When considering starting a new business or simply doing some consulting on the side, it is important to determine your main strengths and skills as a professional to evaluate the most appropriate industry to target or the best people with whom to network.
For higher ed professionals, we generally assume that we’re limited to our field of expertise or professional experience. However, as professionals with training and experience in the realm of higher education, we automatically bring with us a much wider range of skills and experience than we may realize.
In my experience, academics do not think about their professional skill set or resume very often, simply because it’s not a priority outside the context of a job search. We hone in on our subject-matter expertise, but usually forget about all the other skills we have typically accumulated. Yet, entering the world of business or consulting, evaluating your skills is an essential part of getting started.
So, what are skills common to higher ed professionals, and how can these skills be leveraged?
Contemplating what I have learned about my own skill set as an entrepreneur over the past year, here are five main strengths that I think higher ed professionals bring to the table when it comes to business:
Quality core writing, analytical, and evaluation skills. Unless you’re an English scholar, you may not have great faith in your writing skills. Yet, believe me, your writing skills are better than you realize. All of those endless papers you have had to research and write pay off, as do any hours you may have spent reading and grading student papers.
If it does nothing else, higher education teaches us how to write to an expected standard, how to analyze and assimilate information quickly, and how to evaluate a given problem and judge effective solutions. Generally speaking, these skills are true across fields because of the rigorous nature and the heavy writing focus of most university curricula.
Outside of the world of academe, these core writing, analytical, and evaluation skills are a critical "value added" of your professional skill set. Think of them as your professional passport. They are, in a very real sense, what separates you from someone else with equivalent years of professional experience who may not have that higher ed training. This, of course, becomes a vital distinction when building a new business brand or competing for new projects.
Experience balancing multiple tasks and diverse projects. Remember all those frantic days as a student suffering through the oppression of classes, assignments, and papers being thrown at you right up until the fateful day of graduation? While you should pat yourself on the back simply for surviving those days of endless coursework, you also should feel proud of the multitasking skills that you learned.
The art of balancing multiple tasks arises from more than an ability to plow through work. In my opinion, higher education teaches you a unique variety of multitasking. Not only do you acquire the ability to get things done; you also gain the patience and critical ability to step back and evaluate multiple streams of information at the same time. In short, you learn superhuman time management skills: the ability to think at once in the short term and in the long term in order to complete your work.
Not surprisingly, multitasking is a key skill across all areas of business. You not only need to be able to balance multiple projects and your own workload, but also you need to manage relations with your clients or customers, work to bring in new projects, and oversee the financial side of your business ventures.
Knowledge of how to deal with people with different needs, deadlines, and priorities. In tandem with the skill of multitasking, higher ed also teaches us excellent people skills. While many of us perhaps recall more hours spent in the library or office than with our friends and colleagues, the world of higher education is fundamentally interactive. People are at the hub of everything we do, be it attending or teaching classes, leading study sessions, speaking at conferences, or collaborating on papers.
So, even if you don’t think of yourself as a people person, you nonetheless have acquired a great deal of experience in dealing with people and their various needs, deadlines and priorities, particularly when it comes to project-based work. In higher education, as in business, everyone has their own agenda and their own innate desire to communicate their viewpoint to others.
In the same way that you may have learned to anticipate the preferences of a difficult teacher, dealing with business clients is a matter of learning their expectations and points of view. In the realm of client relations, the get-to-know-you process is often a critical part of completing a project, simply because you come to learn the client’s definition of success. As higher ed professionals, particularly those who have been on both the student and teacher side of things, we have developed an innate understanding of how to criticize and be criticized. This sensitivity to other people’s point of view is a skill not to be underestimated when it comes to business.
Understanding of the importance of quality and integrity to work. Finally, I feel that experience in higher education teaches us to work consistently to a high level of quality. Academe also instructs us on the importance of honesty and originality in work. While the idea of completing work to an expected standard seems common sense, I think that higher ed somehow makes this conception innate. That is, higher ed inculcates us with the continual drive to pursue the best for ourselves and our work.
Now, for many of us, we may have felt more urgency in working towards a grade when pursuing a degree than we do in our day jobs. Yet, while we may lose pace, we never lose that sense of quality and integrity when it comes to our work. Think of the dedication with which you write a paper for an important conference panel or prepare a presentation on a critical issue for a group of Trustees. It’s the same innate expectation of doing our best, no matter what the situation.
Business, like academics, is a market-driven environment that operates on a sense of expectation and fulfillment, for which standards of excellence and of originality are essential. In this realm, your academic training itself is a quality guarantee, never mind your own work ethic. Indeed, most businesses who may be considering you as a potential vendor or consultant view a background in higher education as a written stamp of approval that you understand the importance of working to the best of your ability to achieve a given standard.
In all, when it comes to business, you should embrace the diversity of your skills and not sell yourself short. You bring a wide range of usable and attractive professional skills. Now, in terms of learning how to sell these skills in the right way to the right people, stay tuned for my next column.
Jessica Quillin is owner of Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm in Washington, and author of the forthcoming Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism (Ashgate). She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge.