Many higher ed professionals are uncomfortable at the thought of trying to sell or market their skills in the business arena. Academic training teaches us the importance of individuality in research and gives us the skills to debate an array of topics within our fields of expertise. But, unlike the highly varied tone of the business world, communication within higher education is, by its very nature, formal, not personal. This reserve can make it very difficult for higher ed professionals to talk about our skills, interests, and accomplishments in a compelling and memorable manner, which, of course, is a major roadblock when attempting to find projects or clients in the business world.
Indeed, the “I” or first-person point of view comes under a lot of attack in academic writing circles because it is considered too casual and inappropriate. This emphasis on formality mirrors an underlying rigidity within the unwritten rules of higher education, even in consideration of issues of academic freedom and diversity.
Business, on the other hand, is more diffuse. Different spheres of business run on an infinite number of written and unwritten rules and expectations. While business, too, is impersonal, it is arguably much more an every-person-for-himself-or-herself type of environment than academe.
That is, the research- and learning-driven world of higher education tries to be inviting and inclusive, whereas business can be much more unpredictable, individualistic, and competition-driven. This is not to say that the academy is not competitive and bureaucratic, but simply that entering and surviving in the world of business requires an individualized approach and a large amount of self-marketing, with which some higher ed professionals may not have much experience.
Here are a few tips for selling your skills that I’ve learned over the past year of running my business:
Embrace your degree. Like any part of your resume, your choice to pursue an M.A. or Ph.D. sets you apart from other candidates or vendors. Your academic training is obviously a positive thing, yet you need to sell it carefully. Some clients or employers may have preconceived notions or prejudices about your academic training, your specific field, or even the academic world itself. So it’s up to you to show your stuff and demonstrate what you can do to the people with whom you want to do business.
When I first started to reach out to new clients, I was really nervous about whether or not to mention my Ph.D., out of fear that clients would think I’m too stodgy or inexperienced about the business world. Yet, as I began to have conversations with potential clients, I found myself selling my Ph.D. as a sign of my ability to make a commitment, to complete projects on time, to learn quickly and take constructive criticism, and to do work of the highest quality. To my surprise, I got an overwhelmingly positive response because I proved myself to be flexible, interested, and qualified.
Market your versatility. Every employer or potential client has different needs, and therefore will assess your skills and experiences in various ways. While you can’t control preconceptions, you can be flexible in how you promote your skills and experience. As I wrote in an article last year on the importance of multiple resumes (“Be a Jack or Jill of All Trades” ), versatility is critical when it comes to marketing your academic skills in the business world.
The key to being versatile is identifying the core skills that the client (or project in which you’re interested) requires and showing your strengths and abilities in these areas. For instance, if you have a degree in chemistry and are interested in doing consulting in quantitative finance, it would be important to highlight your solid mathematics coursework, your experience in quantitative methods, and your ability to assimilate and process data quickly and efficiently.
Be knowledgeable, but listen carefully. According to stereotype, higher ed professionals are highly intelligent but highly condescending. This is why the very presence of “M.S.” or “Ph.D.” on a resume can evoke preconceptions of you, as a potential vendor or employee, before a client or employer has even met you. While you can’t do much about their preconceived notions, you can impress them with how you present your experiences in your resume and in your cover letter, as well as how you present yourself in conversation, whether during a phone or in-person situation.
In addition to being versatile, it is important to be humble yet knowledgeable. The client or employer knows that you’re smart and experienced, but is interested in the bottom line of how you think you can meet their needs better than anyone else. As any job guide will tell you, do your research on the company and even the person with whom you’re meeting to demonstrate your sincere interest in the position or project. When asked, explain your professional and educational experience but try to tailor it to the position or project at hand. Also, listen to clients’ or employers’ needs and ask questions to decipher specific ways in which you and your unique set of experiences can add value to what they do.
Only sign up for work in which you’re genuinely interested. Employers, like anyone, find flattery, well, flattering, but only when it’s real. Obviously, a good portion of business is about making money and not all jobs or projects are equally interesting. Yet, one of the most useful lessons in business is that success most often comes out of a true passion and a legitimate drive to accomplish something. Whether you’re pursuing consulting work or starting a small business, it’s all the same game of doing work, being evaluated and getting paid. Like school, you won’t get anything done if you really don’t want to do be doing it.
I learned this lesson the painfully slow way. Projects that do not really pique my interest or do not fulfill certain business goals, such as building relationships with new clients, always seem to last 10 times longer and seem much more frustrating than other work in areas that I prefer. While this may seem like common sense, I also found myself being less thorough and making more mistakes with projects that I didn’t care about, simply because they didn’t capture my full attention.
My business will be a year old next week. While I’m really proud of what I have accomplished, the past 12 months have been full of ups and downs. I occasionally feel overwhelmed by the tedium of processing invoices, tracking projects, and keeping every last receipt.
Yet I love finding endless ways to sell and apply my English literature training across fields and industries in business about which I know very little. Maybe it’s because I work in marketing and brand strategy. Maybe it’s simply because I’ve discovered that picking the right clients and understanding how to sell myself to them makes business both fun and lucrative.
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.