How to Translate Your Skills for Non-Academic Employers

This is the third article in the weekly Transitioning PhD Blog Series, written by contributor Maren Wood, PhD. If you’re contemplating a transition away from academia, sign up here if you want to be notified of these weekly posts.

If you are a PhD looking to transition to a non-academic role, it’s crucial that you know how to present your skills and experience so potential employers undertand how they translate to the role you are seeking. Communicating your value to new colleagues and potential employers is an important step in finding a new career opportunity. For anyone on the job market—those making career transitions or simply changing jobs—a successful candidate will be able to clearly articulate why he or she would be an asset to an organization. In this article, I’ll walk you through the process of identifying your transferable skills and how to convey them in a way that ensures you are a successful candidate.

First, it’s important to understand the difference in how academic and non-academic employers evaluate application materials so you can adjust your approach accordingly. As an academic, you are likely accustomed to using a CV. When you write a CV for academic positions, you typically list your qualifications and experiences under various headings—Teaching, Research & Publishing, Grants & Awards, and Service to the Profession—without specifying the skills and tasks that accompany these accomplishments. This evidence of scholarly activity and accolades communicates to academic search committees that you are an expert, which is how they evaluate candidates for positions. They want to hire an expert in the field who can teach classes and bring prestige to the institution by publishing innovative research.

Non-academic employers, however, evaluate candidates based on a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, and cultural fit for the organization. They are interested in outcomes. When an employer reviews applicants, candidates will often come from a variety of work experience and educational backgrounds. It behooves the job applicant to clearly explain how he or she can perform the duties of the position as outlined in the job advertisement.

So, the first step in identifying your transferable skills actually has nothing to do with you. As in any form of persuasive communication, your first task is to identify the values, needs, and goals of your audience. Once you have an understanding of your audience, you will be able to curate the evidence you present (examples from your education and work history) to convince contacts, colleagues, and future employers of your unique value.

There are several places where you can learn what employers in your new field are looking for in potential candidates. The most obvious place is to examine job advertisements posted by companies of interest. These can include organizations in the city or region where you are, or will be, actively job hunting, but you can also examine organizations anywhere in North America. At this stage, you are conducting a qualitative research project to identify patterns, so the specific location of each organization is not important.

Look for:

A mission or value statement. Often times, employers will include a statement about the organization in a job advertisement.

Commonly used language. Perhaps employers use “collaborative,” “leadership,” or “client-facing.” Someone transitioning to this industry would need to demonstrate strength in these areas. My clients often find it useful to create a word cloud to more clearly see the key skills and core competencies employers are looking for.

Required and preferred skills for the position. What do employers in this industry look for in terms of basic skills for the job? This may vary by organization, so again, look for commonalities.

Core competencies. A competency is the combination of personal attributes, skills, and abilities a person has to perform tasks. “Oral Communication” is a competency that would include strong public speaking skills.

Another place to research what potential employers look for in employees is LinkedIn. Using the search function, find employers of interest. LinkedIn will show you employees who work at these organizations.

On employee profiles, look for:

How they describe themselves in their profile overview.

What tasks, skills, and outcomes are present in their work experience sections.

Other organizations they worked for. (Add these to a list of employers to research.)

What they have selected for the Key Skills section.

Now that you have a clear idea of what skills and competencies employers in your industry are looking for, it’s time to do a deep dive into your own skill set.

Start with the basic categories of the academic life: Teaching, Research & Publishing, Grants & Awards, and Service to the Profession. Think about what you do.

Let’s take Teaching as an example. If you are a solo instructor, the first thing you do when you are assigned a new course is start designing a syllabus. Okay, but what steps do you take to design a syllabus? When I was teaching, I would do a quick search to find syllabi by other historians and look at the decisions they made when they designed a similar course. Then, I’d order and examine textbooks they had used to see if they matched my goals. To a non-academic employer, I might describe this step as conducting a best practice study. I’m able to find out how other people in the market are approaching a similar project.

In designing a syllabus, I need to identify the learning objectives for the class—what do I hope people will learn? How will I measure the performance of my students? What kind of assignments and quizzes will I need to create?

Walk through, in excruciating detail, every single task and step of designing a syllabus. Then, move on to writing lectures or facilitating group discussions. Designing and preparing lectures requires different steps from delivering a lecture. Lecturing requires different skills than running a class discussion.

Don’t forget to include holding meetings during office hours, returning emails, managing teaching assistants, and working with different teaching and learning centers to help struggling students. Nothing is too small at this stage to be included. Don’t be surprised if this exercise gives you a confidence boost!

Once you have finished meticulously detailing your teaching experience (solo instructor or teaching assistant), move on to research (conducting and publishing), conference posters and presentations (distilling complex ideas and public speaking), and any committee work or event planning (organizing and collaborating).

If you worked outside the lab or classroom during your time in academia, include that work experience too. One former client who had a PhD in a quantitative social sciences discipline also worked as a fitness instructor. By including that information on LinkedIn, her resume, and in informational interviews, she communicated to potential employers a range of skills necessary for client-facing work. It’s perfectly respectable to include volunteer experience, part-time work, blogging or podcasting, etc., if it communicates to potential employers that you have a specific skill set they value.

Once you’ve completed your deep dive, return to the research you conducted on employers and what they value. Repackage the work you’ve been doing as an academic into language the employer will recognize and understand. Some of my clients have expressed skepticism at this exercise—even wondering if it is lying. It’s not. It’s simply relabelling work you have done. The goal is to translate your skills and experience so they are targeted to the audience. For instance, you could reframe “teaching” as oral communication, mentoring, conducting best practice studies, designing a training program, and creating and applying metrics. You can then highlight these skills in your application materials. Try to present yourself not as an academic, but as a professional with 5-10 years of experience performing tasks and developing competencies and expertise.

Finally, eliminate distractions. In persuasive communication, you should exclude any piece of evidence that does not support the point you are making. The point you will be making in resume writing, LinkedIn, networking, and interviewing is that you have (enough of) the skills an employer is looking for to demonstrate that you are a great fit for the position and their organization.

To end with a success story, I’ll refer to another former client. Christopher E. was a post-doctoral fellow in ecology who wanted to move into science communications. As he itemized all of the different ways he’d communicated complicated technical information to diverse audiences—both specialists and non-specialists—his confidence grew. While he had never held a position in marketing and communications, it became apparent that he had developed a lot of the top skills and core competencies necessary to be an effective director of science communications. When he started conducting informational interviews and applying for positions, he was able to give clear examples of how his past experience was applicable. Within three months of actively networking, Chris landed a job as a director of science communications and outreach at a museum.

With careful reflection and great attention to detail in how you present yourself, you, too, can find similar success.


About Maren Wood, PhD

Maren Wood, PhD is the Co-Founder of Beyond the Professoriate, an organization that provides professional development to graduate students and PhDs in career transition.  She earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Maren has been a lead researcher on several important studies on the academic and non-academic job market for humanities and social science PhDs, working for the American Historical Association and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Her writing has appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and University Affairs.

Maren is often invited to campuses as a keynote speaker to present her original research and lead interactive workshops to help graduate students prepare for a non-faculty job search.  Follow Maren on Twitter @drmarenw and connect with her on Linkedin.


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