How to market yourself outside of academia

For most academics on the semester system, there’s about two months left to go. (A lot of you are on spring break now, or near it, and I can hear the sighs of gratitude from here!) And that means that, if you’re thinking of leaving, this is a good time to start thinking about applying for other jobs.

One of the most frequent questions I hear is about how those of us who have only ever been academics of one status or another can market ourselves to the outside world. There aren’t a lot of job ads for thinkers who can manage hordes of post-adolescents, after all.

While I don’t think you should think about post-academic careers entirely on the basis of skills (your passion is the most important thing), at some point you do have to put pen to paper (or cursor to document) and figure out how to convince some that you’ve got what they want. So let’s talk about what transferable skills you likely have.

A few things you’re probably really good at

Public speaking. You’ve probably been doing it three, six, nine, twelve times a week for years. That’s more public-speaking time than most public speakers have. You know how to organize information for people listening, you know how to deliver it, and you know how to deal with questions and comments that come up. It’s easy to think this is something “anyone can do,” but trust me, it’s a skill. I didn’t realize just how not-common a skill it was until I was part of a group presentation to a company’s executive team and blew everyone away with my ability to make sense without looking at a piece of paper. Seriously.

Training. It may be called “education” instead of “training” or “development” or what-have-you, but you’ve spent years putting together multi-week training systems with objectives, goals, and thoughtful ways of reaching them.

Management. Recognizing peoples’ skills, helping them notice and develop skill deficiencies, providing ongoing and tactful feedback, helping people understand how projects fit into their larger path — sounds like advising, teaching, and management to me.

Defining projects. Say there’s a problem you want to solve. How do you figure out how to do that? Initial inquiry, defining the problem, defining resources, setting out probable paths, and then doing the work — sound familiar at all?

Event planning and management. If you’ve ever been involved in planning or holding a conference, you’ve done event planning.

Writing and editing. If you’re in academia, you write. You might even write for public audiences. You likely edit your own work and that of your friends and colleagues, and you might have had a stint on a journal.

Consulting. Do you help other people, including graduate students and advisees, figure out what they’re doing? Bingo.

Grantwriting. If you’re in the sciences, you’ve got plenty of experience writing applications to get money. If you’re not in the sciences, you might very well still have plenty of experience doing this. It’s a real skill many non-profits need.

Okay, so I have transferable skills. How do I talk about them?

I’m not suggesting that you’re going to write your resume by saying you “consulted” with graduate students or you “engaged in public speaking on an ongoing basis.” That’s doublespeak of the worst kind, and it won’t help you.

However, thinking about what you do as an academic in terms of the skills you’re applying and what they’re called in the real world lets you do two things.

First, it helps you write a skills-based resume. If you aren’t applying for a job that has a close and clear relationship to what you’ve been doing, then framing your experience in terms of skills will help you help them understand why you might be worth interviewing.

Second, it helps you think through your cover letter. Contrary to popular belief, the cover letter should be more than an elaborate address label. It’s the place where you get to make the engaged, impassioned argument that you have the skills and experience they need to do what they’re doing — no matter what it looks like your resume says. Being able to relate what you’ve done to what they need is an invaluable help.

For example, when I was applying for an editing job, I was able to talk about my ability to handle unfamiliar subjects by explaining how I taught technical writing classes, in which students would focus on their majors and their specialties. (I also got to talk about deer contraception, which was great fun and helped me stand out.) It’s not obvious to someone outside of academia, but that experience was pretty much exactly what an editor faces, and it was persuasive because I obviously understood the challenge.

Deer contraception? Really?

Um, yes. I really did mention deer contraception in a cover letter, and it was perfect for the job I was applying for. (Matching your tone to the company’s tone is key!)

You may not have an outrageous example to throw in, but the bottom line is that you’re fabulous and smart and skilled. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have gotten this far in academia to begin with. There are many other organizations that would benefit from all of the experience, passion, and talent you’ve got in spades. You just have to frame it in a way that they, and you, can see.

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