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New Grads: Here’s How To Discuss Your Classwork In Job Interviews

Your history PhD might not seem relevant to your dream marketing internship, but it can be if you know how to frame it.

New Grads: Here’s How To Discuss Your Classwork In Job Interviews
[Photo: TheaDesign/iStock]

In college you studied the impact of Soviet monetary policy in the Baltic states during the Cold War and find it absolutely fascinating. Sadly, prospective employers might not find it very relevant.

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When you’re looking for a job or internship as a student or recent grad, it’s sometimes tough to frame your academic work as transferable experience that makes you an amazing candidate. But it can be done. Here’s a quick primer on talking about your educational background in the interview process.

Skills Come First

“Many times students focus more on the content knowledge of their degree, such as ‘I studied history’ or ‘I wrote my dissertation on 18th-century French literature’,” says Emily Seamone, a career adviser at the CUNY Graduate Center. “Academia focuses more on mastering a subject and tends not to train students to think in terms of transferable skills, which is what employers are most interested in.” This is especially true “if a student feels there is absolutely no connection between their content expertise and the job,” says Seamone.

To avoid regaling a hiring manager with everything you know about neoclassical influences in Molière, she offers this advice: ‘When students are applying for jobs, they should ask themselves, ‘What skills did I gain in the process of studying history?’ or ‘What skills did I gain in the process of writing a thesis or dissertation?'”

By way of example, Seamone mentions someone with a history PhD who went into marketing: “He framed his expertise in terms of studying people and their reactions throughout various times and events, how people tell stories, and how people communicate in different ways. These aspects all relate to coming up with effective marketing campaigns.”

Regardless of the actual thing you studied, she points out, the capabilities you developed in the process are probably useful to an employer, “including research, analysis, synthesis of large amounts of complex information, communication, collaboration, and so on.” And don’t hesitate to dig a little, Seamone adds. “Every degree and path of study has transferable skills to apply to most career paths. It just isn’t always immediately obvious.”

Rethink The “Foundation” Argument

Seamone says it’s a mistake to assume employers will automatically see your academic focus area as a ‘foundation’ in anything job-related. It takes a little more legwork to draw out that connection.

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“For example,” Seamone explains, “a student might know literature, but if the company and role has nothing to do with literature, they will have no idea whether the student can handle the tasks and responsibilities of the job. Employers are also not going to assume that all English literature majors come with a specific boxed set of skills.”

Making the case that your coursework is relevant to the job requires some finesse. Those English majors Seamone mentions need to explain how “because of their literature degree, they can quickly gather large amounts of information from many sources, sift through them for the most important points, write up the results for various audiences, and effectively communicate their findings,” she says. “Now this is something employers can understand. But students have to help employers understand.”

Well-Trained Tech Candidates Still Need Context

What if your educational experience is in the same highly technical field that you’re trying to get into? It’s not necessarily a done deal, Seamone cautions. “Students will want to do research beforehand, if they can, on who they are interviewing with to get a sense of their backgrounds.”

Keep in mind that you might wind up speaking with several different people over the course of interviewing for a technical job, and not everyone is going to speak the same language, as it were. So make sure to adjust according to the context. When in doubt, Seamone suggests, “plan to be specific and watch body language for reactions or confusion. Students can always supplement their technical answers with more explanation if they think the interviewers are lost.” A little context can go a long way.

But so can a little storytelling. I was at a careers panel a couple weeks ago and chatted with a neuroscience grad student who’d been a full-time dancer for five years. Now he’s trying to get into finance and struggling to connect the dots. I pointed out that even the most data-focused banking professionals need to work on teams, and that the interpersonal dynamics–and the skills it takes to navigate them–probably have more in common with a dance company than he might imagine.

“Can you remember a really difficult production when you all had to pull together in the eleventh hour, since ‘the show must go on’?” I asked him. “Tell that story.” It’s people management, emotional intelligence, problem solving–skills every successful candidate needs, no matter their degree.

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About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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