Transferable Skills for PhDs:
How to Communicate Your
Value to Employers

Communicating your value to new colleagues and potential employers is an important step in finding a new career opportunity. For anyone on the job market —  those making career transitions or simply changing jobs – a successful candidate will be able to clearly articulate why she would be an asset to an organization.

When you write a CV for academic positions, you simply list all of this information under various headings – Publications, Conference Presentations, Grants & Awards, Teaching Experience – without specifying the skills and tasks that went into these accomplishments. This evidence of scholarly activity and accolades communicates to academic search committees that you are an expert, which is how they evaluate candidates for positions. They want to hire an expert in the field who can teach classes and bring prestige to the institution by publishing innovative research.

Non-academic employers, however, evaluate candidates based on a combination of knowledge, skills, abilities, and cultural fit for the organization. They are not looking for accomplishments; they are interested in outcomes. When an employer reviews applicants, candidates will often come from a variety of work experience and educational backgrounds. It be-hooves the job applicant to clearly explain how they can perform the duties of the position as outlined in the job advertisement.

So, the first step in identifying your transferable skills actually has nothing to do with you. As in any form of persuasive communication, your first task is to identify the values, needs, and goals of your audience. Once you have an understanding of your audience, you will be able to curate the evidence you present (examples from your education and work history) to convince contacts, colleagues, and future employers, of your unique value.

There are several places where you can learn what employers in your new field are looking for in potential candidates. The most obvious place is to examine job advertisements posted by companies of interest. These can include organizations in the city or region where you are, or will be, actively job hunting, but you can also examine organizations anywhere in North America.  At this stage, you are conducting a qualitative research project to identify patterns, so the specific locations of the job are not important.

Look for:

  • A mission or value statement.  Often times, employers will include a statement about the organization in a job advertisement.
  • Commonly used language.  Perhaps employers use “collaborative,” “leadership,” or “client-facing.”  Someone transitioning to this industry would need to demonstrate strength in these areas.
  • Required and preferred skills for the position.  What do employers in this industry look for in terms of basic skills for the job?  This may vary by organization, so again, look for commonalities.
  • Core competencies.  A competency is the combination of personal attributes, skills, and abilities a person has to perform tasks.  “Oral Communication” is a competency that would include strong public speaking skills.

Another place to research what potential employers look for in employees is LinkedIn.  Using the search function, find employers of interest.  LinkedIn will show you employees who work at these organizations.

On employee profiles, look for:

  • How they describe themselves in their profile overview.
  • What tasks, skills, and outcome are present in their work experience sections.
  • What other organizations have they worked for? (Add this to a list of employers to research)
  • And what they have selected for the Key Skills section.

Now that you have a clear idea of what skills and competencies employers in your industry are looking for, it’s time to do a deep-dive into your own skill set.

Start with the five basic categories of the academic life: Teaching;  Research & Publishing,  Grants & Awards, and Service to the Profession. Think about what you do — what tasks do you complete day to day?

Let’s take Teaching as an example.  If you are a solo instructor, the first thing you do when you are assigned a new course is start designing a syllabus. Okay, but what steps do you take to design a syllabus? When I was teaching, I would do a quick search to find syllabi by other historians and look at the decisions they made when they designed a similar course. Then, I’d order and examine textbooks they had used to see if they matched my goals. To a non-academic employer, I might describe this step as conducting a best practice study. I’m able to find out how other people in the market are approaching a similar project.

In designing a syllabus, I need to identify the learning objectives for the class — what do I hope people will learn? How will I measure the performance of my students? What kind of assignments and quizzes will I need to create?

Walk through, in excruciating detail, every single task and step of designing a syllabus.  Then, move on to writing lectures, or group discussions.  Designing and preparing lectures requires different steps from delivering a lecture.  Lecturing requires different skills than running a class discussion.

Don’t forget to include office hours, returning emails, managing teaching assistants, working with different teaching and learning centers to help struggling students. Nothing is too small at this stage to be included.

Once you have finished meticulously detailing your teaching experience (solo instructor or teaching assistant), move on to research (conducting and publishing), conference posters and presentations, and any committee work or event planning.

If you worked outside the lab or classroom during your time in academia, include that work experience too. One former client who had a PhD in a quantitative social sciences discipline, also worked as a fitness instructor. By including that information on LinkedIn, her resume, and in informational interviews, she communicated to potential employers a range of skills necessary for client-facing work. It’s perfectly respectable to include volunteer experience, part-time work, blogging or podcasting, etc., if it communicates to potential employers that you have a specific skill set they value.

Once you’ve completed your deep dive, return to the research you conducted on employers and what they value. Repackage the work you’ve been doing as an academic into language the employer will recognize and understand. This is not lying, it’s simply relabelling work you have done.  Instead of “teaching” you would want to highlight oral communication, mentoring, to conduct best practice studies, to designing a training program, to create and apply metrics. Try to present yourself not as an academic, but as a professional with 5-10 years of experience performing tasks, developing competencies and expertise.

Finally, eliminate distractions. In persuasive communication, you exclude any piece of evidence that does not support the point you are making. The point you will be making in resume writing, LinkedIn, networking, and interviewing, is that you have (enough of) the skills an employer is looking for that you are a great fit for the position and their organization.

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L. Maren Wood earned her PhD in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is the co-founder of Beyond the Professoriate.

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