The following is the first in a new occasional series, “Ask the #Postacs.” The panel of postacademic experts (bios here) will weigh in on reader questions as a collective. Please send your questions for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org. We really want to hear them!
I’ve already had two job interviews (for the same company in New York), and I am encountering two questions that are giving me anxieties. The first is, “All you have is teaching experience; why should we hire you?” Well, that’s actually not true, as I have three years of non-academic professional experience, but I replied as best I could–responding that being a teacher at the college level gives you so many skills that are transferable in the business world: crafting presentations, managing multiple projects concurrently, client service skills, etc. But it’s tough not to get discouraged, especially since I feel like I’ve answered that question over and over again since leaving academia.
The second has to do with my resume and the perception that I’ve “jumped around” since graduating. I feel like my international experience and my work in multiple fields should be an asset, but I’m gathering that what people see is a professional who cannot commit to one place, one field. And that, frankly, frightens and perplexes me, particularly since I pride myself on my commitment to projects; one doesn’t get a PhD without a degree of fortitude and commitment, after all. I don’t know if this is a problem of spinning, or a problem that can be fixed with a bit of resume editing, or what, but I suspect it will come up again.
Reply from Margy Horton:
I’ll let the corporate post-ac people speak to the resume-writing issue. What I see in these questions is not so much an anxiety about the questions themselves, as a deeper sense of identity confusion. The question “Why should we hire you?” is essentially, “What do you have to offer (to our organization, to the world outside academia, to the universe as a whole)?” The question “Why have you jumped from job to job?” is essentially, “Why does your employment history make no sense (to us in this organization, to people outside academia, to the universe as a whole)?” Once these implicit, existential questions are made explicit, we can see that the issue here is less about “spin,” and more about developing a clear, confident sense of self. Ideally, you will get to the place where, when asked, “Why should we hire you?” the first thought is, “Duh, obviously hire me for my fabulous skills in A, B, and C, which I honed while researching D and pursuing E in the cities of F and G, and which will enable me to do H, I, and J for you. BTW, even though I hail from the foreign land of academia, I am already fluent in the language and cultural mores of your institution.” (But maybe just exude that last part, rather than stating it baldly.)
I’d suggest that you undertake a careful reflection upon the various pieces of your experience and identity, weigh the significance of each piece, figure out how the pieces relate to one another, and assemble the pieces into a new post-ac self. In a sense, this painful process is simply the universal process of human growth and maturation (said the person who wrote her dissertation on the Bildungsroman). For anyone making a post-ac transition, the most daunting yet rewarding task is to construct a cohesive narrative that ties together all of one’s disparate experiences and skills. It’s like applying for academic jobs all over again, only in different language and with different emphases. But the great part is, in the post-ac world, there are so many more possible right answers!
Reply from Alessandria Polizzi:
As one of the corporate folk, let me say this about the resume: moving around means very little. The days of having a 1-page résumé with 5-10 years per job are in the past. What’s more important is that the résumé tells a story of skills, actions and accomplishments. These can be industry and location agnostic but should speak to the specific qualifications for the potential role.
Reply from Maggie Gover:
In regards to the first question, it worries me that you have three years of non-academic experience, yet people are seeing that you “only have teaching experience.” I would love to see your resume, which I imagine needs some serious re-working! Your teaching experience should not be foregrounded, in fact should only be a single bullet point, if you are applying for jobs where you don’t think this would be valued.
In regards to the second question, I have several answers. First, it is increasingly uncommon for companies to be looking for the employee who has one fifteen-year work experience on their resume. In fact, a close friend of mine who works in HR talks about passing over people who are “stale” because they have been in the same job for over 7 years. However, there are still a few industries and companies where loyalty reigns supreme. This means that you need to employ those researching skills every time you revise your resume for submission. This is where LinkedIn is very helpful. Look at others who have been hired at that company in the last two years. Their LinkedIn resumes will be pretty accurate. If they had a variety of experiences in their backgrounds, you should reflect that kind of pattern in your resume. If they are mostly entry-level and just out of undergrad, you should probably look to those who would be your peers in the company. If their work experience is all at this company, or if they have one long experience in their past, you will want to reflect this in your resume. In this case, you should be presenting yourself as a woman who has long experience in her company (university) with increasing responsibility. This is, in fact, the case! This is one of those stories that really illustrates that one must tailor each resume to the specific post! Both of your questions lead me to believe that your resume is looking too CVish and not resumeish enough.
My next piece of advice is as someone who sits on the other side of these types of interviews and, I hope will dispel a very common assumption: IT IS NOT JUST YOU! We (the interviewing committee) will ask these questions of everyone! We are evaluating if you will be happy here and if we will be happy to have you here. So this question is important. For someone who has one long work experience on his/her resume we would ask why s/he stayed so long at the last place of employment and why s/he is interested in making the change now. If they say that they were looking for upward mobility and I know that the job I am offering is entry-level with no advancement opportunities, I know they don’t fit. If I see someone who has a variety of experiences, I may very well think of it as a strength of the applicant. I am still going to ask questions that help me gauge how long the applicant is interested in staying in this position, what they expect this position to be like, etc. The fact that you have gotten interviews to me means that this company does not view your past experience skeptically, but that they are attempting to evaluate if the position they are offering is a good fit for you and if you are interested in making this a career. Overall, you can’t answer in order to please the jury. You may think they are looking for you to say that you want to be there forever, and they may be looking for someone who wants to work in this particular position for only one or two years and then move up to another position. Instead, always answer honestly. Explain why this position interests you, how long you imagine you might be happy in this position, the kind of advancements/training/development you are looking to gain from this position, etc.
Reply from Joe Fruscione:
Let me reiterate how important it is that you stressed the transferability of the skills you’ve gained from teaching. As someone also in the middle of a career transition out of academia, I know how key it is to likewise underscore your fit and usefulness for the position based on these transferable skills. If you haven’t already done so, I’d also suggest both stating and showing the interviewers/employer that you’re not the “typical academic” some people envision–i.e., introverted, somewhat socially awkward, non-collaborative, unused to a ‘real’ 9-to-5-type schedule, and so on. Be sure to connect your professional personality with your transferable skills.
Reply from Karen Cardozo:
My colleagues have offered great advice—including Margy’s reminder that you DID get the interviews. Thus you have an objective reason to reorient yourself from feeling discouraged, worried or perplexed: getting the interview is a very positive sign. It’s important to remember that because however subtly, self-doubt DOES affect the vibe of interview conversations. If YOU believe, THEY will believe. And if they don’t, quite possibly it just isn’t the right fit. Mentally, it helps to remember that (despite the power differential) this is a mutual exploration. Those who are compelled by your transferable skills would be promising people to work with and for. You don’t want to work for people who don’t get it, do you?!
I would add that it’s very difficult to answer this question generically, without knowing the specifics of the job or of your academic background. Sometimes effective career conversions come out of an organic link between one’s scholarly or methodological background and the particular tasks of the new job or mission of the new organization. For example, I once worked with a history PhD trying to get into advertising. The person’s subject area was not “advertising” in any way. However, it turned out she had studied the post-war period that aligned with the rise of mass media and marketing AND had a strong background in comparative ethnic studies. She was able to convey a “deep background” on American cultural studies and new markets that could be brought to bear upon market research initiatives. She offered illuminating frameworks and perspectives that others did not. Another person I worked with studied themes of exile and trauma in diasporic literature: she highlighted the transferability of her deep understanding of the impact of displacement on immigrant identity to alt-ac advising work—a substantive way to respond to the description’s cue about “working with diverse populations.”
The point is: if you’re feeling discouraged it’s likely because the work of translation is difficult, rather than because you don’t have what it takes. Keep believing in yourself, and keep mining your background for new ways to talk about what you have to offer, while looking for very specific links between what you have done in the past, and what the new company needs you to do.
The Bottom Line:
Take heart. You DO have skills, strengths, and qualifications that make you an excellent candidate for post-ac positions. Through a combination of introspection, resume-tweaking, and interview practice, you’ll figure out how to present yourself as the cohesive, confident professional you are.