How to Think About Experience

If there’s one reason why academics don’t make the transition to the private sector, it’s fear. And if there’s one source of all that fear, it’s their perceived lack of experience.¬†Academia requires an arguably unhealthy level of specialization. One unfortunate side-effect of this is that a person’s experience is heavily focused on a single, very small area of specialization. Thus, it’s only natural for for people in this situation to fear that their experience is far too narrow for any “real-world” employment.

The way to get around this fear is by understanding the true value of experience. We often ask about a person’s experience, but we rarely consider the more important question, “why do we care at all about experience?”.

There is absolutely nothing intrinsically important about having relevant work experience. The value of work experience is that it provides¬†evidence. It is evidence that you are capable of doing good work. The same applies to education, job references, work history, credentials, and everything else. Their importance is entirely secondary — they each provide evidence that you’re capable of doing good work.

It is extremely liberating to realize that experience, education, and all the rest are only important because they provide evidence of your abilities. After all, there are many ways to provide evidence of something; and a lack of one kind of evidence can be offset by another. This observation can help you think more productively about how to market yourself to potential employers. For example, here are a few examples from my own experience, or which I’ve seen in successful job applicants who were transitioning out of academia:

  • I’d never given a business presentation. But I’ve given plenty of academic talks, and at least a few talks explaining technical subjects to a non-technical audience. I’ve also logged many, many hours in the classroom, teaching to all different levels of student. In many ways, the skills required in a business presentation are the same.
  • I’d never written an engineering design document. But I’ve written grant proposals. And there are important similarities between these two different kinds of writing.
  • I’ve interviewed (and recommended hiring) people who didn’t know the programming language that they’d be required to use. But in each case, the applicant had demonstrated the ability to quickly learn something at least as complex.
  • I’d never explained technical issues to a non-technical client in a business setting. But I’d done a lot of teaching of technical subjects to students with no technical background. And again, a lot of the same skills are required.

A smart employer will actively try to understand how your skills and academic experience are relevant to their business needs. Of course, even a very smart employer may need some help to understand what was involved in succeeding as an academic; this can be done by structuring your resume in the right way, and by making sure that you’re taking adequate time to explain yourself in a job interview.

In thinking about your experience, don’t trap yourself by thinking too narrowly about what’s relevant. Instead, ask yourself a few simple questions:

  1. What have I accomplished in my academic career? (e.g. teaching, research, presentations, writing, …)
  2. What skills were necessary for me to succeed in those things? (e.g. clarity in writing and speech, the ability to frame an argument concisely)
  3. What other tasks in the private sector require those same skills? (e.g. giving a presentation, writing technical documentation, proposing a solution to a business problem)

It’s surprisingly easy to use your answers to these questions to help you organize your resume, and thereby market yourself to the private sector.

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