5 Quick Tips on Building Skills and Non-Academic Experience

You’ve surely heard that eternal paradox of job seeking:

“I need experience to get a job! But I need a job to get experience!”

It’s a tale as old as time. Someday, archeologists will unearth a cuneiform tablet asking for “3–5 years experience in ancient Babylonian astronomy; social media skills a plus!”

If you’re a PhD student, building skills and/or getting some non-academic experience can be a daunting task. You’re already working as a TA/RA, doing your own research, writing your dissertation, etc. How can you possibly squeeze in more work?

This post presents 5 options for grad students and recent PhDs to acquire non-academic experience, broadly construed.

We’ll discuss things you can do within the purview of your academic studies, such as organizing conference events or career development activities.

We’ll also look at two options for building skills outside your PhD program: volunteering and freelancing.

1. Organize a Conference

Or, if not a whole conference, at least a panel or roundtable or something.

Why? Because organizing a conference involves a lot of non-academic skills that employers value. Things like:

  • Oral communication
  • Written communication
  • Diverse audience communication
  • Project management
  • Multitasking

When brought together, all these skills combine into one giant Voltron-esque mega-skill sometimes referred to as “people-wrangling.”

This means that you can keep track of large groups of people, convince them to do things you want them to do, enforce a tight schedule, and organize events.

In other words, organizing a conference is a long-term, multi-layered project. It’s not a job, of course, but it’s a great bit of non-academic experience that you can bring up during interviews.

2. Run Social Media for Your Department, Lab, etc.

Managing social media is another excellent non-academic skill to add to your resume.

That’s right, social media—the ultimate time waster—is a key component of many real-world jobs. What a world we live in! Just the phrase “social media job” sounds a bit oxymoronic, doesn’t it? 

But regardless of your personal views towards social media, there’s no getting around the fact that it’s an integral part of just about every job with a sales and marketing component.

Content marketing jobs in particular involve lots of social media work.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to gain non-academic experience in social media.

The most direct way is to volunteer to run the Facebook and Twitter accounts for your university department or lab. Some departments have a designated ‘social media coordinator’ role for grad students.

Additionally, most academic professional associations (begrudgingly) have some kind of social media presence. They’re always looking for grad student volunteers to manage this (the tenured professors in the society certainly don’t want to do it).

In academia, the main qualification for being a social media manager is “willingness to be social media manager.”

So, go for it! It’s worth a shot.

3. Organize Grad Student Professional Development

Most PhD programs have some formal structure for organizing professional development activities. These might include CV workshops, interview prep, practice presentations for conferences, etc.

We said that PhD programs have “some sort of formal structure” for this. Whether that structure is currently active is another question entirely.

Typically, a single grad student organizes professional development events. They sometimes have the help of a professor or the DGS. But when the student leaves or if the professor gets bogged down with research, the professional development programs fall into disrepair.

That’s where you come in. Warm up the defibrillator and jolt your department’s professional development program back to life.

If you’ve been reading our blog, you surely have some ideas what kinds of development activities, workshops, or non-academic skills grad students would benefit from.

As with social media management, the main qualification for doing this kind of work is, basically, your willingness to do it.

Again, just go for it! Be the change you want to see in the world.

4. Volunteer

Everyone should volunteer, if they can. It’s good for the soul.

If you want to volunteer while building skills and acquiring non-academic experiences that employers want to see, there are plenty of great options available.

  • History PhDs and other humanities PhDs working on historical dissertation topics often volunteer at local museums or archives.
  • If your degree is in the Fine Arts, there are tons of local art/music/theater groups that could always use extra help.
  • If you’re a STEM PhD, volunteer for educational nonprofits like Women Who Code or The Math Learning Center.

Volunteering is great for building skills like customer service and public outreach.

Many volunteer gigs involve social media management (again, the paid employees don’t want to do it). Many others involve the same kind of people-wrangling non-academic skills discussed above.

But hey, even if you’re not working on any specific skill sets, you should still volunteer.

Take a break from your quantum field theory or postmodernist literary critiques and do some small, concrete good for your local community.

5. Freelance

This is a bit of a touchy subject.

On one hand, freelancing is a great option for building skills and snagging some non-academic experience. Simply by being a good writer and researcher, you can get hired to work on all kinds of things from content writing and tech writing to marketing and software documentation.

On the other hand, freelancers tend to earn very little money. Pay rates sometimes border on exploitation. On top of that, Upwork and other freelancing platforms take a cut of every paycheck.

With grad student budgets stretched thin as it is, spending lots of time freelancing can be hard to justify.

Here’s our advice: if you’re considering freelancing, approach it like volunteering.

Focus on the skills and experience, not the money. Start while you have another source of income (grad student stipend, fellowship, etc.) and squeeze it into the gaps between regular working hours.

Start small and build up some rudimentary non-academic experience. Building skills will be slow-going at first, and it may be quite a while before your freelancing income begins to justify the work you put into it.

If you don’t have the time or monetary capacity for freelancing, that’s totally fine. We’re simply presenting it as one option among many for acquiring some valuable non-academic skills and experiences.

Conclusion

Regardless of your field or how far along you are in your studies, it’s never too early to start building skills and acquiring some non-academic experience.

As you surely know, your PhD in and of itself does not furnish these kinds of skills. Building skills is certainly doable, but it will require conscious effort on your part.

So, do something! Volunteer. Freelance. Tweet. Find something you can do, and do it.

Now is not the time for abstract theorizing. You need specific, concrete non-academic experience. Go find it.

Have you developed some skills already? Great! Advertise them! Check out our post on how to build your online brand.

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