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Translating Academic Skills into Workplace Skills

It used to be that if you were pursuing a PhD you were most likely going to end up working as a tenured-track professor at a university, researching and teaching in your specific field. Times have changed my friends. A PhD no longer ensures a career as a professor (you can read more about the truth of the academic job market here). And when finished with their degrees, PhDs find themselves thrust into a competitive professional workplace for which they were never prepared… or so they think.

When faced abysmal job prospects, many academics and grad students are shown stats like these, which proudly tout the numerous fields individuals with PhDs (in this case history PhDs) have entered outside of academia. Yes, this is great, but the problem is that grad student have no idea just how competitive they are outside the academic job market. Sure, you can tell them they would be great in business or government, but they have no training or work experience in these fields. Furthermore, no one is guiding grad students on how to market themselves outside of academia. As much as my university tried, the reality was that everyone in my department had taken the traditional route, scored the tenured track job, and never left academia.

I saw many of my friends finish their degrees and struggle to find work. Many ended up adjuncting or taking temporary positions. Honestly, this is no way to live. But, when I questioned why they didn’t look for jobs outside of academia, most said they couldn’t apply to anything becuase they lacked the skills or experience. Spoiler — this is totally false. PhDs have all the skills and then some to be successful in a plethora of non-academic fields. For example:

  • No one has better reading and writing skills… end of story.
  • PhDs have learned to research, organize, analyze, and present data from a variety of sources. We also know how to vet sources and information.
  • PhDs can work well independently (hello dissertation), but also know how to take criticism and collaborate. The best skill I took from my PhD was realizing the importance of criticism for personal and professional growth. Guess what? Employers love individuals who can handle and grow from feedback/criticism.
  • PhDs can handle the heaviest of work loads and manage several projects and tasks simultaneously.
  • We are analytical thinkers, but we also have to be creative in order to craft a persuasive argument.
  • We are self-disciplined and can tackle large, complicated problems or projects independently.
  • PhDs can manage a rather large and diverse group of people thanks to our classroom teaching experience.
  • And most importantly, we are problem solvers. We evaluate information from all sides/perspectives, and while we can identify and offer the best solution or argument, we can also recognize the complexity and value of others.

Trust me, any employer would love to read these skills on a resume. Now maybe you’re thinking, “OK, I have these skills, but I still have zero experience.” You are wrong their too. Yes, grad students don’t have work experience that directly relates to jobs in professional sectors like finance or business, but you do have experience relevant to lots of work sectors — experience like managing individuals (students), editing (papers), and¬†researching.

Highlight what knowledge and experience you do have, and you will be surprised by how many employers are willing to take a chance on you. This is why they write 3 years of experience or master’s degree in job descriptions. When I was applying for my current position, it was clear I did not have experience in an office setting, but I had tons of experience advising students and working with students abroad. The rest I can learn quickly thanks to the skills acquired through my PhD. Instead of focusing on a lack of experience, emphasize your ability to learn and adapt quickly.

If I could give any advice to current and perspective PhD students it would be to gain as much experience as you can in a variety of fields while working on your doctorate. Yes, it adds more to your plate, but it will give you so many more options when you graduate. I continued to work in international education/study abroad throughout my degree program and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made. If you are interested in getting into international education, I will be writing a post on this very soon!

Finally, as I discovered through applying to jobs outside academia, you must customize your resume (not a CV) and cover letter for every position you apply to. Use the language in the job description and explain how your skills acquired as a PhD will enable you to perform/excel in/accomplish each job responsibility or task outlined in the job description.

So what is the point of all of this? History degrees and PhDs in general are never a bad investment or a fruitless pursuit. They are incredibly enriching personally, and as you now see, professionally as well. Remember, knowledge is power!

If you have a story to share about transitioning from academia to a non-academic career please share.