• July 24, 2014

'But I Have No Skills'

As a graduate-career counselor at a major research institution, I meet with a lot of doctoral students who are mulling their career options outside of academe. Many are filled with anxiety, partly because they fear that obtaining any job other than one on the tenure track will mark them as a failure.

But many are also anxious because, as more than one student has put it, "I have no skills."

Such sentiments are most common among Ph.D.'s in the humanities who worry that they have no viable career options other than being a professor. But I've also heard that same embarrassed confession from graduate students and Ph.D.'s in physics, music, anthropology, and even computer science. Insecurity, and a colossal underestimation of the value of their transferable skills, seem to be universal among the graduate students I advise at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

That might seem ludicrous to people outside of academe -- after all, graduate students are among the most well-educated members of our society. But if you are on the inside, you know that you live in a small, isolated subculture, surrounded by other students and professors who are, like you, highly intelligent, well educated, and motivated. Because you are always measuring your performance against that of your highly talented peers and mentors, you seriously -- and consistently -- underestimate your very significant strengths and skills.

In addition, if you are like many graduate students, you may take an overly literal view of your professional experience: If you can't see a direct relationship between your specialized training -- say, in 18th-century British military history -- and a job description, you assume you have no "real" skills.

One humanities doctoral student, who has spent several years teaching undergraduates at Illinois and other local colleges and universities, recently told me, with great sincerity: "I have no work experience."

Don't restrict your thinking to a narrow definition of employment experience. Teaching and research assistantships qualify as legitimate professional experience requiring highly developed skills. Most graduate students have little familiarity with the professional workplace outside of academe. The paralyzing inability to recognize how skills honed in graduate school can be successfully transferred to a multitude of settings can undermine your job search long before it has even begun.

What Employers Want

Philip D. Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, reports annually on the occupational outlook for college graduates. Employers, he says, are increasingly seeking job candidates who possess the "total package" of strong communication skills, computer and technical aptitude, problem-solving capabilities, leadership, teamwork, interpersonal abilities, and a willingness to learn quickly and continuously.

Other researchers like Rich Feller, a professor of counseling and career development at Colorado State University, likewise predict a new world of "knowledge nomads" -- workers with strong, portable skills that equip them for multiple job changes, and even multiple career changes, throughout their lives.

Critical-thinking skills, self-directed work habits, and the ability to adapt to change quickly are essential for success in today's workplace, whether your vocation is university professor, project manager, or consultant. Conveniently, graduate students are challenged to hone such skills daily in their seminars, projects, teaching, and independent research.

How to Identify Your Skills

The process of graduate school develops a core set of competencies that can be transferred successfully to a multitude of careers, but I often have to work hard to convince students of their potential. Their graduate training, after all, has encouraged them to challenge assertions and ask for additional evidence.

In a career workshop at Illinois, we work through the following three-part exercise to help graduate students recognize the sophisticated skills they are developing:

  • List everything you do as a graduate student. Don't forget to include your part-time jobs, your work on student organizations, and your teaching. Your list might read something like this: attend seminars, write research papers, prepare and present lectures, grade papers.

  • Now describe the specific tasks associated with each activity. Use active verbs, and don't be afraid to include adjectives, too. For example, grading papers involves close attention to detail, the objective assessment of student performance, the consistent application of subjective criteria, and the ability to articulate deficiencies and suggest improvements with diplomacy and tact.

  • Finally, describe the abilities and strengths that you needed to be successful in those tasks in ways that will be understood by a broad nonacademic audience. Those descriptions will come in handy later, when you write a résumé. One such description might be: "objectively evaluated student progress and provided meaningful feedback."

Additional resources to assist you in identifying your transferable skills are available online; for example, the University of California at San Diego's Career Services Center offers, among other things, a list of skills acquired during a typical graduate education. And the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation has a Humanities at Work program that aims to increase awareness of the values of advanced education in the humanities and to expand career opportunities for humanities Ph.D.'s.

Look around your campus, too, and see if you can find a career counselor to help coach you through your self-assessment process.

Translating the Advanced Degree

OK, you say, maybe I'm not as lame as I thought. But why would an employer want to hire a Ph.D.?

Well, it's true that employers aren't usually out there recruiting Ph.D.'s, but the maturity, discipline, and significant communication skills of many advanced-degree holders can make you an attractive candidate, provided you can adapt your message well for a nonacademic audience. One humanities Ph.D. from Illinois accepted an entry-level position in a technology-management company, and in less than a year, was promoted to a midlevel management position. She received a second promotion about 12 months later, and credits her strong organizational and communication skills to her success.

Sometimes employers are intimidated by the idea of hiring a Ph.D., and may hold misconceptions about candidates with advanced degrees. Negative stereotypes about Ph.D.'s include arrogance, impracticality, a lack of common sense, and an inability to communicate succinctly. In addition, hiring managers may erroneously assume that you're applying for a position with their organization only because you are currently unable to land a faculty job. They may fear that you will be out the door as soon as academe comes knocking.

Be aware of those assumptions, prepare for them, and discuss them directly. Don't be shy about promoting your abilities in a form that will be most relevant to employers outside academe -- in your résumés, cover letters, and interviews.

Employers, unfortunately, can be as literal as graduate students in their assessment of the relevance of academic training. For instance, an employer looking for an employee with strong verbal-communication skills might overlook an application that highlights "teaching experience" without explicitly emphasizing the strong organizational and communication skills necessary to be a good classroom instructor.

Remember that employers review each résumé for only a few seconds. Don't expect the people reading your résumé to take the time to draw connections between your academic experience and the skills required. Spell it out for them.

Above all, as Kim Thompson and Terren Ilana Wein emphasized last December in a column on this site, never submit a CV instead of a résumé.

Once you can identify and articulate your skills, it's much easier to start thinking about a variety of careers, and imagining yourself in them. By shedding the self-defeating misconception that you have few relevant skills, you can begin to define success in your own terms.

Rebecca Bryant is the director of the Graduate College Career Services Office at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She earned her Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Illinois.

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