Monday, May 28, 2012

Disclaimer: I'm educated, not handicapped

When moving outside of academia, it's sometime hard to know how to address having a Ph.D.  Lately, I've been trying not to overemphasize it (I'm a strong communicator and critical thinker who happens to have a Ph.D), but I think I am missing an opportunity to talk about what I really learned in graduate school.  A lot of the feel good literature for Ph.D.s thinking about finding a new career path teaches us to recognize the value of the Ph.D. in terms of communications skills, teamwork, independent work, critical thinking...  Sometimes I forget that other people (and I mean hiring managers), don't read this stuff.  I have certainly written cover letters where I failed to address some of those secondary job requirements.  I'm not sure if that cost me the job, but "strong communication skills," "attention to detail," or "Proficiency in Microsoft Word" sometimes seem to obvious to state.  

Then again... I met someone a while back who was really surprised, could barely contain his surprise, that I was such a capable communicator.  Not that I did anything out of the ordinary, he just assumed I would speak only in math equations and that I'd never hear a word he said. He really thought I'd be handicapped by my education. He was thinking about ways to get kids into STEM fields, and gave me one of those "geeks don't have social skills" lines that made me sigh.  I carefully corrected him, scientists don't always value their interpersonal skills, but it is impossible to be successful in science if you cannot write a grant that present a compelling argument to fund your work or present a clear story of your novel finds that gives you credibility with your colleagues.  He was sold, but it reminded me that a huge part of communication is understanding your audience.  If I am applying to a position where a Ph.D. is unexpected, I should probably explain why I think that 5 years in drug discovery provides me enough professional experience to be successful in a new role.  I gotta remember that to some people, a Ph.D. is for those who are too single minded to make it anywhere but in that chosen field.  And saying, "This job isn't as hard a grad school," isn't likely to win any hearts or minds.

Currently, I am applying for a hot curriculum development position (LinkedIn can tell you how many people have applied- I'm #117.  I suspect my application won't be read, or if it is, it will be forgotten.  I'm developing the materials for similar positions, so what the heck- I'm being ridiculous and possibly memorable).  My short cover letter explains my background and interesting in the position, but I felt it needed more.  They wanted someone with a BA in Comm, so I included this paragraph. 
Briefly, I want to address some of the other job requirements that may not seem obvious given my background.  I earned my Ph.D. in molecular biology by taking the lead on a large collaborative project that involved investigators in 3 states, so I am familiar with team work, collaboration and the value of interpersonal skills.  This project allowed me to share my work in both papers and talks for an audience of highly educated skeptics, so I have developed strong communication skills, attention to detail and a thick skin.  As a freelancer working off-site, I have mastered independent work and time management.  
 Too much?  My new, fatalistic attitude about the job hunt is helping me to try new things.  But approaching every job thinking, "well, I already don't have this job, how bad can it get?" might not be the fast lane to my dream job.

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