Resource: Transferable Skills and How to Talk about Them

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By Stacy Hartman

As a humanities PhD, you are likely more accustomed to talking about what you know than about what you do. Even when you are asked what you do, your answers—that you’re a medievalist, or that you study nineteenth-century German realism or the early works of Marcel Proust—tell your listener what you know, not what you can do.

When it comes to applying for nonacademic jobs, this can be a real hindrance. Most people outside the academy have only the vaguest idea of what humanities PhDs do, besides reading books and talking and writing about them.

This is where transferable skills come in. If you’ve earned your PhD in the humanities or are close to earning it, you’ve done a lot of things. You’ve given presentations at national professional conferences like the MLA convention; you’ve taught dozens of undergraduates; you may have organized conferences, served on hiring committees, and coordinated academic programming; you’ve researched and written an entire dissertation! But how do you talk about these things in a way that is meaningful to potential employers who are unfamiliar with academia?

The documents on this page will help. The first is a list of universal workplace skills that humanities PhDs acquire in the course of earning their degree. It’s not comprehensive: you may not have done everything that is on the list, and you may have done some things that aren’t on it. The list is meant to get you thinking about the skills you have and how you might acquire those you don’t. The second document is a guide to résumé writing for humanities PhDs. It gives some basic tips and tricks for writing a good résumé, one that doesn’t look as if it was translated from a CV. (Tip #1: Don’t translate your résumé from your CV.)

Together these two documents are meant to help you identify your skill sets and describe them in ways that make sense to potential employers. The skills list and the résumé guide are, by necessity, generic; to make your application convincing you’ll need to adjust the language so that it reflects your specific experience. But we hope that you’ll find these documents useful and that you’ll tell your colleagues about them.

Please send feedback on the list of skills and the résumé guide to Stacy Hartman, project coordinator of Connected Academics, at shartman@mla.org.

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