I posted recently about the four things I say over and over to leaving academics.
- You have more skills than you think.
- The best way to find out what jobs actually exist in the world is to ask people what they do and what they like about it.
- Of course you’re exhausted and grieving, and that is as it should be.
- Step one is always abundant, luxurious self-care, as much as you can possibly stand.
Today I want to focus on the first one, because no matter what you do in academia, you’re probably ignoring a good 90% of your skills.
There are good reasons academics can’t identify their skills
In most workplaces, you work with a variety of people who all do different things. Those different jobs throw skills into relief. You know that if you really want to figure out how to use Excel well, you go to Laura, but if you want data interpretation, Mark is your best bet. You can see those different skills around you all the time, and you have a sense of what people come to you for.
Well, in academia, pretty much everyone around you is doing exactly the same job. Everyone is teaching. Everyone is doing research. Everyone is mentoring students. Everyone is serving on committees. The differences tend to show up in the content — what you’re teaching, what you’re researching, who you’re mentoring, what committees you’re serving on. It’s then really easy to conflate content with skills. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone tell me that the only thing they know how to do is be a Dickens scholar / historian of 14th century Britain / expert on Schopenhauer, and no one outside of academia needs those things.
Even if you can decouple content and skills, everyone around you is practicing pretty much the same skills you are, which means they don’t seem all that noteworthy. It’s easy to assume “everyone can do this — they don’t need me” when, in fact, everyone around you IS doing this. But academia is a rarefied little bubble, and the skills that are a given in academia are not remotely a given elsewhere.
This was driven home to me when a group of colleagues and I were presenting the results of some work to the leadership team. We had everything in powerpoint, and we were taking turns presenting slides. I happened to go last. Everyone before me read the powerpoint slide out loud, while staring at their paper, then turned it over to the next person. Having spent 11 years teaching, I riffed off of the powerpoint slide, assuming the leadership could read just fine, putting the results into context, drawing conclusions, etc. All the things you do. But leaving that meeting, I was suddenly surrounded by colleagues asking me in a wondering tone of voice how I learned to do that.
Now friends, I was never more than a competent teacher. It was not all Dead Poet’s Society up in my classroom. But what was competent, good-enough teaching in academia was “holy shit, that was amazing!” when I was surrounded by people who did not have a decade’s worth of experience teaching.
So when I say that academics frequently ignore the vast majority of their skills, I understand why. It makes sense. But if you’re considering leaving, you’ve got to dig in deeper.
How to identify all those glorious skills of yours
In order to figure out what skills you aren’t aware you have, you need to write down each and every thing you do for a given domain.
Let’s take teaching as one example. Here are all the pieces that come to mind immediately:
- Write a syllabus.
- Write a lecture.
- Present a lecture.
- Facilitate discussion.
- Design assignments.
- Design assessments.
- Work one-on-one with students.
- Evaluate assignments and assessments.
- Norm evaluations with other teachers.
- Research new topics/ideas/things in your given subject.
- Review textbook options.
- Calculate partial and full grades.
- Provide feedback.
Once you have this list, you dig into each bullet point.
What does it take to write a lecture? You have to break content down into lecture-sized chunks. You have to do research to fill out the chunk. You have to organize information within the lecture. You have to find examples and illustrations to help students grasp the ideas. You have to frame the information so students know where it fits into the broader arc of the semester/topic. You have to provide signposts in the lecture itself so students don’t get lost in the mass of information. Ideally you’re going to find ways to break up the lecture and get the students engaged.
Once you’re at this point, you’re starting to see all the skills in play. Being able to organize information into logical progressions is a skill. Being able to scaffold information is a skill. Being able to research is a skill. Hell, knowing how to learn is a skill.
For most academics who have trouble figuring out what their skills are, it’s because these skills are largely soft skills.
Soft skills are hard to hold on to
Soft skills are all of those capabilities that you can’t teach in a step-by-step way. Hard skills — knowing how to use a given software program, typing, math, knowing how to use a particular piece of equipment, etc. — are fairly obvious. Soft skills, on the other hand, are easy to dismiss because they can’t be easily broken down and because we falsely assume everyone is skilled that way.
Please, please believe me when I say that everyone does not have these skills. You’ve spent enough time teaching to know that while everyone can practice and improve, only a small group of people are really good at communicating, or problem-solving, or getting buy-in, or organizing people, or shepherding a project to completion. But these skills are foundational in the knowledge economy, and you’ve got them.
Here are some of the roles I’ve had and my friends have had in a medium-sized company over the past seven years:
- Editor of a particular kind of content: making sure the content was clear, had the right tone, and didn’t say anything ridiculous.
- Instructional designer and teacher: creating an internal training program and supervising the process and the trainees.
- Communications liaison to external writers: identifying what they needed to know and translating from grumpy colleagues into “most likely to get results.”
- Program designer and manager: figuring out how to use a particular resource and setting up the systems and processes to do it.
- Payments and systems manager: keeping on top of details, building routines, and solving the problems that show up.
- Internal communications expert: creating a repeatable communications plan that meets company goals and employee needs/desires.
- Marketing coordinator: getting all the many moving parts into line so a marketing campaign can happen smoothly.
- Managing editor: coordinating a stable of editors working on different kind of content and rethinking what content should happen and when.
Now, some of these may be entirely unappealing to you. But I doubt there’s a single one of these you couldn’t do.
Most of the jobs in the knowledge economy don’t flow from discrete degrees and linear careers. They’re messy, they’re connected to multiple other goals/teams/roles, and they’re based on a problem that needs to be solved right here and now.
And you can do them.