4 Tactics PhDs Need for Non-Academic Job Interviews

No one enjoys interviewing for jobs. Like a PhD dissertation defense, job interviews are stressful and require a great deal of preparation.

Fortunately, there are certain aspects of the nonacademic job interview that you can control and predict, so that you are ready to tackle those hard questions when they come up.

Here are four tips to help you ace your nonacademic interview as a PhD in career transition:

1. Translate your academic experience using industry jargon

To perform well in a nonacademic interview, you have to be an expert translator.

Read industry-produced content online and use conversation mining to dig into your audience’s vocabulary. Collect words and phrases on forums and social media where professionals in your desired career field meet. You can practice using the terminology you collect when attending networking events and speaking with other professionals in your informational interviews.

Pay attention to the topics discussed by these professionals. What matters to them and to their industry? What problems do they have? What are the needs of their businesses?

Apply the language of your industry in your job documents (cover letter and professional resume) and in your interview

2. Focus on your transferable skills, not on your gaps

For PhDs in career transition, interviews for nonacademic positions are difficult to navigate because you likely don’t have a lot of demonstrated, relevant work experience.

Non-academic interviewers may ask you directly if you have worked with specific software tools, with specific stakeholders (i.e. person who has a connection to the company), and/or in a specific setting (e.g. in a marketing agency or consultancy firm). You may have never done these things.

However, you need to avoid answering “no” if at all possible. Instead, focus your answer on your transferable skills. Maybe you had to learn a software tool very quickly during your Phd, for instance, so there is good reason to believe that you could do so again. Show how you are able to collaborate with others as you have done in the past, that you are adaptable, and that you are a quick learner (you have a PhD, after all!).

It takes a lot of time and effort to articulate relevant examples that show that you have transferable skills that will make you successful in a new role. You can and should work on identifying your transferable skills early in your career exploration process. This step is fundamental for anyone changing careers, whether they have a PhD or not.

Don’t be shocked, however, if the employer concludes that you don’t have enough industry experience, even after you did your best to show you are qualified for the role. Focusing your efforts on networking may help you find the right connection. Ultimately, someone needs to take a chance on a transitioning PhD. If, despite your efforts, there are significant skill and knowledge gaps that need to be addressed and are truly a deal-breaker for the employers you meet, find out how you can fill these holes just enough to be taken seriously in your next round of interviews.

3. Spin your transition narrative carefully

During an interview, and in a variety of other contexts, your career transition might come up. You’ll have to explain why you are leaving your current position (whether it’s a contingent faculty role or a prestigious postdoc) and why you are interested in a particular role and workplace.

The question could be worded in different ways:

  • Why are you seeking a change?
  • What motivates you?
  • Why are you looking to leave your current position?
  • You were a professor. How do you feel about working in a corporate office/firm/non-profit organization?

People leave academia for a variety of reasons, some professional and others more personal:

  • the hours were excessive and you want better work-life balance
  • the students can be difficult to work with
  • there are poor job prospects
  • academia no longer fits (it’s just not what you want anymore)
  • the humanities are in crisis and the budget cuts are worrisome
  • you need to move to a different city and there are no positions in your field there
  • your tenure application was denied
  • you’ve worked for 5 years as an adjunct and the situation isn’t tenable

While these are legitimate reasons to leave, you need to control your narrative carefully. Don’t tell the interviewer everything! Only reveal what they need to know.

The interviewer wants to know that you are passionate about your new direction, that you have the skills to do the job you are applying for, and that this role is not your Plan B (it very well might be, but don’t tell them that!). In your answer, incorporate the skills, accomplishments, and education relevant to your employer’s needs.

Be positive! When speaking with an employer, you need to avoid any negativity, anger, and cynicism about your PhD program or about academia in general. It can be very difficult to stay positive especially if the circumstances leading to your departure from academia were unpleasant. Avoid framing your situation as a failure (e.g. you failed to secure a position due to the state of the academic job market). Instead, focus on your success and what you accomplished that will make you a great employee in this new role.

Don’t feel as though you have to justify or defend your change of heart and direction. People switch careers and jobs all the time. Tenured professors who stay in a university for decades are the outliers in the workforce. Your interviewers won’t find it strange that you are transitioning, so don’t be insecure about your PhD.

4. Show how you are a good fit

The purpose of any job interview is to see whether you are a good fit for the role and for the company. No matter the length of the interview, the round of interview or the setting (e.g. phone, video, in person), your fit as a candidate should be your focus.

In order to demonstrate that you are a great candidate for the position, create your plan. Engage in strategic storytelling. You are ultimately in control of the message that you want to transmit to interviewers, so prepare examples that support your message and steer the conversation in that direction.

Research the company’s website and social media and find out its mission and goals. When the interviewer asks you why you want to work at that particular company, articulate what you would bring to fulfill their mission or goal.

Practice answering questions you think the interviewers will ask with someone so that you can go in confident, knowing that your skills are valuable to the industry and to the organization.

The interviewing process for non-academic roles can vary from role to role and from company to company. Make sure to ask your network and contacts what to expect. You can also request one of your connections to conduct a mock interview with you.

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