June 27, 2015

Recognize and market your transferrable skills

Ideal problem solvers are t-shaped

Many of the advanced doctoral students I speak with share one characteristics: they fail to recognize that they have transferrable skills and knowledge. And, as they finally land an interview with a potential employer, they’re selling themselves short. But getting an advanced degree, or indeed, solving any complex problem, brings you more than specialized knowledge and skills. You should recognize and market these transferrable skills.

To solve problems, we need to be more than specialists

There is considerable agreement that effective problem-solvers are t-shaped, being both specialists and generalists, and employers look for candidates who are developed in both dimensions. (I’m using generalist and transferrable interchangeably.)

Ideal problem solvers are t-shaped

Ideal problem solvers are t-shaped

That’s not just theoreticians speaking, employers say the same (see for instance, surveys by various organizations including including a National Association of Colleges and Employers, the Conference Board, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities). All want prospective hires to demonstrate an ability to work in teams, solve problems, and make decisions. None only care about a deep understanding of organic chemistry or the use of the passive voice in Dickens’ novels.

It’s true that, for some of you applying to a faculty position in which the department is interested in a narrow speciality, you may get away with being a genius in your field and nothing else. For the rest of us, thankfully, being a genius is usually not required, but employers are looking for versatility: an ability to get up to speed quickly in unknown situations, understand what matters and what doesn’t, and get the job done. They also want you to integrate nicely. As one of my former bosses at Accenture put it, “life is too short to work with assholes.”

Recognize the transferrable skills that you have acquired through solving complex problems

The good news is that if you have solved some complex problems, you have acquired transferrable skills. The key is to recognize it.

Historians are not just knowledgeable about population flows around the Mediterranean Sea a thousand years ago. They can speak several languages, construct a coherent picture acquired through the accounts of protagonists with different viewpoints, conduct field analyses in less-than-ideal conditions, etc.

Scientists and engineers can bridge the gap between theory and practice, simplify appropriately—sufficiently to produce a workable model but not oversimplifying—and demonstrate strong analytical thinking.

Designers know how to listen to a client’s interest, interpret what they really are about, and provide various suitable proposal.

If you are graduating from a program that requires you to write a thesis, chances are that you have developed an ability to reconcile the divergent viewpoints of key stakeholders (your committee), managed a multi-month project, demonstrated resilience, and for many of you, let’s be honest, managed the expectations of a boss with low emotional intelligence.

So make a list of the transferrable skills that you have developed. If you don’t know where to start, you can also look at typical questions that employers ask in behavioral interviews as a source of inspiration.

Market your transferrable skills

Then, for each skill, you may want to prepare a brief example of when you have used it—or how you developed it—and what the result was. Here, the situation-action-result (SAR) format (see also here) can be helpful: briefly introduce the situation, in, well, the situation, describe the action you took, and explain what changed.

If you’re practicing the guitar to get that one Zeppelin song just right, you’re arguably not just getting better at playing that song. You’re also becoming a better guitarist. The same goes with problem solving. So step back to review what you’ve learned, and don’t sell yourself short.