I’ll start with the good news: as a graduate student, you have a ton of fascinating, impressive skills. You know how to do lots of different things, and you know how to learn even more of them.
The bad news really isn’t so bad, just initially frustrating: many of those amazing skills you have aren’t always going to make a ton of sense to people outside your field, let alone outside of academia entirely. At least not at first.
You may have a knack for close-reading sonnets or getting a classroom full of eighteen-year-olds to understand propositional logic. But if you tell an employer that, in those words? You might get a polite nod, if you’re lucky, or a quick flip to the next resume in the pile, if you’re not.
Does that mean those skills aren’t valuable outside academia? Absolutely not. It just means you have to be creative and translate them. By shifting how you think and talk about your skills, you can help potential employers see the links between what you've done and what they need—and make it easier for them to hire you. And you’ll also make it easier for yourself to discover and explore broad, interesting career options.
Here are some tips for how to do it:
Break It Down, Then Build It Up
“I’m good at performing incisive close readings of both Petrarchan and Spenserian sonnets”
I think we all have a tendency to think about our skills in the context we’re used to, which can make them both too broad and too narrow for others to understand. Take that sonnet example: it both packs a ton of separate aptitudes into one sentence and, at the same time, conceives of them in only a single application. “That’s great,” an employer looking to hire a consultant or a program manager might think, “but I don’t have a ton of Petrarchan sonnets sitting around in need of reading.” (You can see a similar problem with, say, “I have performed a total synthesis of a naturally occurring molecule” if you’re trying to move away from the bench.)
The key here is to break your skills down into transferrable chunks, into pieces that you can rearrange and reconfigure for new contexts. So while not many nonacademic employers are hunting for someone who can go to town on a sonnet, they may very well be interested in someone who can read carefully, analyze information from multiple perspectives, and communicate research findings effectively.
Watch Your Language
“I grade exams and term papers effectively.”
When you write a resume bullet point or craft a cover letter or prepare to give an interview answer, you need to be thoughtful about the words you use and why you use them. Ask yourself how well your language lines up with that used in your target field. Do people in that field talk much about “grading” or “exams”? If not, do they use language—perhaps “evaluating” or “assessments”—that fits your skills but might make more sense to them? If so, consider using it. Doing so will make it easy for your audience to see how your skills apply in their organization.
This is one of the many reasons it pays to do your research—reading blogs and joining professional societies and talking to people—about a field you’re interested in. You can learn how people in that field talk about what they do, which will make it easier for you to connect your dots.
“I led discussion sections of a lecture course.”
Imagine you’re an employer and you run across this sentence in a resume or cover letter. Would you automatically know what that meant? Probably not. Could you picture what happened when the applicant walked into the classroom? Not really. Would you easily see connections between that bullet point and what you were hiring someone to do? Unless you were hiring them to be a TA, not so much.
But what if the applicant said that she “motivated students to improve their performance by setting clear benchmarks and offering hands-on support” or “facilitated productive conversations about complex topics”? Well, that might make a whole lot more sense.
Basically, you shouldn’t write application documents or give interview answers for yourself. (You already know what you did and how you did it.) Your audience is other people, and so you need to give them the information they need to make sense of your experience and accomplishments.
For more tips and an opportunity to practice making your skills make sense to different audiences, keep an eye out for our “Translating Your Skills” workshop offered every Fall and Spring semester. (Find the workshop schedule here.) And if you’re in the humanities, defined broadly, join us for the “What Can I Do with a PhD in the Humanities?” group on Fridays, April 1-29 at 3:30-5pm. Register here.
Derek Attig is Assistant Director for Student Outreach at the Graduate College Career Development Office. After earning a PhD in History here at Illinois, Derek worked in nonprofit communications and instructional development before joining the Career Development team. A devotee of libraries and all things peculiar, Derek is currently writing a book about bookmobiles.