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Jenny: This year marked the third year that the American Council of Learned Societies ran its terrific Public Fellows program, which connects recent Ph.D.'s with significant positions in nonprofit and governmental organizations. Most of the doctoral students we know who applied were surprised by the council’s request that their résumés be only a page or two in length. Students were also flummoxed by the task of writing cover letters. So we thought we would focus this month’s column on preparing materials for non-tenure-track, nonteaching job searches.
Julie: Why would a scholarly organization like the council request a one- or two-page résumé from a Ph.D.? Employers participating in the program probably wanted applicants to answer very specifically: (a) how their qualifications made them a good fit for the posted position and (b) why they were interested in the job and the organization. And employers didn’t want to wade through pages and pages of additional information. (For the record, hiring committees for tenure-track positions like to see some evidence of your interest in a particular position and institution as well.)
Jenny: A good cover letter and a focused résumé will help an employer understand what makes you qualified for the job.
It is incumbent on you as the applicant to develop some understanding of the fellowship, internship, or other short-term post you are seeking, and to present your experience within the context of that job or field. You can’t expect employers to go digging through your materials for that information.
Julie: You may have to describe a job or work experience in a new way to highlight what is relevant to this new position. You may have to reorganize sections of the résumé with descriptive headings such as Policy Experience, Higher Education Experience, Community Relations Experience. You will also have to describe your dissertation more in terms of function and less in terms of content or subject matter.
Jenny: There is no single standard way to transform a CV into a résumé. It can help to start with a couple of job descriptions—even if you’re not quite ready to apply. Take a close look at the descriptions, and think of the points of connection between the job and your background. For example, I recently saw a fairly entry-level position in the field of corporate training that listed the following requirements (among others):
- Designs, implements, and revises corporate training programs, policies, and procedures.
- Researches innovative training techniques and suggests upgrades to existing training programs.
Ph.D.'s applying for that position (and we know Ph.D.'s who have transitioned happily into corporate training) should first jot down some notes about how their skills might demonstrate experience with the job requirements. Your notes might look something like this:
- Graduate coordinator for Spanish 101: designed syllabi and weekly assessments for 16-week semester. Worked collaboratively with other instructors to set coursewide policies for classroom management.
- Instructor for “Introduction to Spanish Culture": revised structure of the course, developed three new units, end-of-semester student assessments much stronger than previous semester. Used social media like Facebook and Google to support the development of an online platform for student discussions of the course.
- General teaching skills: comfortable answering questions on the spot during Q&A sessions. Experienced teacher of diverse audiences, from adult learners to college freshmen.
Julie: The next step is to translate your rough notes about your skills into “résumé-ese"—that is, the bullet points, each beginning with active verbs, that will make up your résumé. For example:
Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of X
Instructor, September 2010-present
- Design and implement syllabi for courses such as introductory Spanish and “Introduction to Spanish Culture.”
- Revised curriculum for “Introduction to Spanish Culture,” resulting in a 20% increase in students’ ratings of the course.
- Teach groups ranging in size from 10 to 35 students, of all types from adult learners to college freshmen.
- Guide and evaluate participants in small-group presentations with measurable outcomes.
Remember that part of what you are doing here is translating your experience into a language that makes sense to those outside of the academy.
Jenny: Some readers may say, “Why do I need to tease out the various functions of my teaching? Everyone has been taught so they know what that involves!” But the reality is: The farther away employers are from higher education, the less likely they are to know about the varied aspects of teaching and research.
Julie: I had two reminders of that just this week. First, a doctoral student had an informational interview at a foundation where the interviewer mentioned that many of the foundation’s employees were skeptical of hiring Ph.D.'s because of a perception that Ph.D.'s work too slowly and don’t understand the need for the right information at the right time, not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The student came to my office seeking ways to show employers a more practical and entrepreneurial spirit. Then, a recent Ph.D. looking for a nonacademic job wanted a letter of reference to help dispel the notion that Ph.D.'s have weak social skills. That kind of thinking by both of those job candidates is a major shift for graduate students.
Jenny: It is common for employers to assume that Ph.D.'s are not results driven, and lack teamwork skills. When people think of an academic, they have the image of a lone scholar in a library or a solitary scientist in a lab. We in academe know that is no longer the case. Contemporary science is highly collaborative, requiring graduate students and postdocs to negotiate relationships with other researchers inside their labs and out. Social scientists are often working jointly on their research with nonprofits, NGOs, or government agencies. And the digital humanities have changed the way that many humanists are working, making their projects team-based by necessity.
But many people outside of academe don’t know that—which is why your job materials must work hard to counter the misperceptions.
Julie: Your cover letter provides an opportunity to do just that. As I often tell students, your résumé brings us up to date on what you’ve done, but your cover letter should project you into the future and let a potential employer envision how you would do the job. Cover letters for nonacademic positions should be concise—no longer than a page. As is the case for your résumé, the letter should speak specifically to some of the skills that an employer is looking for. Give numbers and examples. Be concrete.
Jenny: Think about what makes you unique as a candidate. What is your “value added,” as they say in the for-profit world? What has your graduate training afforded you in terms of presenting, writing, and analysis skills, and how can you sell those skills, and yourself, to an employer? Indeed, some Ph.D.'s are able to create their own job—or get an old job description rewritten for their background—by pitching their unique qualities to an employer. One Ph.D. described that as “solving a problem” for an organization. What can you offer that will help to improve an organization?
Julie: Some job seekers hesitate to apply for a job unless they have all of the qualifications listed; we would discourage that strategy. It you have most of what an employer is looking for—apply. A former supervisor of mine used to say, “don’t tell yourself ‘no.’” It is a time commitment to write a good cover letter and résumé, but each time you do you will better be able to articulate your knowledge, skills, and ability.
Jenny: Networking and research should be a major part of your job search. Too often, Julie and I see students who seem to feel that a job search is about looking for positions on the Internet, and sending off your résumé without doing anything else.
Networking is, without question, the most important part of your job search, particularly if you are changing careers. Networking will help you to develop relationships with people in fields of interest to you. It will also help you to better understand the lingo of a given industry, the type of opportunities available in it, the places where jobs are posted, and the organizations that are most important in the field.
It’s equally critical to do your own research on companies and organizations. That means perusing their Web sites and reading about them. It also means attending employer presentations and talking with people who work or worked at the organization. Use your campus career center or ask a reference librarian for help. Marshaling what you learn through research and networking will make you a better job candidate—and give you the insights you need to understand what you can offer.
Julie: Last week I heard a talk by Thomas Friedman, the foreign-affairs columnist for The New York Times and author of The World Is Flat. He said our rapidly changing world demands self-motivated people. One of his remarks that particularly resonated: “The world doesn’t care about what you may know any more but about what you can do with what you know.” That should be the goal of Ph.D.'s seeking careers beyond academe: Show potential employers what you can do with your sophisticated skills and in-depth knowledge base.
Jennifer S. Furlong is director of the office of career planning and professional development at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York Graduate Center. The late Julie Miller Vick retired as senior career adviser of career services at the University of Pennsylvania. With Rosanne Lurie they are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press), 5th edition.