“Transferrable Skills” Are a Lie – Postac Advice

In the face of the COVID19 crisis and 2020 academic job market collapse I will be re-posting the best of our post-academic transition content each week, to 1) help you envision ways of moving on with your PhD, and 2) get to know some of our splendid team of postac coaches who are available to help you both imagine new futures, and then manifest them.

Today’s post is by Adrienne Posner, one of our most requested coaches.

Adrienne Posner is a Program Manager at Google and works on various internal and external educational initiatives focused on creating a more diverse workforce. Adrienne received her BA in Art History from UC Santa Cruz, completed a fellowship in Critical Theory at the Whitney Museum, and then took a detour into the non-profit sector, working for a time for a political action committee. Returning to school, she received an MA in Art History from UCLA and then applied to the Comparative Literature program at UCLA where she received a second MA, advanced to candidacy, and began work on a dissertation before deciding to leave the academy altogether.

Adrienne’s experience consulting with grad students began as a teaching assistant trainer and continued in her work at UCLA’s Graduate Writing Center, where she coached grad students through organizing, writing, editing, and filing their dissertations. Though no longer an academic, she is still actively engaged in working in higher education, both via her work at Google and via her consulting work helping graduate students navigate both academia and the non-academic job market.

Coaching Philosophy

As someone who has worked in the non profit sector and the museum world and then transitioned back into academia and then moved between academic programs and then back out of academia and into the tech sector, I have significant institutional knowledge and a wide range of experiences in a variety non-academic settings. If you’re on the fence about how or if to proceed with your degree, if you already have your degree but are considering a change, if you aren’t sure what skills or experiences make you marketable outside the academy, if you’re simply curious about what kinds of alt-ac jobs are out there, or if you want to better understand the tech landscape and how to apply for and get work that feels sustainable and personally meaningful, I can help.

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Transferrable Skills Are a Lie

I want to start by saying point blank that “transferable skills” are not a real thing. Period.

What academics mean when they use this phrase – that there is some special academic experience that needs to be carefully explained in order have it all make sense to someone outside of academia – is actually a myth. If you are considering leaving academia, I believe it’s a myth that may be hurting your ability to see yourself in a job outside of academia. If you are currently looking for a non-academic job, it is likely negatively impacting your job search.

And yet, this myth, however damaging, is extremely pervasive. Perhaps this is because the academy encourages extreme specialization: academics spend their lives becoming masters of a tiny corner of their already specific field. The result is that academics often feel pretty special. Even if they are not personally invested in the idea of the “ivory tower,” even if they are the first to balk at the usually offhanded or even accidental but nevertheless manifest elitism of the academy, it’s still pretty difficult to not feel like academia isn’t somewhat of a city on a hill, special because highly specialized. Of course there is some truth to all of this: when you are one of the world’s leading experts in anything, it’s normal to see yourself as unique and privileged. It’s because, truly and without judgment, you are.

But the result is that, when academics, for whatever reason, decide to leave the academy, there is often a lot of hand wringing and angst about how to present their experiences in a way that is “translatable” to others, as if recruiters or hiring managers in other industries literally spoke another language.

In working with clients, I have realized that there are two seemingly opposing reasons for this belief, but in reality they usually occur simultaneously: 1) the belief that, because academic work is so highly specialized, it simply won’t make sense to others and will have to be explained, 2) the fear that, because academic work is so highly specialized, it has nothing to do with the “real world” in which “work” happens, and that therefore academics are likely unqualified. In other words, the anxiety about leaving academia is all too often equal parts fear of leaving a safe harbor in which specific interests and passions are truly appreciated, and fear of leaving a safe harbor in which, because those interests and passions are so specific, those that have them couldn’t possibly succeed in “real life.” In a nutshell, the anxiety lies in not being able to decide if your work is unique and therefore special, or unique and therefore irrelevant.

But there’s good news: skills are skills no matter where they are picked up in the same way that knowledge is knowledge no matter where it is acquired; this means that your experiences don’t need to be laboriously “translated” in order to be intelligible to others.

Perhaps equally important to remember: individuals are not collections of skills that can be picked up from one job and plopped down in another. People are qualified and successful for a wide variety of reasons, and their individual skills and experiences are just one part of the algorithm. After all, the main thing a good recruiter is looking for when they pick up a resume is concrete evidence that the candidate meets the minimum qualifications, and ideally some of the preferred qualifications, for the job posting. They are generally less concerned with exactly where this experience occurred and are instead motivated to contact candidates that can succinctly and clearly demonstrate that they have already been successfully exercising the skills that are needed for the particular job in question.

What this means in real life is that academics should frankly have a leg up in a non-academic job market. Many academics have spent the greater part of their adult lives working enormously hard to hone their abilities and to build up the competencies that allow them to be successful in a highly demanding career. As a result, they tend to be focused, persistent, naturally curious, highly driven critical thinkers who express themselves well in writing, have outstanding organizational skills, and often have better than average communication and “soft skills.” Additionally, due to the lack of funding for humanities and social science PhDs, they also very often have a lot of eclectic and compelling work and life experiences that can all add up to make a very interesting, well-rounded individual.

Academic work builds competence in areas that are highly valuable to employers. Let me be specific:

*If you’ve ever completed a thesis, dissertation or a book project, you definitely have more than adequate project management skills.

*If you’ve ever designed a syllabus or written exams or developed homework and other assignments for your students, you have experience with learning and instructional design.

*If you’ve ever taught a class or mentored or tutored a student, you can demonstrate leadership and solid communication skills.

*If you’ve ever administered a test of your own design or taken stock of student performance and then adjusted your teaching style accordingly, you have experience using data to inform critical decisions.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

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