jobs · reform · transition

So What Can You Do with That, Exactly?

Skills translation is a major issue for us—for those of us who are still in search of post-ac jobs, and for those of us who teach in non-professional programs. It’s a major issue for our students, who are going out into the world in search of meaningful employment, a world that can’t seem to figure out what to do with people who don’t fit neatly into a career that you could find in a Richard Scarry story. Translating their skills is a major issue for us too, for both our students’ success and the public perception of our disciplines–particularly for those of us in the humanities and social sciences–is at stake. How do we communicate what we do in the university–as undergraduates, as graduate students, and as PhD holders–to those outside of that system? It’s obvious, outside the academy, that someone with an engineering degree has been equipped with the skills to become an engineer. Same goes for nursing. Or social work. But English? As the old quip goes, you’ll either be found behind a teacher’s desk, or a McDonald’s deep fryer. I imagine the more up-to-date version subs a Starbucks espresso machine for the deep fryer. There is no one obvious career path for someone with a degree in history, or English, or biology, and that’s both a major strength, and a major challenge, of non-professional undergraduate degrees. The same goes for people with grad degrees seeking post-ac employment, with raised stakes–many years of missed earnings and retirement savings, delayed pregnancy or adoption, many years of accumulated debt–and a new set of challenges–public prejudice against PhDs, perceived over-qualification, and a professional network that probably resides mostly within the academy.

We and our students have skills, and valuable ones. But how do we get those beyond our classrooms to acknowledge the communication, collaboration, analysis, research, time-management, project-management, critical thinking, and technical skills we’ve honed in the university–and, for many of us, taught others? This issue is increasingly pressing given the social and governmental pressures to make everything countable, reportable, and monetizable. A humanities education, because it doesn’t neatly fit one into a slot in the business machine, gets dismissed as irrelevant. But as Max Bluow, the president of the Council of Ontario Universities argues, that’s not what we’re here for: “Universities are not, and should not be, in the business of producing “plug and play” graduates – workers who can fit immediately into a specific job in which they will spend the rest of their lives.” The world where people enter a career and stay in it for life has come and gone, and yet the university is, perhaps for the first time, being asked to produce those people. We don’t need programs that help people fit into one of those slots. We need the programs we have, and the tools to communicate to the world that what we do, and who we are, is of far more value than they probably realize.

How do we fix this, then? This being the mismatch between the skills we develop in the university, and the translation of those skills beyond the university? How do we translate our skills into terms that are meaningful to others, and that will land us work that employs, acknowledges, perhaps even applauds those skills? Bluow argues that it is employers who need to do the changing: “If indeed the statistics don’t bear out a serious mismatch between skills and jobs in Canada, the conversation should move away from turning universities into job training centres and toward the role employers can play in preparing graduates for jobs.” This includes, I should think, training employers to understand the skill-set that someone with a history degree, for example, could bring to the table. In “How to Get a Job with a Philosophy Degree,” The New York Times profiled a number of American universities that have created career-services programs specifically geared towards liberal arts students, ones that are designed to help both students and employers identify the ways in which their training and their needs match up. These schools highlight the unobvious degree-job matchups that happen post-graduation—the German major working at Deloitte, for instance—and profile successful graduates with quote-unquote useless degrees. My brain is full of useful and useless facts, but one that’s always stuck with me was that a past-president of BMO had a B.A. in English. Skills translation is a major priority for these centres; at the University of Chicago, “Michael S. Roth, the school’s president, says he wants the career program ‘to work with our students from the first year to think about how what they’re learning can be translated into other spheres.’”

For graduate students, the resources (at least where I’m standing) are far fewer on the ground, and the options potentially more difficult. There’s always the DIY route—So What Are You Going to Do With That? is a good place to start if we want to become fluent skills translators. My university offers a workshop on reframing academic skills, and I’m hoping to develop more of them as part of a professional development workshop series I run. Aaron Kotsko advocates for the creation of a “shadow resume”—working outside of the academy while studying and teaching in the academy so that you graduate with both a doctorate and a well-developed professional network. However unrealistic he might be about the feasibility of working two jobs at once (it would have been impossible for me, since my university prohibits us from taking any non-teaching employment while studying full-time), his point about our skills is spot on:

You have research skills. You have writing skills. You are basically an information processing machine. You hopefully have some language skills. Depending on your discipline, you might also have some advanced math or stats skills — in any case, you probably know how to use standard office software better than the average office worker does. You’re almost certainly anal-retentive when it comes to grammar and usage. These are things that don’t take any pre-existing special skills, and there are plenty of companies that need help with all of that. 

But what most of these options ignore is the dual-participant nature of translation. It doesn’t matter how well we translate our skills—we need to live in a world where the people we’re translating them for are willing to get what we’re saying. In an ideal world, they’d meet us halfway—the people with jobs would already know the value of what we were offering them, the value of a degree in English, or German, or gender studies. Indeed, they probably already do, although it doesn’t feel like it. It doesn’t help that the rhetoric around the humanities is working to exacerbate that feeling, and to frighten people into abandoning those fields that don’t lead to obvious careers. There’s lots of fulfilling work out there for us and our students—but how do we bridge the gap between the people who want the work, and the people who have it?

So, dear readers, over to you. What challenges do you face in translating your academic skills in your search for post-ac employment? Or in helping your students translate theirs? What issues around skills translation get your goat, or make you excited?

2 thoughts on “So What Can You Do with That, Exactly?

  1. A big, important topic, Melissa. Lots of us need to be thinking about it.

    The point that sticks with me among the many good ones you make is the one about the effects of the false impression about job prospects for humanities students, especially grad students: it leads to people either abandoning the field or spending their entire time in grad school feeling depressed. We have some underemployed post-degree students from our program—but mostly the ones who are on the contingent academic labour carousel. Otherwise our students get good jobs outside academe. That's not to say that we shouldn't do more to prepare them to get or make jobs for themselves, and that's a personal project of mine, but once they get a foot in the door they thrive.

    What I like to do that sometimes makes people fret less is point to some of the cool jobs that are out there have academic programs that train you how to do them. “I'm studying to be an executive job search consultant.” “I'm training to be a policy analyst with the federal government.” “I'm going to head up a provincial civil liberties association.”


  2. I think that having a diverse group of friends, and discussing your job plans with them, can be a big help. I got a lot of my practice in skills translations sitting over beers with people working in different industries, from different backgrounds, talking through what I thought I could offer in a non-academic job, and hearing friends mirror my language back to me with the language of their own workplace.


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