How do I spin my grad school experience into desirable work skills?
April 18, 2009 10:40 AM   Subscribe

How do I spin my grad school experience into desirable work skills?

I'm a 30 year-old grad student in the process of submitting my MA thesis (yay!) to a university in eastern Canada. I enjoyed the program and the people, did it with funding, and learned a lot - no regrets or extra debts, that's not the issue. The issue is my lack of work experience and the rejection letters piling up in my mailbox. I apply for everything I can possibly apply for. I have a fun coffee shop job to pay the bills, but obviously that's not the long term goal.

Other than serving jobs (all held for about 3+ years and no gaps between jobs), all of my work experience comes from the university. I worked as a research assistant for a professor of mine as an undergrad. As a grad, I worked in an archive (as part of my funding package) and as a TA for a different department. Both of the graduate jobs lasted about two years. I wrote a thesis that involved field interviewing, transcription, reading, writing, analysis, editing, and all the rest.

There are no teaching opportunities at the master's level in our program, but I did present papers at a couple of conferences and guest lectured in undergrad classes as well. I'm very organized and I enjoy doing research. Speaking in front of a group does not bother me.

I'm unsure of how to translate the above into a kickass resume, or even what kind of jobs I should apply for. What aspects of my work and school experiences should I highlight? Especially since it kinda translates to "next-to-no-experience." I am on excellent terms with all of my former employers and instructors, and have no issue with any of them being contacted. I have great references who have assured me they will help me out in any way they can. Unfortunately, they can't sing my praises if nobody asks. :(

I'm really disheartened, but friends of mine (who already have "the job") keep telling me that my resume is solid and that I just need to keep networking and knocking on doors. I, of course, think I'm doing something wrong. Any help or advice would be appreciated. Cheers.
posted by futureisunwritten to Education (10 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Please help us help you. Tell us what you are doing in graduate school and why you decided to go to graduate school in the first place...
posted by parmanparman at 11:04 AM on April 18, 2009

Unfortunately, as least part of the answer is that this is the worst time to look for a job in the last 80 years. I have friends who are graduating from top programs in highly technical fields and having no luck at all. The problem likely isn't that you aren't qualified or desirable, but that the organizations have hiring freezes or that they are hiring a few positions and choosing from literally multiple hundreds of applicants.

It's hard to offer specific advice without seeing your resume or knowing anything about your field, but you should just know that it is extremely rough out there.

Have you thought about hanging out in school until the storm passes? Get a Ph.D., maybe.
posted by crapples at 11:22 AM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: Cheers. I am in the social sciences and I did my BA at the same school, same discipline. There were many reasons I chose my program. I really liked the subject matter and the faculty. I was accepted with funding (nothing stellar, but enough to get by on with my part-time job and no additional loans) and the school is in my hometown, a place I love dearly. When I began the program, I already had a thesis topic I was excited about, and it's pretty much what I ended up doing.

Of course, when I started the MA, the next step was PhD. I no longer want to be an academic. Grad school is a good wakeup call like that. :)
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:35 AM on April 18, 2009

What do you *want* to do? You must have some sort of strong interest, since you went to grad school. What is it?
posted by lunasol at 11:39 AM on April 18, 2009

Gah, should have previewed. Still, it sounds like you could benefit from some career counseling. Or at least read "What Color Is Your Parachute" and do ALL of the exercises. It will be very difficult to find a professional job without knowing what kind of job you want.
posted by lunasol at 11:44 AM on April 18, 2009

Response by poster: lunasol wrote: "It will be very difficult to find a professional job without knowing what kind of job you want."

Agreed, and thanks for being the first person to put it that way. My family and friends just saying "Oh, you're great, you'll get something" is nice and all, but it isn't helping me.

I enjoy research, writing, and editing. I loved doing qualitative fieldwork for my thesis. I also liked working in an archive as a graduate student. For now, I'm just searching job listings and finding out about jobs I apply for so I can tailor my cover letter and resume to the qualifications.

My school does have a career centre, I will check out that and I am now checking out Dick Bolles' site as well. Interesting...
posted by futureisunwritten at 12:23 PM on April 18, 2009

Best answer: I also left academe (post PhD and post teaching for a few years at small colleges and universities).

Just a couple suggestions that helped me:
• One you narrow down a particular topic or area that you would like to work in, contact a few people for informational interviews (google people if you need contact info, to see job titles, etc.). This really helped me learn more about the type of CV or resume to write for a particular industry, other ways into a job, job titles that I would know to search for, etc.
• You can make 2 to 3 or more types of CVs/resumes – once you narrow down what you want, of course.
• Look at this website: Work4us On the right hand panel is information provided by PhDs in the humanities who left academe – they tell you about jobs the obtained and include all types of info including salaries, how they got the job, what daily life is like, etc. You can subscribe to that email list, too, if you want to and it may provide you with relevant info.

A few possible jobs that you are probably qualified for:
• Teaching community college (or a similar type of college in CA). Look around – at one of the small colleges that I taught at also included just a few faculty members with masters. If you want to do this, do whatever it takes to teach a class for a semester – that was the main step I took and I had several interviews, job offers, etc.
• Writing (or editing) – “Specialists” are hired to write material for different types of industry. At my last workplace, we wrote medical education material for journals, conferences, etc (most of us had training in biology as PhDs and one or two masters). I met another person who was a former lawyer, and he wrote law education material company. I knew yet another person who did a lot of analysis at a financial company and she actually ghost wrote a lot of the financial materials given and signed off by the CEO, etc, as his own. Just look around to see if there is a type of specialized writing for your field – usually these places hired you for your training in the field plus some sort of aptitude to either write or work with a client.
• If you loved your particular research area – why not do apply to work at an academic journal? Or worst case scenario, get a research job similar to the one you do now (talk to your PI, they may keep you on) – the only problem is that they may not pay well.
• Per the Work4Us websitei, some of the jobs they list there include University communications, grantwriting, federal government, training and development. Start there and see if anything piques your interest.
posted by Wolfster at 2:50 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind you are entering the worst job economy in almost two decades. A lot of the rejections you're receiving really aren't personal.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 3:04 PM on April 18, 2009

You do have tons of great experience that will look great to potential employers. It's all how you package it. I would list your education first and then have a separate section for your thesis. Under the thesis section you can include all the bits about "field interviewing, transcription, reading, writing, analysis, editing." But frame it in a way that shows marketable skills, for example, "developed a new survey tool to interview 50+ people on their attitudes...." or "analyzed data and responses to develop an innovative theory..."

Your jobs at the university should definitely be included as "Professional Experience" (or maybe some other snazzier title) after your thesis. A few skills definitely jumped out to me while reading your post: you're good at public speaking, you can explain difficult concepts in plain English (you taught undergrad classes), and you can connect the dots to solve problems. There may be others, but definitely convey these skills!

You may or may not want to include some of the serving jobs on your resume. It does show that you have skills in working with customers and working in a team, two big pluses. Do you have any volunteer experiences? These can definitely go on a resume.

Finally, don't neglect the cover letter - it's just as important and it can include skills/experiences that aren't on the resume.
posted by kookaburra at 8:59 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, thank you everybody for all of the great advice. I'm working on the resume right now, trying to make it clean and polished. I will take all of these things into consideration. Cheers. :)
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:06 PM on April 20, 2009

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