Recasting Yourself for Non-Academic Jobs

February 18, 2000

"But I have no skills!"

Those were the words of Rachel Hemphill, a recent Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago, who had spent a frustrating and unsuccessful year on the academic job market. She was reacting to my suggestion that she might look outside of the academy for jobs.

Today, she is weighing several lucrative job offers from management-consulting companies.

Rachel is not alone in having voiced her concerns about her skills -- many Ph.D.'s and graduate students acknowledge feeling the same about looking for non-academic careers. After so many years of defining ourselves in academic terms, as historians or linguists, for instance, we do not know whether our talents or experiences are applicable to the "real world," let alone know how to identify and present them to employers.

When academics look for non-academic careers, the single most important and empowering event in the process is not actually landing a job offer -- or even a job interview, for that matter. Rather, it is reaching the crucial epiphany that in the course of becoming a historian or linguist, you have also developed a host of powerful skills that can be extremely valuable in many other contexts.

In other words, realizing that you are equipped for many options and careers can spur you to seek out other meaningful careers. It can even help you return to the academic job search with security and confidence.

When first asked to consider the possibilities outside of academe, many scholars draw a blank. We tend to know little about other options. We also don't expect that any of the highly specialized training we have received would be applicable outside of academe.

In Rachel's case, she recalls that even her sources of information about non-academic careers were extremely limited by living and working in an academic environment. She knew that there were some options in industry for linguists, but they did not appeal to her. And most of her friends, if they weren't academics, were in fields like law or medicine (and she had no intention of signing up for more graduate school).

After sharing her fears last summer in a focus group for humanities graduate students, she came by my office for a counseling appointment. The C.V. she brought along was impressive as a document of academic achievement, but it did not immediately point to any particular interests or skills other than the standard toolbox of an academic: writing, research, and teaching.

Buried on the fourth page of this five-page document, however, were some promising signs. Under "Administration and Professional Service," typically a perfunctory section left to the end, she listed herself as panel chair and coordinator of five different conferences and workshops in her field. Even farther down the page, under "Other Activities" was an extraordinary list that included seven years as a percussionist for several ensembles, 11 years of aviation experience, significant involvement in her church's leadership, and participation in an ice-hockey club.

Wow. That's the stuff of which dream résumés can be assembled. Instead of being unhealthy distractions from research, as many academics might view such a list, Rachel's professional service and far-reaching interests pointed to an important range of valuable skills and experiences, including leadership, teamwork, advertising, marketing, project management, time management, financial management, and technical literacy -- just for starters.

The difficult part for Rachel in recasting herself as a versatile and skilled leader and organizer was boiling down the first three and a half pages of her C.V. into a brief encapsulation of her academic career. Rachel needed to do that so she could emphasize all the skills and experiences contained in that last half page. "Academic departments are not so concerned with your leadership qualities or personal skills," Rachel explains.

Generally speaking, in preparing a non-academic résumé, much of the information found in an academic C.V., such as lists of courses taught, presentations given, and books and articles published, become redundant. This paring-down process can be difficult, since these accomplishments are so central to academic pride and success. Rachel ultimately reduced her five-page C.V. to a two-page résumé that left off numerous presentations and emphasized administrative positions. She shrank her numerous teaching experiences to a two-line summary.

We also discussed a broad range of career possibilities. One of the first options was management consulting, a field about which she knew very little. Rachel was curious but not convinced about a business career. The good news for her was that in recent years, the top management-consulting companies have become aware of the Ph.D. labor pool. Rachel could quickly learn more about the profession from the Ph.D.'s who visited our campus to promote their companies, and she liked what she heard enough to submit a few applications. (See an article from The Chronicle on management consulting, November 12, 1999.)

Knowing that these companies emphasized leadership and project management, Rachel created a section of her C.V. titled "Leadership and Professional Service," which she moved to a prominent place on the first page. She added to her entry about the church board an explanation of the specific duties in which she was involved, including the oversight of staff, activities, missions, property, and finance. She also added her contributions to planning educational and performance activities for the women's executive board of her church.

It is important to note that a candidate may feel awkward discussing private matters such as religious affiliation in a job-application process. For an academic trying to demonstrate applicable skills, however, it may be worthwhile for you to make the most of volunteer experiences. Once you have directly relevant work experience, you can easily replace some of these earlier entries.

Rachel also devoted more attention in her résumé to her involvement in organizing several of the linguistics conferences mentioned only briefly in her academic C.V. The modest claim of "coordinator and panel chair" did not do justice to the fact that she both conceived of and organized an annual conference in her discipline that attracts an international group of more than 120 participants.

Her entries on conference organization and church leadership provided extraordinary proof of leadership and project-management experience. They were bound to attract particular attention in such environments as consulting firms, where professionals are needed to solve complex problems and lead their clients to successful solutions.

When it came time for her interviews, Rachel found that her church leadership and her experience earning a pilot's license were the main topics of conversation. This is not surprising: Volunteer organizations like churches or animal-rescue leagues face complex problems that are analogous to those found in the business world: budget crises, marketing challenges, and personnel issues, for instance.

And significant extra-curricular activities also indicate a well-roundness that can dispel concerns in the business world about academics being too narrow and specialized. "I felt being chairman of my church fellowship committee was a plus," she says, "whereas in an academic setting I would have downplayed my outside interests and concentrated on potential research."

Now, just over six months after she thought she had no skills, Rachel finds herself ready to embark on an elite consulting career that will expose her to new challenges. I hope her success story here will encourage all graduate students and new Ph.D.'s to take a step back and reconsider themselves in a fuller way than their C.V.'s indicate.

If you feel as Rachel once did -- that you have no skills -- take stock of your personal interests and passions, and learn about yourself. If you still wish to be an academic, this exercise will reinforce that an academic career is a conscious choice for you, not just the only thing you could ever be paid to do. And if you have reason to doubt your future as an academic, self-assessment can arm you with valuable insights about the skills and experiences you possess that will be desired in non-academic job markets.

Robin Wagner is associate director for graduate services at the career and placement services office of the University of Chicago.

Note: Margaret Newhouse is on sabbatical.