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How to use your “useless” graduate degree to find a nonacademic job

Just because a PhD doesn’t mean you have to be in academia forever. But to make yourself an attractive candidate, you have to be strategic about your job search.

How to use your “useless” graduate degree to find a nonacademic job
[Photo: Cole Keister/Unsplash]

One reason I got a PhD in medieval literature is because I love languages: learning them, studying them, translating from one language to another.

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These days, I spend some of my professional time as a translator. But I’m not translating from Old English to Modern English; I help smart, accomplished people translate their skills from academia to other industries.

If you’re exploring jobs outside of academia, you might have come across the phrase “transferable skills.” The idea that you can take broad soft skills you’ve developed in your PhD program (communication, critical thinking, project management) and use them in other industries is important to recognize.

Fact: Figuring out how to talk to nonacademic audiences about the skills you’ve gained through your PhD program is tough. You’re used to thinking about your skills through the lens of your teaching, research, and writing/publishing. And every PhD candidate around you shares a common language and experience, so it’s hard to see what differentiates you from others.

But you do have a lot of skills through earning a PhD, and now it’s time to figure out what they are and how to present them to a hiring manager.


Related: How the master’s degree became the new bachelor’s in the hiring world


1. Make a list of what you like to do

Something inspired you to go back to school. Maybe it was the desire to become a subject-matter expert. Maybe you loved learning and sharing ideas. Maybe it was writing. Whatever it was, that motivation was unique to you. Make a list of everything it is that you like to do in your current role.

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If you feel stuck or overwhelmed, start with answering these two questions:

  1. What do you love doing every day?
  2. What lights you up and inspires you to keep working through setbacks and frustrations?

For example, do you love helping students learn calculus? Or, presenting your results to an audience of specialists? Or, coming up with ideas and persuading people to agree with you?

If so, your list might look like this:

Finding ways to explain math concepts to students that make sense to them
Creating visuals of my data that are engaging and get my audiences talking
Understanding my audience so I can create arguments that appeal to them and make them more likely to agree with me

2. Turn those “likes” into skills

Once you have a list of concrete things you do that you love, break down the skills behind them. What does teaching calculus require, for example? What do you need to be good at to present complex information?

Keeping those same “likes” from above, here’s what you would turn those into:

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  • Can break down complex ideas into parts
  • Can come up with creative ways to explain information
  • Can speak in front of a large audience
  • Can communicate information in a variety of ways (visually, verbally, and on paper)
  • Can persuade people to see a different viewpoint

Once you’ve written them down, do you see any patterns? In the list above, you can see that creativity, communication, and the ability to teach and persuade are part of multiple activities. You’ll find your unique set of skills popping up when you write your own list.

3. Start talking to people in your desired field

Once you have this list, the next question becomes: How do you know if those skills translate into a job?

That’s when it’s time to schedule some informational interviews. Reach out to people who have jobs you’re interested in, and ask them to describe the skills they use in their jobs or what skills they think are most valuable.

These can be friends, friends of friends, people you’ve met at events, or complete strangers you’ve come across on LinkedIn. Even if you’re not super close or they seem intimidating, it never hurts to ask for 20 minutes of their time (here’s how to do it right).

4. Put it all together on your resume

Now that you’ve done some research and you know what skills motivate you and you want to use in your next role, it’s time to put those on your resume. Put the skill on your second list together with the experience you identified in your first list. For example:

Graduate Assistant, University of Tampa, Tampa, FL, 2017–Present

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  • Identify examples of how we use Calculus in daily life to teach non-math majors basic concepts
  • Create infographics that tell a story to better educate my audiences on math literacy challenges
  • Co-authored a grant to create a new math literacy program for second graders that was fully funded

5. Make it compelling for your interview

Then, the experiences you have above can be turned into great interview answers.

For example, if you’re asked an interview question about solving problems or overcoming challenges, you can talk about how you convinced students that they can learn math, despite their initial doubts. If you’re asked about your communication skills, you can explain why you chose that specific grant to apply for and what research you did to craft an application that was persuasive.

Once you nail down your transferable skills, you’ll have all the material you need for great interview stories that are grounded in your real experience and will make sense to a nonacademic audience.

Your PhD program helped you develop a unique skill set that can be used widely outside academia. Once you put some work into identifying the skills and experiences that motivate you, you’ll successfully translate them from your graduate work to other industries. And, you’ll be able to talk confidently about them to all kinds of people–relatives, people you meet at networking events, and, of course, hiring managers.


This article originally appeared on The Daily Muse and is reprinted with permission. 

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