Transferring Your Skills to a Non-Academic Setting

by Margaret Newhouse
Friday, December 4, 1998

"How do I go about finding non-academic jobs that I can do? Having been in school so long, I have no skills in this area." -- An anxious Ph.D.-to-be in cognitive psychology.

In my work with graduate students I have encountered a widespread belief that if you are trained for the professoriate, you have no skills of interest to anyone in the real world. Humanists and those in the "soft" social sciences are particularly susceptible to this myth, but scientists may also feel trapped, thinking they must find jobs requiring their technical skills only.

If you doubt your ability to market yourself outside the academy, read on.

First, making the extreme assumption that you are a total nerd without extracurricular or work experience, list all the skills and character attributes you developed as an academic-in-training. Go beyond the obvious ones -- the analytical, research, communication, teaching, and discipline-related skills.

Include abilities such as the following, which were brainstormed by a group of graduate students considering non-academic careers:

  • learning quickly
  • synthesizing information
  • problem solving
  • dealing with complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty
  • leadership and managerial skills
  • administrative, planning and budgeting skills
  • people skills, including persuasion, tact, political savvy, and the ability to motivate and counsel students
  • evaluation skills
  • personal qualities such as self-motivation, self-discipline, initiative, creativity, focus, meticulousness, stamina, independence, and humor.

Make your list now and then add the skills and attributes gained through your work and extracurricular experiences.

Think also in terms of underlying skills. For example, a host of implicit capacities undergirds teaching: explaining difficult concepts, organizing teaching materials into effective written or oral presentations, motivating students, and evaluating performance.

Similarly, writing a dissertation requires managerial capabilities, including defining and carrying out a vision, marshaling and organizing resources (including perhaps raising money, and time management. Writing a dissertation also implies initiative, discipline, endurance, and optimism -- not to mention all the research ability, writing skills, and substantive expertise involved.

Your abilities may not seem very special in the high-powered academic world you inhabit, but I can assure you that they are in short supply outside the ivory tower. As a Harvard economics A.B.D. put it, "Harvard is the academic equivalent of Parris Island. The fact that Harvard Boot Camp demoralizes you does not mean you are not capable."

Look at what employers say they are looking for. The most sought-after skills, according to a University of Michigan survey of 500 U.S. employers, include the ability to get things done, common sense, integrity, dependability, initiative, well-developed work habits, interpersonal skills, enthusiasm, motivation to achieve, adaptability, intelligence, oral-communication skills, and problem-solving abilities. Notice that most of these are character attributes that have probably appeared on your list of academic capabilities alone.

Fundamentally, you want to think in terms of transferable skills -- skills that can be generalized and are valuable in many jobs and settings. According to Howard Figler, author of The Complete Job Search Handbook, these are the 10 hottest transferable skills: budget management, supervising, public relations, coping with deadline pressure, negotiating, speaking, writing, organizing, interviewing, and teaching.

These are skills you most likely have. Your challenge is to translate them and the experiences demonstrating them into terms relevant to a potential employer in a non-academic environment.

For example, experience as a head teaching assistant could provide ample evidence of your ability to organize, manage, negotiate, and meet deadlines, as well as to teach and present. Management-consulting companies recruiting Ph.D.'s routinely ask applicants to give examples of initiative, leadership, and teamwork. It doesn't matter that the teamwork takes place in the lab, and the leadership and initiative in an extracurricular position or summer job or even an academic project (such as organizing a conference).

The more you understand the culture and vocabulary of the field you want to enter, the more effectively you can translate your experience into its terms. You can also get a better sense of the cultural differences between academia and your new field, including the stereotypes of academics that you will have to counter -- and perhaps even overcome.

Common stereotypes of academics include the idea that they lack common sense, can't meet deadlines, and don't take direction well. In addition, many academics who have gone into business say they have had difficulties learning to write concisely and to make decisions based on incomplete information.

Be prepared to give examples of how you exhibit the desired, non-stereotypical qualities. This is not to deny the existence or the power of such biases, but simply to remind you that forewarned is forearmed.

Many readers of my first column generously shared their stories with me, including these examples of how they successfully transferred academic skills into non-academic careers:

  • A new Ph.D in Slavic studies decided to parlay his research and presentation skills into a profession that would be interesting and financially rewarding. He now works for a software development and systems-integration company, where his work "is about 70 per cent technical and 30 per cent business."
  • An A.B.D. in English has supported herself in graduate school as a freelance medical writer, which she enjoys "because I get to use all my research and writing skills and then I produce writing that people actually use."
  • A Ph.D.-to-be in German, enjoying a new career in "localization" -- essentially translation of software and accompanying manuals, writes: "The skills developed in advanced study show an unusual commitment and passion that industry is always trying to recruit." Instead of an overly focused scholar, he presented himself as bright, multilingual, well-traveled, and resourceful.
  • In the face of a dismal academic job market, a recent Ph.D. in art history who had pursued freelance curatorial work while completing her degree, fell back on her curatorial and management skills as well as an interest in information technology to explore a new format -- multimedia CD-ROM's.
  • A Ph.D. in molecular biology, whose technical expertise was a prerequisite for being hired as a patent agent at a Boston law firm that specializes in intellectual property, stresses the importance of the writing and teaching skills she developed in graduate school. She constantly applies these to writing patent applications and educating inventors, clients, patent examiners, and now juries.
  • A political scientist with a specialty in Southeast Asia established Impact Publications, which publishes career, business, and travel books. He notes: "Like government employees, academics tend to be very institutionalized -- they think of their skills in terms of subject specialties. Their transition is often difficult; however, after five years or so they seem to be okay." (Check out the company's Web site for resources on international, government, and non-profit jobs at

Margaret Newhouse is assistant director of career services for Ph.D's at Harvard University. Even though she cannot answer e-mail personally, Ms. Newhouse appreciates comments, stories, and suggestions. Coming next month: dealing with advisers.