Go to WRK4US index.
Go to Escape Pod.
WRK4US GUEST SPEAKER DISCUSSION 2
Identifying and Communicating Your Transferable Skills
with Robin Wagner & Russel Kitchner
Hosted by Paula Foster
Edited by Wendy Waters
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 S. Kitchner, Ph.D., Associate Director and Manager of Graduate Career Services
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
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"
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
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.
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
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 REI.com. 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 monster.com. (http://caps.uchicago.edu 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
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?).
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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
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,
9) . . . the interview is a one-way process
I could add at least one more, but I wanted to avoid a "top ten list."
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?"
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.
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-
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
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
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
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?)
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 . . .
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.
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 (http://chronicle.com/jobs)
Another great online job site is www.academic360.com, which has links to many other job listings sites, some
of which are also associations for higher ed professionals.
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?
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.
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?)
No they don't to any significant degree -- there are openings at all times of year. R