“What Transferable Skills Do I Have?” Preparing for Careers within and beyond the Academy

By Jessica Derleth

Second to my fervent goal of not flubbing my paper presentation, I arrived at the 2017 AHA annual meeting hoping to find answers to one of my most pressing questions: how do I translate the skills I am learning in graduate school so they are legible to employers in both academic and nonacademic careers? The overarching answer to my question slowly emerged from a conglomeration of conference sessions on career diversity and pedagogy, conversations about humanities funding, panels on applying for academic jobs, and a string of tweets during the plenary that aimed to inform the new presidential administration of what they ought to consider in their first 100 days. The key theme emerging from these seemingly disparate discussions was that the importance and value of a historical education lies in its ability to provide both tools for analysis and comprehension, and a wider view of the world and its diverse peoples. Thankfully, the AHA’s Career Diversity for Historians extended this conversation to appraising the value of graduate education. Through an array of sessions at the annual meeting, Career Diversity for Historians compelled graduate students and early career professionals to realize and articulate the value of our advanced history education. And it was in these sessions that I found answers to my question.

The Job Workshop for Historians at the 2017 offered practical advise on translating skills developed during graduate education for a diverse range of careers. Marc Monaghan

The Job Workshop for Historians at the 2017 offered practical advise on translating skills developed during graduate education for a diverse range of careers. Marc Monaghan

Identifying, Developing, and Articulating Skills
After years immersed in graduate programs that train us to write historiographical papers, conduct original research, and host discussion sections, one of the most challenging components of exploring career diversity is identifying the skills we possess and learning how to articulate those skills in a wider job market. We tend to focus too narrowly on what we know (Latin American, women’s, or economic history, for example) rather than what we did to gain that knowledge. As a result, many graduate students disqualify themselves from jobs outside the academy. Your time in grad school is work and you must learn to articulate the skills you are gaining in these years.

One speaker, for example, presented examples of transferable skills students typically acquire in graduate school. From classrooms to conferences, graduate work nurtures a range of written and oral communication skills aimed at both large and small groups: editing and proofreading, presenting persuasive arguments, writing grant and research proposals, and preparing information for various audiences (from undergrads to specialists in your field). Dissertation research results in your ability to synthesize complex ideas, sort and organize large quantities of information, and bring together diverse data to form independent conclusions. And working as a teaching assistant or instructor develops organization, leadership, and supervision skills: facilitating group discussions and conducting meetings, motivating others to complete projects, establishing group goals and timelines, and monitoring and evaluating the work of others.

Another speaker urged us to learn the language (such as “key performance indicators”) common in various career fields. Finally, speakers advised us to acquire skills we do not already possess. A museum professional, for instance, stressed the importance of fundraising and community engagement for public history institutions. Get experiences in these areas, she said, by volunteering for six months in a museum or historical society before applying for full-time jobs (and consider extra certificates, when possible). And every professional I spoke to insisted that volunteering and interning are vital routes for gaining hands-on experience.

Decoding Job Announcements
Whether speaking about jobs within or outside of academia, presenters similarly stressed the need to decode job announcements and thoroughly research prospective employers.

Speakers on academic jobs, for instance, explained the necessity of going beyond carefully reading the job announcement to researching the needs of the department and the university. One presenter suggested creating a notebook with names of faculty, their degree institutions and research interests, and specific questions you could ask them during campus interviews. You also must speak to the needs of the department and university—whether their goals, concerns, and projects focus on student enrollment, areas of research specialty, or teaching styles. With this knowledge you can better articulate—at every step of the application process—what you can contribute to their department and their wider campus.

For jobs outside the academy, in addition to researching the needs of the employer, the challenge for history PhDs lies in casting off any feelings of intimidation thoroughly enough to understand and apply our transferable skills. This requires understanding our experiences holistically and reading job announcements “between the lines”; again, moving beyond our subfields to think in terms of specific skills. One speaker highlighted the futility of searching for jobs with “history” as a key word (the results are mixed, and often only bring up academic positions). Instead, they suggested identifying the transferable skills you possess (like those in the previous section) and searching for jobs with those key phrases.

Understanding Components of Future Jobs
Finally, presenters stressed that job seekers need to understand the various components of jobs; grasping how a job functions makes you a stronger candidate and helps you evaluate your own fit (and potential for happiness) in the position.

For positions outside the academy, look at the “boiler plate” description (typically) at the end of a job posting that describes the company or organization doing the hiring. It often says a lot about what they are looking for, what the culture is, and how the job functions. Knowing this can help you consider the work environment and whether it aligns with your values and interests. Speakers frequently emphasized the importance of embracing (without embarrassment or shame) the nonacademic job search; private companies, nonprofits, or museums do not want to hear justifications for why you are not pursuing a position in academia, which implies that they are your backup plan.

Those who spoke about the academic job search encouraged us to frame our application materials around the three components that departments and universities use to evaluate their faculty: teaching, research, and service. From cover letters to one-on-one conversations during final round interviews, applicants need to communicate what they have done and will do in all three of these fields. If you have gaps in experience, focus on future plans and expected contributions.

Conclusion
While I could not attend every career paths session (there were 18!), I was fortunate to hear from and speak with historians who work in a variety of positions: from museums to historical societies, career centers, university administration, postdocs, and history departments (within liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and large research institutions). Rather than narrowly viewing graduate education as preparation for a career in academia, these presenters highlighted the value of a historical education and offered real, tangible advice for applicants seeking diverse careers.

Jessica Derleth is a US historian whose research focuses on how American suffragists used gender as a political strategy to advance their cause. Derleth’s research interests and presentations include gender roles and performance; food history; politics and social movements, especially women’s activism; and the history of sexuality, gender, and empire.

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