By Dr. Jenn Williamson
Jenn Williamson, PhD, is Vice President of Gender and Social Inclusion at ACDI/VOCA, an international development non-profit. She develops and oversees global gender equality, female empowerment, and social inclusion strategies across the ACDI/VOCA Family of Companies (ACDI/VOCA, Tanager, and AV Ventures). In addition to leading research studies, conducting trainings, and providing technical assistance to ACDI/VOCA’s worldwide programs, Dr. Williamson serves as the Gender and Agriculture Systems Advisor for the five-year, USAID-funded Advancing Women’s Empowerment (AWE) program. She previously served as the learning coordinator for the Women’s Economic Empowerment component of the USAID-funded Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO) project, which published the Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture (WEAI) Intervention Guide (2016). Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA, Dr. Williamson worked as the headquarters Gender Technical Specialist for Counterpart International. Dr. Williamson began her career in education, teaching at high school and university levels as well as working in higher education administration. Dr. Williamson holds a B.A. in Studies in Women and Gender and English from the University of Virginia as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in English, with a concentration in gender, race, and intersectionality, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Marketing Myself for a New Field
I spent more than 6 months searching for work, and I submitted applications for over 150 jobs. I’m sure I was “overqualified” for many of the jobs that I applied for. However, through the process of writing those applications, I learned a lot about what I really wanted to do, what I was good at, and how to market myself, and I got much better at the process. I also didn’t take all those rejections personally, though it is never fun to keep getting rejected or never hear anything back at all. But that’s just how the job searching process goes!
I sought out advice from networking contacts and online blogs who talked about their process of leaving academia for how to explain why I wanted to make the shift to a new field. I realized that I had to market myself in such a way that employers can see what I bring to them, what value I add, and how my skills benefit the organization. I needed to translate myself and my skills in new ways.
What does this mean? Well, in academia, we’re used to writing extremely long CVs that provide detailed information that market our knowledge, publications, and teaching to prospective employers — universities tend to hire “expertise” and prestige matters in that process (i.e., did you get your degree from a highly respected university, who did you work with, not only did you publish but which publication/press did you publish in, etc.). The skills and qualifications are primarily about what we know, what area of information we have immersed ourselves in and know better than anyone else, and our pedigrees.
Organizations and companies don’t care about most of the content in an academic CV. They don’t know or understand the signals in them, and the “prestige” part rarely translates. Most hiring managers will review resumes and CVs very quickly, often scanning only the first page, to see if the applicant has skills relevant to the job that needs to be done and goals the organization wants to achieve.
I understood that when applying for a job, it is extremely important to use the language of the industry and the particular organization to show:
- I can do the job as described extremely well
- I have performed the same or similar tasks to the job as described, to an excellent degree or outcome
- I have skills that the organization highly values
This means I needed not only to look at my CV with a different perspective, but to completely re-evaluate how I thought about my skills and experience. I also needed to tailor each resume or CV to each position when I applied. I needed to ask myself:
- How can I describe my past work experience using the terms the organization would use to describe it?
- How can I describe the practical skills I have, using the language that the organization would use?
After reviewing many job descriptions and having many conversations with networking contacts, I began to reassess my work experience and skills and developed ways to translate myself through my CV, which was also reformatted to a shorter style. I used examples of what I accomplished and quantified them to show impact. For example:
- Years of teaching and experience in pedagogy became years of training or building capacity using participatory and adult learning methods.
- For organizations that desired “trainers” and “experience building capacity,” I noted not only the number of courses I had designed and conducted but the actual number of classroom hours, the number of students, the size of courses, etc.
- Teaching, in which I tested student learning and progress and where I taught social science writing and analysis, translated to many skills in monitoring and evaluation and data collection and analysis.
- While organizations were rarely interested in the scholarly content of my publications, they were interested in my writing skills, the fact that I had published peer-reviewed articles as well as books and blog posts in addition to presenting at conferences, which means that I had the ability to communicate and write for a wide variety of audiences and represent thought leadership to external audiences.
This was not an easy process, but it was a transformative and enlightening one. It can be very helpful to talk through this with peers who know your academic work as well as friends and colleagues who work outside of academia and are more familiar with non-academic ways to describe skill sets.
A fantastic resource for advice on creating effective resumes, CVs, and cover letters that I still draw upon is Alison Green’s Ask a Manager blog.
Translating English and Comparative Literature Skills
Several years ago, I did a series of video interviews with the UNC Chapel Hill English and Comparative Literature Department about this topic. We talked about:
- Marketable Skills You Have as a Humanities Student
- Finding Non-academic Positions: Internships
- From a Literature Degree to a Career in International Development
- What is the Role of a Gender Technical Specialist at an International Development Organization
- Finding Non-academic Positions: Networking
You’re welcome to watch them, available here.
Stepping Back to Step Forward: Taking an Internship
After all this work to shift industries, I realized that I probably needed to adjust my expectations about what kind of job I could expect to be hired into.
Achieving a PhD is a huge accomplishment, and it is a terminal degree, which should mean that we’re highly qualified and at the “top of our game.” Ideally, this would mean we’re so attractive as candidates that we can walk into a senior level position in a new industry. Right? RIGHT????
That may be true for many PhDs, particularly from specific fields that translate directly into certain industries. I can see this being the case for STEM and other PhDs where staying in academia has not been a normative trend.
However, believing or assuming that a PhD should automatically translate to a senior level position, regardless of field, could hold a lot of people back from transitioning careers because:
1) While we have a lot of transferable skills, we still have a lot to learn about all the things that doing a job in a new industry entails. So we are not always the full package needed to be senior leaders right away. That doesn’t mean that we won’t have a fast learning curve and rise rapidly — I fully believe that PhDs have tons of skills and the ability to learn quickly, which means they can have a much shorter learning curve. This means a high probability of rising faster, but we need to be both realistic and humble about that, since soft skills are also essential and PhDs may struggle on that side of things.
2) Assuming that a PhD automatically sets us at a “minimum level” position can cause us to miss opportunities that would allow us to break into a new field more easily, and to learn the skills we need to succeed there.
What do I mean by this? Well… I started applying to jobs with titles that were all over the place in terms of level and range because I really had no idea where I fit. In some cases, a senior, director level position was appropriate — I certainly did have the skills and experience to be a director of communications or a senior writer, but that would really depend on what and who that was for. I may not, however, have the skills and experience to be a senior director of policy development for a legislator or advocacy group, since I didn’t really have experience working for a legislator or doing advocacy. I could learn quickly, but I probably needed to learn more about the field at a mid-level so I could perform better at a higher one.
Eventually, through the networking connection mentioned above, I came across and was offered an internship at an INGO. This internship was a rare opportunity in the industry and fully focused on serving as a headquarters gender advisor. Why rare? Because what few people outside the industry know is that full-time positions focused entirely on gender at an organization’s headquarters at that time were extremely rare. Most of these positions were at the project level (overseas) providing support to individual projects in a single country, and even those were not super common unless the organization had a strong women’s empowerment focus. The industry has grown and changed over the past decade, so these positions have increased, but major organizations still are likely to have only one position of this kind in headquarters, so they are highly competitive.
Now, I know many PhDs might balk at the idea of going from PhD to low paid intern. In fact, the staff at the INGO were shocked I took the position. I was in my mid-thirties while most of their interns were in their early twenties, having just graduated from undergrad or possibly a master’s.
But here’s the thing… this internship would open the door to a career in an entirely new field for me. As one networking connection put it, “You have great skills. What you don’t have is something on your CV that shows the link between your skills and this field. Find a way to get that on there.” The internship would do three major things for me:
get international development work experience on my CV;
allow me to test my skills and see if I liked this work — could I really do the work of an INGO gender advisor and enjoy it?; and
show the organization that they wanted and needed me in the role enough to hire me full time (hopefully!).
The INGO offering the internship didn’t have a full-time headquarters gender advisor, and I decided that my goal was to use this internship as a springboard into a full-time role at another INGO, or I would convince them they needed me enough to create the position. After all, I was a PhD. PhDs are resourceful!
So what happened? I did just that. I worked the internship by seeking out ways to expand the role within the organization, connecting with staff/mentors, and doing as much as possible to demonstrate the value of having someone like me in a full time role. Eventually, the organization did announce a full time position, and I demonstrated that I was the most appropriate person to fill it, beating out more than 70 candidates who applied. Why? Because I pretty much wrote the job description by showing them what the job could be for 6 months.
From Intern to Vice President
I won’t go into detail here, but as I noted above, after moving into a full-time role, I have worked hard to continue to build my professional career.
Looking Back, Would I Still Do a PhD?
People often ask me if, now that I’ve left academia, whether I advise my younger self to still do a PhD. This is a hard question to answer because we can’t change the past.
Having a PhD — even one in a field that doesn’t directly or obviously translate to my current role — has been a clear factor in my ability to move into my current field and move upward in the ways that I have. I learned many skills doing the PhD that I use everyday. I also garner a lot of respect just by having those initials after my name. It also positively impacted my salary negotiations, since I had fewer years of experience in the industry but more qualifications as a technical expert. However, if I knew 10 years ago I was going to pursue the work I do now, I would have prepared myself quite differently — different degree(s), different work experience.
If you would find it helpful, please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. I mostly post articles and topics related to gender and social inclusion in international development. I also post job opportunities within my field.
I do hope you found this helpful. If you have more questions that you’d like me to try to answer, please feel free to reach out. I receive a lot of informational interview requests, so while I may not have time to meet with everyone who reaches out, I may be able to provide updates to this document or create a new one that answers more questions that I receive.
I wish all of you the best on your journeys, and I send you much encouragement and support.
- ASK THE #POST-ACS – How do I describe my academic work experience in post-ac interviews?
- Questioning Your Future in Academia? Do This Now!
- Letting Myself Leave Academia as an Act of Self-Love – Prof Is /Out/ Guest Post
- An Alt-Ac Summer Workshop That Works (A guest post)
- How Would You Mentor Graduate Students? Another #Facepalm Fail