"Transferable Skills" Are a Lie
Updated: May 18
In my last two posts, I talked a bit about my grad school experience and then about how and why I decided to quit academia for good. This post is about actually applying for and getting a job outside of academia. More particularly it’s about what many people call “transferable skills,” those mysterious experiences, aptitudes and competencies that many people, mostly academics considering leaving academia, so often reference but can so rarely really define.
I want to start by saying point blank that “transferable skills” are not a real thing. Period.
What academics mean when they use this phrase - that there is some special academic experience that needs to be carefully explained in order have it all make sense to someone outside of academia - is actually a myth. If you are considering leaving academia, I believe it’s a myth that may be hurting your ability to see yourself in a job outside of academia. If you are currently looking for a non-academic job, it is likely negatively impacting your job search.
And yet, this myth, however damaging, is extremely pervasive. Perhaps this is because the academy encourages extreme specialization: academics spend their lives becoming masters of a tiny corner of their already specific field. The result is that academics often feel pretty special. Even if they are not personally invested in the idea of the “ivory tower,” even if they are the first to balk at the usually offhanded or even accidental but nevertheless manifest elitism of the academy, it’s still pretty difficult to not feel like academia isn’t somewhat of a city on a hill, special because highly specialized. Of course there is some truth to all of this: when you are one of the world’s leading experts in anything, it’s normal to see yourself as unique and privileged. It’s because, truly and without judgment, you are.
But the result is that, when academics, for whatever reason, decide to leave the academy, there is often a lot of hand wringing and angst about how to present their experiences in a way that is “translatable” to others, as if recruiters or hiring managers in other industries literally spoke another language. In working with clients, I have realized that there are two seemingly opposing reasons for this belief, but in reality they usually occur simultaneously: 1) the belief that, because academic work is so highly specialized, it simply won’t make sense to others and will have to be explained, 2) the fear that, because academic work is so highly specialized, it has nothing to do with the “real world” in which “work” happens, and that therefore academics are likely unqualified. In other words, the anxiety about leaving academia is all too often equal parts fear of leaving a safe harbor in which specific interests and passions are truly appreciated, and fear of leaving a safe harbor in which, because those interests and passions are so specific, those that have them couldn’t possibly succeed in “real life.” In a nutshell, the anxiety lies in not being able to decide if your work is unique and therefore special, or unique and therefore irrelevant.
But there’s good news: skills are skills no matter where they are picked up in the same way that knowledge is knowledge no matter where it is acquired; this means that your experiences don’t need to be laboriously “translated” in order to be intelligible to others. Perhaps equally important to remember: individuals are not collections of skills that can be picked up from one job and plopped down in another. People are qualified and successful for a wide variety of reasons, and their individual skills and experiences are just one part of the algorithm. After all, the main thing a good recruiter is looking for when they pick up a resume is concrete evidence that the candidate meets the minimum qualifications, and ideally some of the preferred qualifications, for the job posting. They are generally less concerned with exactly where this experience occurred and are instead motivated to contact candidates that can succinctly and clearly demonstrate that they have already been successfully exercising the skills that are needed for the particular job in question.
What this means in real life is that academics should frankly have a leg up in a non-academic job market. Many academics have spent the greater part of their adult lives working enormously hard to hone their abilities and to build up the competencies that allow them to be successful in a highly demanding career. As a result, they tend to be focused, persistent, naturally curious, highly driven critical thinkers who express themselves well in writing, have outstanding organizational skills, and often have better than average communication and “soft skills.” Additionally, due to the lack of funding for humanities and social science PhDs, they also very often have a lot of eclectic and compelling work and life experiences that can all add up to make a very interesting, well-rounded individual.
Academic work builds competence in areas that are highly valuable to employers. If you’ve ever completed a thesis, dissertation or a book project, you definitely have more than adequate project management skills. If you’ve ever designed a syllabus or written exams or developed homework and other assignments for your students, you have experience with learning and instructional design. If you’ve ever taught a class or mentored or tutored a student, you can demonstrate leadership and solid communication skills. If you’ve ever administered a test of your own design or taken stock of student performance and then adjusted your teaching style accordingly, you have experience using data to inform critical decisions. If you’ve ever conducted a study and analyzed the data to make decisions about or to inform the direction of a research project, you have skills central to business analytics. If you’ve ever written a grant or an application for funding and been successful in securing that funding, you have demonstrated skill in drafting business proposals. These are not “transferable skills” so much as they are just collections of competencies that, when contextualized properly, will make it clear to a recruiter that you have a high predictability of success in another role that requires similar competencies.
Once you stop investing in the cycle of doubt that the myth of “transferable” skills can precipitate, it is easier to take stock of what you like to do and what you are good at. Once you know your own skill set, you can look for jobs that exercise that skill set. The trick from there is simple: start seeing the resume not as an explanatory list of all your experiences and accomplishments, but as an opportunity to contextualize your skills, to show how what you’ve already done demonstrates your ability to successfully do the job to which you are applying. Once you are no longer laboring under the illusion that you have to somehow explain or justify yourself, once you’ve moved past the nagging feeling that you have to translate your academic work to someone who may not understand or appreciate it, you’ll find yourself more able to comfortably and confidently talk about yourself and to see yourself as a capable and even desirable candidate on the job market.