Overcoming the Ph.D. Stereotype

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood suggest three ways to rebrand yourself for a nonacademic career.

March 27, 2019
 
 

Graduate students and recent Ph.D.s hesitate to look for nonacademic positions for many reasons. Some people don’t know where to start. Others find the prospect of “reinventing” themselves too overwhelming to consider seriously. Still others simply love university life and can’t imagine spending their time doing anything else.

But perhaps the most heartbreaking reason is that many academics do not know how their skills transfer to the world outside the academy.

We won’t get into criticism of the institutional forces to blame for what can best be described as a lack of imagination. That’s a topic for another day. We have more urgent matters to discuss in this article -- namely, how to rebrand your academic skills for nonacademic careers.

Credentials Matter Less Than Experience

Before we get into our specific rebranding tips, let’s highlight one huge difference between the business world and the world that exists in the shadow of the ivory tower. Whereas a Ph.D. or a master’s degree is required for even entry-level teaching jobs at most higher education institutions, employers outside academe care little about degrees and other credentials. What matters most to them are the skills and knowledge you’ve gained through relevant work experience.

That is not to say you should leave your education or advanced degrees off of your résumé -- for one thing, such a strategy would probably leave you with a significant gap in work history that would be tough to explain. It is to say, however, that it’s time to think of the value of your Ph.D. in broader terms. What have you gained in terms of business or human capital during the years you spent doing your graduate work?

If you’re drawing a blank, start with two questions:

  • What energizes me about the work I’m doing now?
  • What will employers pay me to do?

For example, we’re willing to bet that if you’re well on your way to finishing that dissertation, you’ve got some decent writing chops. You may be surprised how much employers in all industries value writing ability -- one study showed that 73.4 percent of employers are looking for candidates with strong written communications skills. But think for a minute about how you react when you come across a first-year student demonstrating strong writing skills. You’re probably optimistic about her prospects. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.

And speaking of students, your ability to teach and mold young minds is also a valuable skill. Many nonacademic jobs involve some level of training, teaching or instructing others. So your ability to translate technical and complex concepts for a lay audience may give you an advantage over other another equally qualified candidate without a Ph.D. Plus, teaching requires strong public speaking skills, such as being able to think quickly on your feet.

OK, now that you’ve started thinking about the value of your Ph.D. from a nonacademic perspective, the next question is how to market your skills to employers. You’re essentially dealing with a rebranding challenge.

Three Key Tips

If you’ve ever been warned that your Ph.D. makes you overqualified for jobs outside higher education, you’ve encountered the Ph.D. stereotype. The assumption here is that all doctoral graduates are like Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory -- überacademics who can’t function in the real world. But you can overcome this stereotype by repackaging your academic skills along the following lines.

1. Speak the language. You’ve (hopefully) learned, as part of your Ph.D. training, how to present yourself professionally. But keep in mind you’ve learned how to present yourself professionally in academe, which is different from presenting yourself professionally outside the university. It’s time to apply those fabulous research skills to acquiring the language and professional style appropriate for your target job sector.

Start by doing some keyword searches on LinkedIn. Study profiles that interest you and take note of the job titles, skills and experience listed. Also, create your own profile if you don’t have one. You can learn a lot by participating in discussions and striking up conversations with people on LinkedIn.

2. Reframe work experience. Reframing previous work experience is probably the most difficult part of rebranding your academic skills. One obstacle is that we tend to treat the eight-to-10-year journey to getting a doctorate as a path that leads to a job rather than as a career in and of itself. Many Ph.D.s graduate from their programs feeling as if they have no work experience.

The fact is earning a Ph.D. is full-time employment and needs to be articulated as such in your cover letters and on your résumé. Suppose you start your résumé with a list of skills. These need to be supported by your work history. The problem is a list of your various job titles -- such as teaching assistant, research assistant, instructor, lecturer, assistant professor or the like -- doesn’t do justice to the skill set you’ve gained over the years. You have to reframe your skills for a nonacademic audience.

In other words, you need to figure out how to translate knowledge into work experience. For example, if you’re applying to a job where your dissertation topic is irrelevant to the role, instead of thinking of it as your magnum opus, think of it as a long-term project you delivered as part of a wider research program. Get ready to talk about it in casual terms and think about how your work can support claims about you being an asset to the company.

You can reframe your academic experience in the following way:

  • Instead of “My dissertation examined how the creation of a court system tasked with constitutional vigilance eased the transition to democracy in South Africa …”
  • Try “Researched and wrote a dissertation. Identified a distinct research problem and designed evaluative criteria to test a working hypothesis. Developed a timeline, cultivated contacts in South Africa and supervised a team of undergraduate researchers. Presented findings to panel of experts.”

3. Focus less on hard skills and more on soft ones. It’s clear that employers value technical skills, so there’s no reason to downplay or hide your academic experience. That said, when asked which skills they look for in new hires, HR managers, recruiters and CEOs are more likely to mention soft skills.

In particular, Ph.D.s have a leg up on recent college grads in two areas:

  • Focus: With all the benefits of technology also come the drawbacks, and research shows that our multitasking lifestyles diminish our ability to concentrate. Your Ph.D., however, required the kind of deep thinking and problem solving that’s in high demand.
  • Agility: Your doctoral training also makes you capable of adapting to a rapidly changing work environment. Innovation is highly prized in organizations outside higher education, so give some thought to how you will help your future employers expand into new markets or develop new products.

Whether you’ve been planning your exit from academe for months or you’re just starting to explore your options, you will benefit from being able to confidently articulate your wealth of skills and experience. The fact that you possess a range of abilities and talents that will help you succeed will become clear not only to you but also to others once you know how to communicate your value.

Bio

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood are co-founders of Beyond the Professoriate, an organization that provides professional development services to individuals and institutions across North America. Have a question about your job search or exploring careers after your Ph.D.? Submit it here.

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