By Erin Bartram
For a Ph.D., writing cover letters for nonacademic jobs — letters that explain how your skills and experience make you a good fit — can be difficult and frustrating. That isn’t because Ph.D.s have no transferable skills, but because the academic job market has trained you to think and speak very narrowly about your qualifications.
Even if the cover letter is for a job you know you’re qualified for, you may find yourself tearing your hair out trying to translate your qualifications. Academe places economic and professional value on just a portion of what scholars do. Shedding that narrow understanding of your skills and experiences is important for a nonacademic job hunt in general, but particularly vital for writing cover letters.
Just knowing that in the abstract isn’t enough. As scholars, we do research before we write. We don’t just assume we’ll remember the evidence — we write it down. In order to talk effectively about your skills and experiences in a cover letter for a nonfaculty job, you have to do the research first — on yourself.
In the months since I decided to end my search for a tenure-track job in history, I’ve been applying for positions outside of academe and writing about my career transition for The Chronicle. I’ve learned a few things so far about drafting cover letters for a nonacademic search.
Think outside the CV. It was hard enough to remember to put all of your research, teaching, and service activities on your CV in a timely manner. Now you’ve got to try to think beyond those three narrow categories of academic work and recall all the things you’ve done that haven’t gone on the CV. Here are some ways to do that:
- Look at older CVs. As you progress through a doctoral program, or as an early-career scholar, you often revise your CV, removing the "less impressive" work from earlier in your career and adding "Selected" to some headings. Older versions of your CV can be a goldmine of things you forgot you even did.
- Think about service. That can mean two things. First, remember that while faculty search committees often place little value on the experiences you listed under "Service" on your CV, the nonacademic world might find those same things very valuable. Second, think about all the unpaid labor that scholars do to keep departments and disciplines going: participating in peer review, mentoring students and colleagues (formally and informally), reviewing fellowship and prize applications, running workshops, organizing events. Those can be valuable evidence of your skills and experience.
- Acknowledge all of your side jobs. Many of us accepted graduate-school stipends under the condition that we wouldn’t take outside jobs, and while it was a charade even at the time, those who did take such jobs often worked hard to hide them. It may seem obvious that you’d want to acknowledge those jobs now, but it can be easy to forget their duration and value when you put so much effort into not mentioning them.
- Acknowledge nonwork activities that you left off your CV on purpose. Here I’m thinking about things like volunteer work or activism. For instance, I didn’t splash my time organizing a graduate-student union all over my CV, though I knew any potential employer could discover it without too much effort. But I also left off my time serving on the board of a local arts institution. Both activities were related, and even helpful, to my scholarly career but they weren’t the sort of things I was taught to put on a CV. Such activities might, for some positions, be the thing in your cover letter that piques the interest of a potential employer.
- Talk to your friends and family members. I’ve offered that advice before but that’s because it’s important. They will often remember things that have slipped your mind, or more important, things that you have actively forgotten because they weren’t considered relevant to your academic worth.
Once you’ve got an exhaustive list, it’s time to think about how to make it decipherable to nonacademic employers.
Break things down. Years ago, I was complaining to a friend about the trouble I was having writing a lecture, and she remarked that she had never realized how much work went into teaching a college class until she knew me. She figured that professors just got up and lectured on what they knew off the top of their heads. Prior to our conversation, she had no idea of the work that went into writing a single lecture, let alone designing an entire course.
I share that story because it’s a good example of why Ph.D.’s transitioning to a nonfaculty career need to really break down their academic skills and experiences into component parts. Then break down those parts even further, and explain what they all mean. Imagine you aren’t just telling someone what you do, you’re telling them exactly how you do it. For instance:
- What does it mean to conduct academic research in your field? How do you write a literature review? How do you outline the scope and course of a research project and then successfully carry it out? How do you find and apply for grants?
- What does it mean to teach? How do you plan a course? How do you write a syllabus? How do you run an internship program? How do you advise students?
- What does it mean to do academic service? How do you chair a prize committee? How do you review articles for your peers? How do you effectively observe your peers and evaluate them?
- And what does it mean to do much of this on your own, at your own direction, without constant or even intermittent supervision?
In academe, when everyone around you does the same thing — and has the same degree — it’s unnecessary to break those tasks down. Because everyone in your work circle already knows what they mean.
Here, again, nonacademic friends and family can be helpful — both because they can "see" the applicable skills that you might miss, and because they can help you find new language to communicate those skills and their value to jobs outside of higher education.
What you’ll have at the end of this process is a master list of your skills and experiences — something like an annotated CV. It’s useful to build this list early in the job-hunting process, but I’ve found it especially helpful when drafting cover letters for nonacademic positions or writing "KSAs" (it stands for "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities") for federal-government jobs. I often copy over the job ad into a separate document and comment on it with relevant skills and experiences from my master list. Seeing your qualifications mapped onto a job ad like that helps you organize the paragraphs and themes of your cover letter, and it can be an enormous confidence-booster as well.
Having a master list of your skills and experiences won’t make writing cover letters more enjoyable. It will still feel very strange and quite difficult to write about your qualifications in this way if you have been writing academic cover letters for years.
What this exhaustive list can help you do, though, is get started. And isn’t that often the hardest part of any writing project?
Faced with a grim tenure-track market, professors who train doctoral students often ask: But what can I do to help my students with a nonacademic search? Here’s what I suggest: Imagine that you found out your tenured position had been eliminated. Then go on Indeed.com and find a job for which you think you are qualified. Now try to write a cover letter for that position. Just try.
After doing that exercise myself, I felt like apologizing to every student to whom I had blithely uttered the phrase "transferable skills." Because figuring out your transferable skills is incredibly difficult, and those of us who haven’t had to do it in years — even decades — should make sure we know of what we speak.
More broadly, scholars, doctoral programs, and disciplinary societies committed to the idea that the Ph.D. provides transferable, marketable skills of use beyond the professoriate must also be committed to talking about those skills and making them visible well before the end of someone’s graduate-school career. How?
- Make it standard practice for your department’s doctoral students to create and maintain full annotated CVs.
- Provide examples of academic and nonacademic cover letters. Make them equally available, and be honest about the differences between them. Sample cover letters must be pitched to the skill level of people with Ph.D.s.
- Be sure that any career counselors you bring in for cover-letter workshops understand the skills that Ph.D.s in a particular field have to offer.
- Perhaps most important, admit when you as an adviser are out of your depth and help your Ph.D.’s who are leaving academe find the career guidance they need.
Academic and nonacademic cover letters are different animals, and difficult in different ways. But given that many Ph.D.s are going to have to draft both types of letters, it’s important to acknowledge the differences and teach graduate students how to write both.
Leaving academe is scary, and that feeling can be most intense when you’re facing a blank page with no idea how to write a cover letter for a position you really want. Drawing up a full accounting of your experience and skills — before you begin writing cover letters — can help you learn to speak about those skills in a way that potential employers will understand.
Erin Bartram, formerly a visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Hartford, is writing about her career transition out of academe. Her web site is Erinbartram.com and you can find her on Twitter @erin_bartram .