Navigating Career Pivots

Highlighting transferrable skills is key, writes Rebekah Layton, who shares personal examples as a military veteran shifting into academe and then a scholar moving into new disciplines.

July 6, 2020
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Many Ph.D.s today may be wary that they are hitting the job market during a scary and unexpectedly turbulent time to start a career. A career pivot may feel more necessary than usual during this pandemic, given unanticipated geographic constraints, the sudden need for childcare or eldercare options and the ability to work from home, or other unforeseen life changes this year. Such a career pivot can feel overwhelming at any moment and career stage -- let alone during a global pandemic -- and shifting your personal career identity can take some time and thought.

The added pressures of the current climate are enough to cause worry in any newly minted Ph.D. graduate or postdoc, who may be thinking, “I have no skills in this field/sector! Why would they choose me?” But you do have skills, value and experience for which employers would enthusiastically compete. The catch is that you have to first let your future employer know why they want to hire you and identify what exactly it is that would make you such a good match for them.

I have had to pivot into a new field at two points in my own career: first, when transitioning from active-duty military service into academe during a recession, and second, when moving from graduate training into a role that diverged from my academic disciplinary expertise. At those times, I at first felt uncertainty, doubt and unqualified for anything. Yet during each of those transition points, I learned the value of identifying my transferrable skills and experiences and then communicating them to my future employer.

Here are a few answers to questions you may have about navigating a career pivot, with tips on how to frame your own skills and experiences to make them visible and valuable to a future employer.

How do I know what they are looking for? When creating any job application materials, always think from the perspective of your future employer. Take the time to research, reframe and adopt your potential employer’s perspective, and then do a brief exercise. If you want that employer to hire you, read the job description and create a rubric of the skills and experiences you would look for in a new hire if you were the hiring manager. Write up a list of questions you might ask the candidates if you were deciding -- and then make sure you’ve answered those questions thoroughly for yourself. That applies to which experiences you highlight, what skills you emphasize, what words you choose to describe each experience or skill. And for each specific job opportunity, tailor, tailor, tailor!

How should I refer to sector-specific job titles that may be confusing? One option to consider is to adapt unrecognized or ambiguous job titles or skills that may not be immediately familiar to your reader, especially when applying to employers outside the academy. For instance, if applying to a position in industry such as project management or business development, instead of “postdoctoral scholar,” consider using working titles such as “project manager for XYZ research project.” Rather than focusing on disciplinary expertise, consider emphasizing a transferrable skill like planning, perhaps citing the number of training events you organized and any resulting successes stemming from them. As always, focus on the skills most relevant to the job you’re applying for.

What does “include relevant experience” mean? It’s all in how you interpret it. Be able to make a good argument for why that particular experience or skill would address some aspect of the job you’re applying for. Then adapt how you frame your experiences and skills to match the job. In some cases, that may be as minor as changing the wording or skill that you are highlighting. In other cases, you may completely exclude experiences or heading/sections that are not directly applicable to that role.

A note of caution: if you decide to exclude any work experiences, try to avoid creating unaccounted-for gaps in your employment history. Hence, if your program included rotations en route to your thesis lab, although you had both experiences, you might consider combining them into one graduate research assistant title on your résumé. Relatedly, if you learned basic scientific techniques during rotations or in the first year of graduate school but don’t want to list all of the basic skills, it's likely by the time you were a senior graduate student you were managing the lab and supervising undergraduates, creating standard operating procedures for the lab, managing budgets or writing grants and manuscripts. So you might choose to only list graduate research assistant as a single role to cover that whole time period and focus on those higher-level skills in your résumé.

If you have concurrent employment, it’s easier to choose what to include/exclude as relevant. For instance, if your employment includes teaching and researching during the same year (e.g., graduate research assistant and graduate teaching assistant job titles), you may consider choosing to highlight one over the other in your primary Professional Experience section. For instance, you might highlight your teaching experience for a teaching-intensive job or business role with a communications focus and relegate the less relevant experience to a supplemental category later in the document. Vice versa for a research-intensive or industry R&D position.

More frequently, rather than excluding some experiences, you may rename or recombine experiences to create different sections. For instance, you might call a section Teaching and Mentoring in an academic CV, but perhaps break those experiences into a Communications Experience and a Management Experience section if applicable for a business résumé.

Skills: What do I call them? There are many ways to identify the transferrable skills you want to focus on (e.g., job ads, informational interviews, networking events/panels). See my previous essay for more details to get inspired or Joseph Barber’s on building your confidence and describing your accomplishments and abilities. They will give you some ideas for what words you might want to focus on when highlighting those transferrable skills.

Next, identify major experiences that you want to include in your job materials, particularly your résumé. Once identified, group them into your primary professional experiences. Those might be, for example, jobs including graduate research and teaching, internships, summer research experience, military experience, and any other positions you’ve held that can showcase your skills.

Once you have your main chronological story and skills set up in your Professional Experience section (sometimes also referred to as Work Experience or Research Experience), then make a list of any specialty experiences that didn’t make it into the main category but might be relevant. Group them into themes by skill you’d liked to highlight and see what groupings become evident as you move them around into pairs, trios or more.

You can also look at some job ads to figure out what skills you haven’t made as visible yet and use them as a way to identify and fill any gaps that aren’t currently addressed with your primary work experiences. For example, those sections might include experiences such as: leadership or participation in student clubs, postdoc associations, or university governance, or nonacademic pursuits like coaching an athletic team, teaching Bible study or participating in local community organizations like being on the parent-teacher association/board. Ideally, you can create sections that highlight the themes of the groupings in the title of each section to draw your reader’s eye, and then back up the sections with bullet points that further detail those relevant skills for each position.

Throwaway phrases that take up real estate on the page but don’t gain you much ground are vague titles such as Other Skills or Other Relevant Experience. At that point, you’ve already lost the attention of the reader, and you might not get it back. So be sure to make the connection between your experience and what they are looking for very visible. It’s your personal brand -- don’t miss the opportunity to show off what you want your reader to notice.

Consider section titles mentioned previously or other commonly applicable sections, such as Business Training and Experience for non-bench industry careers like consulting. Or specifically include a Writing Experience section for writing/editing jobs; add a Mentoring section for higher education academic careers working with students; or stick with the moniker Technical Skills or Scientific Skills if you’re highlighting expertise for an R&D role.

Remember, you should tailor these sections and headers to both your experiences and the job, so they may change slightly for some positions versus others you are considering -- and that’s OK! Of course, for Ph.D.s, it’s also typical to include sections on Education and often Honors/Awards, but, as always, that’s up to you.

During a global pandemic, a resulting recession and a surging national recognition of the systemic inequity disproportionately affecting people of color, navigating the job market with intersectional identities can be even more complicated and complex. I want to acknowledge that I cannot compare my own experiences to people who are also grappling with those issues. Yet during this year of upheaval and unpredictable job market trends within a COVID-19 recession, I hope that sharing my own experiences with unexpected career pivots during times of uncertainty may help others to navigate some of these challenges.

These are indeed unprecedented times. Nonetheless, know that you do have the skills to be a competitive applicant for jobs that can engage you, satisfy criteria you deem important and fulfill your career goals. Take charge of that journey by being a conscious curator of your professional story and own your personal brand. You are your own commander, your own CEO, your own ship’s captain. Prepare for that next step in your career, no matter how turbulent the seas or tumultuous the markets. You’ve got this.

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Rebekah Layton is the director of professional development programs in the Office of Graduate Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member, and currently serves as the co-director for the Southeast Region, of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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