

Subscriber WB Response:

I agree with Robin's comments. After years spending 60 hours or more per week doing things related to the Academy, it's easy to forget that most people haven't got a clue what goes on when someone studies for a humanities Ph.D. Few people in charge of hiring would ever consider the distinction between Ph.D. & ABD, so forget about it yourself. They also have no clue what skills you have learned or honed during your studies.

Certainly that's what I've found in my three months so far in private industry. They're shocked to find out that I can write effective letters and documents, for example, since my main job does not involve doing this in a formal way. When I redo my resume, I intend to emphasize that more. Every company needs effective communicators.

My suggestion as someone who made the jump, and is now hiring others: Focus attention on your skills and abilities and EXPERIENCE--companies hire experience as much as skill set, degrees, diplomas, etc. For example, having a class of 40 students all writing research papers and doing other projects, and having to supervise all of these to some degree, is reasonably similar to supervising a department at a company (making that connection on my resume is largely what got me my current job running a content department at an internet company) - in fact, I'd say dealing with students and their projects is generally more difficult than supervising employees and the skill set you develop for people managing is reasonably transferable.

(to keep in mind...until I took the job I now have, I didn't know some of the skills I'd honed so how could an employer have a better idea?).

Russell's Response:

You make some interesting observations in your comments below, but I would be hesitant to draw many conclusions from a mere three months in one job. That is a very limited perspective from which to make the assertion that "most people haven't got a clue what goes on when someone studies for a humanities Ph.D. Few people in charge of hiring would ever consider the distinction between Ph.D. & ABD, so forget about it yourself. They also have no clue what skills you have learned or honed during your studies." One of the elements inherent to graduate studies is the rigorous analysis of information, and we know to question the validity of conclusions based on limited data or small samples. I mention this not so much as criticism of your perspectives, but rather as a precaution. If there is one common characteristic of non-academic employers it is that they vary greatly; and as a group, they do not lend themselves to generalizations. Moreover, they resist (if not resent) being pigeon-holed as much as we in academia. This turns out to be to the advantage of Ph.D. applicants, because as you correctly suggest, many of them value your skills, once you provide evidence that you have them.

Follow up from WB:

Russell and everyone,

My observations were not based upon only 3 months at my current company, but 3 years networking part time as a consultant and off-and-on interviewing for non-academic jobs. I apologize if that was not clear.

When I first started looking in the non academic market, i assumed that almost every company would recognize what skills I could bring, and would be interested in hiring a well educated and reasonable intelligent person (what a Ph.D. implies). It was only after receiving almost no response to resumes, and one or two really embarrassing interviews where we were clearly talking right through each other that I began to comprehend how little others grasped what it meant to be ABD (which I was at the start of this process) or to have a humanities Ph.D.

In my social circle of friends -- who are mostly professionals with at least one undergraduate degree and often some post-grad diploma or other training -- I've come to note how few grasp much about what goes on, other than teaching skills which, because many of my friends are elementary school teachers, they have some personal experience with.

My observations--based on 3 years of trying to get away from academia -- were also intended to support Robin's statement that one should not assume the reader of your resume or someone interviewing you actually understands what it is that you can contribute, even though you likely can contribute significantly to the company or organization. I think that we have to do the translating for potential employers, which means we need to learn to speak "business" "government" "administration" "management" or any other appropriate dialect.

Of course, they are just my experiences and observations. As any of us know, one person's experience does not always equal that of an entire community. Take them for what they are worth.

Russell's Response

WB: I think many of us will relate to your perspectives and experiences, which suggests that there is a reasonable basis for being proactive in marketing oneself to the corporate world. Probably one of the most critical variables in this equation is the quality of our contacts. If we rely on the knowledge and understanding of many HR directors, we likely will be miscast or undervalued. Our allies are the people holding the positions to which we aspire, and those who have entre to those fields. This is why I never encourage candidates to write a cover letter to "Sir or Madam," or "Director of Human Resources," much less "To Whom This May Concern." I have found that empty mailboxes and dead telephone lines are often a function of not laying the groundwork. If we cultivate the market effectively, we will be applying to people with whom we have made some prior contact, who know who we are, and who recognize the legitimacy of our candidacy. None of this guarantees job offers, but it reduces the probability of being ignored.

Subscriber Response:

WB just wrote:

>I think that we have to do the translating >for potential employers, which means we need to learn to speak "business" "government" >"administration" "management" or any other appropriate dialect.

This is very well put, and really rings true to me--it captures the interviewing dynamic I experienced moving from an English Department to the private sector. In fact, it seems that this advice is standard for all interviewees, no matter what the field--namely, that it is the interviewee's responsibility to learn the jargon of the field they want to work in, and also to learn about the company they are interviewing for, rather than the other way around. (Also, add the word "theory" into WB's sentence, and it applies to the average on-campus interview too.)

Given the tone of today's discussion on WRK4US (i.e., more adversarial "us vs. them" language than usual), some academics seem to see these interview strategies as compromising their integrity in some way when interviewing outside the academy. However, I tend to see it as sensible preparation for the job one wants. Interviewers simply don't know the areas of common ground that they and their organizations share with applicants beyond the basics in a resume--it's generally up to the applicant to map those areas out, especially during the interview (but also of course in the cover letter, resume, etc.).

Also, like WB, my own assumptions about my skills and nonacademic worlds of work had to change before I found the right job for me, so I'm curious to know how common this kind of re-orientation is.

Which leads me to a question for Robin and Russell (but one which also is a sort of open question for all to contribute): What are some of the most common assumptions held by your clients that help them during interviews and job searches? that may need adjusting somewhat before they interview successfully?

Robin's Response:

OK, useful assumptions. I should start by saying that most assumptions are detrimental, in that they are by definition not based on actual communication or experience, but rather what you *assume* to be the case.

The most successful candidates for non-academic jobs are the ones who have done the most work in preparation. (one recent humanities major going to a consulting firm claims to have never worked harder at anything, including her dissertation, as she did at learning enough about business to win a 6-figure salary at McKinsey & Co.) They have read "real world" publications like business week, fortune and (my favorite) fast company. They have conducted *many* informational interviews with "real world" informants and have come to adopt some of the language and mannerisms of their informants. They have worked over the resumes, cover letters and interview success stories countless times to ensure that the rhetoric is dead-on for the kind of audience they are facing. They are not hiding behind an academic pedigree and assuming that the letters after their name will speak volumes about what they know and what they can do. Nor are they using that pedigree as some type of proof of their value to the world. They are assessing their value based on the real-market value of the skills they have.

I'd like to add on to this that Margaret Newhouse's book "Outside the Ivory Tower" has a wonderful chart comparing the key stereotypes the rest of the world has about PhDs and the ones PhDs harbor about everyone else.

Russell's Response:

I think I understood your last question to be, "What are some of the most common assumptions held by your clients that . . . may need adjusting somewhat before they interview successfully?"

Assuming that I pieced that together correctly, my response would include the following:

1) . . . that ideas and values are not important outside of academia
2) . . . that non-academic work is all about profits and bottom lines
3) . . . that interviewers inherently recognize your skills and the potential fit of your candidacy with their needs
4) . . . that Ph.D. candidates are intellectually superior to the person(s) on the other side of the table; unless, of course, it's another Ph.D.
5) . . . that it is necessary, albeit uncomfortable, to grovel
6) . . . that it's up to the interviewer to bring the candidate up to speed on what the company does, and how he or she might fit into its plans
7) . . . that the candidate is on the spot/bubble
8) . . . that "correct" answers to interviewers questions are more important than are thoughtful ones, and
9) . . . the interview is a one-way process

I could add at least one more, but I wanted to avoid a "top ten list."

Subscriber Comment:

In all of my many interviews (informational and otherwise) I have never been asked about my ABD status. The interviewer always assumes that I *will* finish (after all, they don't care *when* I finish). The second assumption is that I will "go back" to teaching when I do finish. I believe that this stems from the difficulty non-academics have in understanding that Ph.D.'s can do things other than be academics.

To be honest, I have found this to be a difficult aspect of the process, and I address it in both the cover letter and during the interview--even if they don't specifically ask. I make it *crystal clear* that I love history, and I'm glad I'm doing the Ph.D., but that I have NO interest whatsoever in returning and/or teaching. Having said that, most people I deal with still don't believe me, responding, "Gee, it's such a cushy life, why wouldn't you want to be an academic?"

Russell's Response:

I wonder what the definition of "cushy" is? Our society, for all its ostensible sophistication and exotic communication technologies, continues to impress with its ignorance. To some extent, I think we like to maintain our misperceptions, and we don't want to be "confused by the facts." To those for whom this characteristic has manifested itself in the job-seeking environment, I sincerely hope you contribute to the enlightenment rather than the entrenchment process.

TT's Response:

Hi Russell--The Top Nine list is most of what I had in mind, but is there a list of Top +/- Nine positives too?

Thanks from the land of the half-full glass-

Russell's Response

Actually, there are positive corollaries inherent to each of the assumptions I cited, but I would add that, since you've made it to the interview stage, you have some specific qualities that are of interest to the employer - try to find out what they are, and build on them.

Thanks for the feedback. To phrase the request more positively, is there a short list of attitudes that you identify to your clients as absolute plusses from the start, attitudes that a person coming from an academic world may or may not recognize as being valuable or crossing over to the nonacademic working world?

Also, could you illustrate how to turn an item or two on your list into positives? I know it's a request for a bit of free work, but I'm curious on how you would frame one or two of these items as positives for someone who came into your office seeking career guidance.

Russell's Further Reflections

Something is being lost in the translation here, I fear. Your original question was "What are some of the most common assumptions held by your clients that may need adjusting somewhat before they interview successfully?" My response included some of the common assumptions that I think undermine the effectiveness of some candidates. Each of them can be reoriented as a positive statement. For example, the first assumption is "that ideas and values are not important outside of academia." My point is that ideas and values are indeed, not only important, but in most cases essential to corporate success. Likewise, the second assumption, "that non-academic work is all about profits and bottom lines" is a commonly held misconception that requires us to examine more closely the nature of corporate life. For-profit does not necessarily imply "at the expense of all other factors," and this is a concept that we would do well to acknowledge in an interview setting. My point is that we can take each of these misguided assumptions and recast them. "Thou shalt not kill" can be stated positively as "Thou shall let others live."

TT's Follow up:

FWIW, part of what I was asking for is a more precise example of how you help your clients turn negatives into positives. In my experience as a professional editor and also as a business communications teacher, many people have difficulty seeing the hidden positives in apparently negative statements, especially when the statements are about one's self-image.

Further, explaining how to tailor these changes to someone's own individual career situation can be tricky, esp. if the person is unfamiliar with or wary of with the jargon used by business, etc. worlds to describe scholarly skills. For example, "Ideas and values are not important outside of academia," might be turned into the very specific, "Your familiarity with hypertext theory will enable you to see the best way to edit/format this 200-page scientific document," or it could just as equally turn into, "You can use your familiarity with hypertext theory to create inventive PR/sales packages that integrate four different media to express one message." (Rarely are these negatives as easy to flip around as the rather Biblical example you ended with.)

Handling Interview Questions

Thank you for taking the time to converse with us. I hope this question isn't off topic (if it is, feel free to ignore me).

I'm wondering if you have some good tips on how humanities Ph.D.'s should respond to questions about their academic background, research interests, etc. during a job interview?

Do you coach people on interviews, or conduct mock interviews?

What about how to respond to questions or to statements like - "all academics I've ever worked with have been unable to deal with the real world that is our business . . ." Thanks!

Don't get me started! Your last comment reflects an unfortunate characterization of scholars. Were the interview setting not such an auspicious moment with one's career potentially in the balance, I would recommend a retort along the lines of "Yeah, I apologize for knowing so little of the shallow, money-grubbing, unethical morass that is typical of the business world and its Bohemian inhabitants." Obviously, I do not hold such sentiments to be the case, even while recognizing that each of these attributes may, on occasion, be accurate. In practice, I would coach a candidate to take the high road and slip past such observations, pointing out that while he is aware of such perceptions, it is his feeling that the educational background that he brings to the table is complemented by his familiarity and understanding of its practical applications.

Anyway, more to your point: Yes, I do assist candidates with interviewing strategies, including so-called "mock" interviews. There are two points that I try always to drive home in this regard; One is the fact that the interviewer has a position to fill, she is hoping to find a winner - she WANTS TO HIRE YOU! Keep this in mind, and assume the role of the "best" candidate in terms of intelligence, posture, appearance, confidence level, grace (courtesy) and sensitivity to the employer's needs. Second, and closely related to the first, an interview is not a time for sweaty palms, but of quiet confidence. The source of this confidence derives from the knowledge that 1) you are qualified for this position; 2) you can perform the functions associated with the job; 3) an interview is a two-way process - you are evaluating the employer; and 4) if this particular company doesn't recognize the congruence, you wouldn't want the job anyway. Regarding this last point, a personal testimonial goes a long way: I frequently cite my own experience in which a have enjoyed wonderful career opportunities that I would not have had were it not for the fact that I was overlooked for other opportunities. (Did you follow that?) In short, "you don't always get what you want - you get what you need." Notice how the great philosopher Mick Jagger applied his skills beyond the academy.

As I said, don't get me started . . .

Comment from Subscriber:

Having experienced the "you've never worked in the real world" etc., scenario that ABDs and Ph.D's encounter in transitioning to a non-teaching job, here's a suggestion. Everyone who is even thinking about leaving the academy should get a JOB.

Get a "real" position while you are in classes or dissertating. Ideally it's a job that relates to your future post-academic ideal. It probably won't pay. But get an "internship" or a "fellowship" or even "volunteer."

Interviewers want to hire people who have worked and grad student/teacher, waitressing, working at the GAP, etc. just don't count. Working for just 1 day a week allows you to respond to the "You've never worked in the real world" and "What kind of skills do you have?" A job (unpaid or paid) provides solid resume experience, a taste of the real world, and insight into "do I really wanna do this?"

Yes, it extends your servitude in the Ph.D., and yes, it's a pain. But it's worth it.

Getting into Academic Administration

From CJ:

I am curious about the flip side of the questions that have been posed on this listserv--how do universities value the experiences of PhD's who leave for jobs outside of academia but later return to administrative posts?

More specifically, I was wondering how you arrived at your present jobs--did you work your way up in your respective divisions of the university or did the schools consider your skills from outside of the university transferable and thus you were able to start at a higher post?

What are the general qualifications necessary for the different levels of positions within academic administration and at what level could a recent PhD hope to start at in your departments-- assistant/associate director? administrative assistant?


In my opinion, a Ph.D. will often serve as a vocational "get out of jail free" card, in the sense that the holder would not have to pay the same dues as would someone lacking the credential. That said, I secured my present position based on two distinct qualifications: a strong and credible background involving diverse aspects of higher education, and a Ph.D., which gives credence to my work on behalf of other Ph.D.'s. Conspicuous by its absence was any evidence in my past of work in career services, except to the extent that as a vp for student affairs I had administrative oversight of that department.

I have had members of the selection committee that reviewed my qualification since indicate to me that my ability to write a coherent cover letter, incorporating a vision for this department, coupled with my convincing rationale for hiring someone with my background that carried the day. I would not presume to assess my relative capabilities in either case, but I have ridden the horse of communication skills for the better part of 25 years and it has served me well.

There is no rule of thumb on where in the organization a specific credential will place you, but I think it is safe to suggest that the Ph.D. gives you a credible rationale for leapfrogging over entry-level to assistant or associate directors, even director-level positions, depending on the range of your experience and your ability to sell it to a prospective employer. In the final analysis, it's all about the effectiveness of your marketing, communication and interviewing skills.

Follow up question:

Do higher ed administration jobs follow a cycle at all similar to the usual tenure-track job search? (In other words, should grad students plan to work double-time this fall if they plan to apply for jobs in both areas?)

Russell's Response:
All of higher education hiring essentially tracks the academic year. However, administrative positions are less constrained by that cycle since they typically do not include teaching responsibilities. So yes - if you are looking at both tracks, there will be a train running on one or the other of them pretty much around the clock. The bad news is this will keep you very busy, which is also the good news. If you don't have a position for which to apply, go find one. I've often advised candidates that there are many opportunities for graduate students to create positions where none is readily apparent - it's a matter of making contacts, learning their business, offering to do something they hadn't thought about doing - but now that you mention it . . .

Different question:

I'm wondering what advice you might have for people who are interested in exploring university/college administration, as opposed to faculty positions. Certainly one would--as with any job--identify skills and interests, and conduct information interviews. But are there lesser-known steps one might take to explore or locate career directions (and career tracks) within that category?

My sense (in some very preliminary searching) is that there are quite a few books/articles on finding work IN the academy (as a faculty member) or OUTSIDE the academy entirely, but not as much specific information on higher ed. admin., which is something of a hybrid.

BG's Suggestion:


Your question wasn't directed at me, but I just finished researching an article on higher ed admin jobs, so I have a few thoughts:

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has lots of administrative job postings, and reading them will help you develop a sense of what kinds of positions exist and what their duties & required qualifications are. You can read last week's ads on line without a password (

Another great online job site is, which has links to many other job listings sites, some of which are also associations for higher ed professionals.

Robin's Response:

That's easy -- you're probably still on a college campus somewhere, or closely affiliated with one. Get to know the people who do jobs you find interesting -- ask people in student services or the provost's office (maybe not the provost, unless you know the person already!), or whereever there are people doing administration for coffee and then ask them to tell you about their jobs. Get a part-time job on campus in any administrative capacity -- it will lead to further experience and often advanced warning of job openings that would interest you.

Follow up Question:

Thanks for the feedback on this question, Robin. Here's a perhaps more difficult scenario: Are there some common ways or resources (beyond the Chronicle and the Web) that can help someone keep in touch with the higher-ed administrative market when a person is *not* near a campus (or campus workers) very often? (i.e., What advice would you give a person who has only limited time and opportunity during the work week to cultivate personal connections like those you describe, but who would have time after hours and on the weekends?)

Also, you and Russell have given frank answers about the flexibility that a Ph.D. provides for job seekers (entry level or otherwise). Could you speak candidly about whether you give different sorts of career advice to M.A.s and ABDs than you do to Ph.D.s?

Russell's Response:

In response to your first question - the internet is the great equalizer. Our ability to establish and nurture professional relationships has taken on mind-boggling proportions, with the only downside being that it is going to be an increasing challenge to keep up with the information flow. Anyway, network, network, network. Go to conferences, get yourself assigned to committees and task forces; volunteer your services and at some point you will meet people willing to pay you for them.

Terminal masters candidates are comparable to Ph.D.'s, at least insofar as they don't need additional credentials within their respective fields. So-called "interim" masters degrees are quite different, as are ABD's. Every case is unique, but I would venture this much by way of generalization: 1) Take stock of your qualifications and your interests; 2) research possible options; 3) prepare cover letters that make the most of who you are and what you can do; 4) develop responses to possible interview questions, ie., why are you ABD? (there are very good reasons, by the way, and some not so good); remember that credentials are only one variable among many, but be realistic. One piece of advice that I would offer any candidate is don't take the bulkmail approach to the job market. There is little prospect of success, it's expensive, and you risk your credibility, especially in the higher education field. It is a somewhat incestuous community, and there is nothing worse than being the familiar candidate for whom we only feel contempt.

Robin's Response:

Other than the Chronicle website and checking university websites regularly for job openings, I'm not sure how one would learn about academic admin openings or cultivate that kind of a network. frankly, hiring for those positions is done with a lot of derence to candidates who are close at hand.

As for ABD/MA advice, it is a bit different, but hard to generalize. An MA is just not the same level credential -- that's good news for some "real" world jobs where they are worried about someone who's too far gone as an academic. On the other hand, with no other experience an MA doesn't open up any more doors than a liberal arts BA would outside of academics -- you may be able to enjoy a bump in pay in teaching (2ndary schools) or government jobs. ABDs are in an awkward place -- you don't exactly hide your graduate training, but it often makes sense to emphasize other experiences.

Russell and Robin--

Thanks so much for the valuable information on my last question. Here's one more, and it's short:

Do higher ed administration jobs follow a cycle at all similar to the usual tenure-track job search? (In other words, should grad students plan to work double-time this fall if they plan to apply for jobs in both areas?)

Robin's Response:

No they don't to any significant degree -- there are openings at all times of year. R