If you don't have the wherewithal, you don't need the why.
April 13, 2011 5:25 PM   Subscribe

Have you been able to convince employers that your transferable skills make you a good hire?

I'm a BA-carrying research assistant in cognitive neuroscience with three years of experience. I'm looking for a way out.

The skills I have developed over the past few years are extremely specific to the kind of projects I support (academic research using EEG and MRI). They sound useful in many industries when I talk about them in general: data collection! statistics! scientific programming!

For the last couple of months, I've been talking to employers about jobs where I could make myself useful. I'm having a hard time convincing interviewers that my "transferable" skills are actually relevant to them.

None of the (entry-level) jobs I've applied for are exactly what I do now. They combine research and technical duties in various proportions, but each job requires me to tell a story about how my existing skills qualify me for it. Interviewers get skeptical. My lack of direct experience gets cited.

  • How did you parlay your transferable skills into a job?
  • How similar were your existing skills to the job requirements?
  • How did you convince your interviewers that you're not "reaching" to sound relevant?
Not looking for: fabricated stories from books about parachutes and cheese. I'm also not interested in laments about the "hundreds of applicants for every job." This is demonstrably false — my employer struggles to get 3-5 applications for PhD-level positions and 8-10 applications for positions that require a bachelor's degree (in psychology!) and no experience.
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (16 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
In one word, no. I'm in sales and marketing, the most transferable skill there is. Yet in my 90 day job search recently, in which I wanted to sell a different kind of software or technology, so not even that big of a change, I consistently got to the final interview and lost out to somebody with more specific experience. I ended up right back in the narrow vertical market I wanted out of. But at least I have a job, so I'm not bitching.
posted by COD at 6:03 PM on April 13, 2011

I'm also not interested in laments about the "hundreds of applicants for every job." This is demonstrably false — my employer struggles to get 3-5 applications for PhD-level positions and 8-10 applications for positions that require a bachelor's degree (in psychology!) and no experience.

How much did you learn from those three years of science work? The experience of one employer does not accurately represent the entire state of the market. And if you are applying to jobs that are different than your current one, even more so.

Perhaps if you told us more specifically about what you are applying to, you could get more specific suggestions. Are you switching fields? Sectors? Job type within your existing field and sector?
posted by unannihilated at 6:07 PM on April 13, 2011

Best answer: I’m probably what a person would define as a life-long job hopper (and the only reason that I can stay put now is that I am working for myself now) and I’ve also switched job fields many, many times. So I’ve definitely convinced employers that I am now committed to their job and have transferable skills. Also, good for you in terms of not buying into the learned helplessness (i.e. no chance in getting a new job, darn this economy!), and also seeing through the crap (fluffy books and career whisperers).

To be honest, the big key for me was to conduct information interviews if the job was very discrepant from a recent job. For example, at one point I decided to switch from academia (very similar work to yours by the way – lots of lab work plus teaching at the university undergrad/grad level) to medical writing at medical communication companies. Before rolling your eyes at the idea of information interviews, I honestly approached these with the intent of learning how to move into those jobs with my current job skills. So in my case, I actually looked for people who had a PhD in the sciences and successfully transferred into the dream job. Here is why the informational interview helped, however: 1) to give you the hot CV/resume words of the time (seriously, remember that HR pple, recruiter, or headhunter may review your CV and some are only looking for certain words or terms); 2) the format of the CV/resume (I was an idiot and believed the “CV must be changed to a resume” according to all the books about changing from academia to a nonacademic field…um, not for my new field, and I only found out about this by talking to people in the field and at my first interview for such a job, heh); 3) some resumes/CVs will need an additional section (and the people that I talked to who were working in the field could point to what these things are); 4) other job titles that you should look for (in my new field at the time, I also needed to search for scientific associate, scientific director, and was able to find many more available jobs this way) 5) people in the field now can tell you what you may need to do to get the experience – perhaps an internship, perhaps volunteering, or even simply taking a test or making a sample—but the people who you will talk to have made the transition before and will have relevant lists of things that you can do). Now believe it or not I am a giant coward and don’t really like talking to strangers, but I was able to do these and was able to able to learn a great deal and acquire a new job in the field that I wanted (see here for suggestions as to what you can do for an info interview if you are also a coward like me, I don't want to type this again as I've typed something similar in response to many similar questions).

I also believe that by having the interviews (the real interviews now) you will learn more about the job and the language that one should use; it is also a numbers game. It sounds like you may be more of a go-getter in terms of looking for your desired job, so one other thing that I would strongly recommend once you identify your dream job at ______type of company – go look for lists. If you find that company X is offering a job, look at linkedin and see what company those people go and come from. Now send a cover letter to those comments, with your CV or resume. Go to the library and see if there are any lists of other companies that have these jobs and email (or drop your info into website at the appropriate link on the webpage) with your cover letter and CV/resume. I used to get a lot of projects this way, and many people called back offering jobs, so I would assume that it would/should work for people seeking employment. Also, you may want to see if linkedin has any groups for your desired new job field – ask these people if they have a list of companies in the ____area (city, state)—you may also want to post questions there to see if anyone would let you have an info interview with any of the list participants.

As I reread your question - do you have a particular new job or field picked out yet? That may be part of the problem. You don't mention your interests, either, but I can imagine anything from working at a CRO, medical writing, etc. for you --but I don't know what is the new field that you want.

Good luck. Feel free to memail me – I actually left the lab not once, but twice. You can probably find all types of jobs with your background, depending on your interests.
posted by Wolfster at 6:12 PM on April 13, 2011 [39 favorites]

My experience interviewing for different types of libraries has been that employers either get the transferable skills concept, or they just don't.

That said, maybe people can give you helpful ideas if you tell us what you've tried that didn't work - have you tried giving concrete examples of how the skills you have transfer? Using examples from the field you want to transfer into, rather than where you've been?
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:13 PM on April 13, 2011

IMHO the most important condition is a smart hiring manager who also isn't cowed by HR. They are not common. I designed high-vacuum systems for ten years, then got hired by a company that didn't do anything with vacuum. The reasoning of that hiring manager - with whom I became good friends - was I did a lot of analysis based on undergraduate physics and the basics, not the details, had the greatest importance in what he wanted done which at the time had not been tried. Consider your desire to move a filter - unimaginative people, who are bores, won't get through it; smart ones will.

A smaller but still important condition is in my field there is some drudgery and being able to stay sane during the drudgery phase of building things sets a good example, which helps a lot in turning a prototype into a product.

When I was hiring people I got loads of resumes and very few were even written in cogent English; the requirements listed at least a BSME/EE and these people had to have gone to an accredited university. The state of writing in this country, if that's a reasonable example, is dire.
posted by jet_silver at 6:14 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Why should someone in HR worry about whether your skills can transfer when there's 50 other people applying for the job and offering the skills they actually require? Find out what skills they want. Pretend you have them. Read up about them for the interview. Be really personable. Get the job. Learn on the job. Obviously this doesn't work if you're going for brain surgeon or astronaut or lion tamer. Especially lion tamer. Actually, I'm serious here. Remember, as far as they're concerned it's all about them, it's not about you. Whatever they want just say you did it at your current job or the one before that. You won't be going for a job you really can't do so be an actual solution for them, rather than a potential problem.
posted by joannemullen at 6:39 PM on April 13, 2011

Response by poster: unannihilated: Perhaps if you told us more specifically about what you are applying to, you could get more specific suggestions.

I'm trying to get away from abstract "zen of job searching" answers. I specifically posed the question asking for personal anecdotes. I even included lots of underlines!

My point about the applications-per-job thing is that it's false, since it doesn't hold for at least one employer — mine.
posted by Nomyte at 6:48 PM on April 13, 2011

Unfortunately, I suspect this wouldn't work in your field, but: temping. That's how I got a job that I'm more than capable of, when I didn't have any directly related experience. Temping gives you the chance to demonstrate your skills upfront--in my case, the temp gig turned into a permanent position, but I've also heard of people using temp experience (it's short, but you can still sometimes get a reference) to get future jobs.

And it's not about the interviews, but changing up your resume can also sometimes help. I've definitely gone from 0 callbacks to multiple after changing format (not content at all!), during a job search using transferable skills.

As an aside, I happen to know a neuroscientist who is looking for work in your general geographic area. Would you be willing to MeMail me the name of your employer? Sorry, not sure if this is an appropriate question... feel free to ignore if it is not!
posted by equivocator at 7:24 PM on April 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

It worked for me for one job out of many other applications and interviews. I got that job through a temp agency where I scored very well on their Microsoft Office tests and didn't appear insane in the interviews. Found them on Craigslist. It was a real job as an executive assistant, after three years of being a recording studio nerd.
posted by wondermouse at 7:25 PM on April 13, 2011

I dislike woo-woo "zen of job searching" nonsense as well, but what we are trying to point out is that the approach might be different if you are interviewing at a consulting firm or a defense contractor. More information would be helpful.
posted by mlis at 7:26 PM on April 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

More on the temping thing - I made sure to leave all the super-niche stuff off the resume and cover letter, being sure to play up my good "computer" skills and other really general office/client relations stuff.
posted by wondermouse at 7:28 PM on April 13, 2011

I did this quite successfully, although my situation was a bit different. I left the field I was in and took a few years break to live a completely different lifestyle. When I came back, I applied for a job where I did have some relevant experience, but needed to explain how a three year hiatus in which I led tour groups around the Middle East actually made me more prepared to be an Executive Director at non-profit. The answer is not obvious, but it was actually one of the most beneficial experiences that I have had. I convinced the hiring committee of this by using very specific examples, telling stories of situations or tasks that I had dealt with including the specifics of what that looked like and then explicitly making the connection between that experience and the challenges I would be facing in the position.

I agree that there are people who are just not going to get the connection no matter what, but a lot of people just need help figuring out how it's related. I would even argue in an interview (and I did) that a range of experiences and the fact that they come from somewhere a bit different to others increases the number of 'tools' in you toolbox and leaves you able to deal with challenges in innovative, and possibly more effective ways.
posted by scrute at 7:51 PM on April 13, 2011

Response by poster: MLIS: I dislike woo-woo "zen of job searching" nonsense as well, but what we are trying to point out is that the approach might be different if you are interviewing at a consulting firm or a defense contractor. More information would be helpful.

My job search strategy has been limited to sending resumes to employers recruiting on campus and following up with employers who attended the university's spring job fair. I've also followed up on some very helpful hints from other Mefites.

I don't know what I want to do in particular. I've asked a couple questions about my situation before (1, 2). The answers were interesting, but much of what was suggested was very far afield for me (advertising?).

Counselors at the career center at the university where I work has been vacuous and unhelpful (1, 2).

As a result, I'm not at the stage where I can check out niche professional organizations, meetups, or industry-specific networking events. I do need to keep exploring options, because mine are so few. I can change careers now, I can apply to grad school, or I can try getting another assistant job. The last is suboptimal because I'm rapidly aging out of this line of work, which is meant to be a stepping stone to graduate school.
posted by Nomyte at 8:21 PM on April 13, 2011

Counselors at the career center at the university where I work has been vacuous and unhelpful

- not surprising. most career centers are famous for their complete ineptness.

1) Ask questions of your interviewers. If you seem genuinely interested in the position and what the company does they are more apt to open up to you and see greater potential.
2) My skills have been pretty spot on, but I have also interviewed with people that are intelligent enough to understand skill sets do not need to match exactly. Many people can jump into a job they know little about as long as they have the personality that can handle the situation
3) See #1. Sometimes if you are open with them they might push your name on to others and you might end up getting a job that you a) didn't interview for originally, and b) wasn't advertised.

Outside of that a lot of your problems reside with the interviewer, not you. As it has been said in salary threads: you get what you are given, not what you deserve.

good luck
posted by zombieApoc at 5:45 AM on April 14, 2011

oh, and to be clear about #3: be truthful. do not reach. You don't want to be in a situation where you get fired 8 months into a job because they feel you weren't totally truthful with them, or they've given you many chances and it just hasn't worked out. Sometimes reaching can work out, but it can also end up making your next job search that more difficult.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:48 AM on April 14, 2011

Best answer: I feel like seeking help from career services, at least at my school, was like having your parents' friend who "knows a lot about business" and has possibly read some career advice books take a look at your resume.

I don't know how helpful this will be for you, but it is anecdotal:

My resume/job history can look like anything--it can look all over the place and I've had a lot of "make it what I want" positions. So really, I don’t have directly-related experience for anything. The times that I've successfully used the "transferable skills" approach were

1) with an interviewer who did not have to answer to HR or someone with a specific list of required skills/experience. He could look at me and see that I was smart, very personally interested in the target field without necessarily having on-paper experience, and really sincere about wanting the career change. He was willing to give me a chance, and could afford to.

2) with an interviewer who did not have an HR person or a specific list of required skills. I was way overqualified for this job, and they were just awed by my fancy Yankee education. And I passed the typing test.

3) with an interviewer who was a friend of a distant family member, and was “HR” but not officially. She didn’t get my resume until after the interview, and at that point it didn’t matter.

Times when it did not work:

1) with an interviewer, the CEO for whom I’d be working (so again, no HR), who wanted to see very specific things on my resume, and although I had the skills, I think he didn’t believe that I was sincere about the career switch because whatever it was he was looking for on paper was not there.

2) with an interviewer who did have to answer to HR, and so although she really liked me and could completely see how my skills were transferable, I didn’t match with the required items on paper.

So in conclusion (which I am forming right now from looking at my job history), I think you'll be better off bypassing HR if you can, because the person for whom or with whom you'll actually be working will know the actual work you'll be doing day-to-day (as opposed to the Position Responsibilities and Skills Required), and will be able to look at what you can do and what you've done and imagine how you can help in ways that maybe they haven't even thought of.

Then, there will be people who have that imagination and people who don't. And honestly, I'd rather work for someone who will open to fitting a position to me and how my skills can help the company. I'm not really a box-fitter-inner, and I have learned to appreciate the difference between when someone wants an automaton to perform x job duties y way, and when someone wants a human being to use their particular skills and brain to solve problems for the company in the way that works best for everybody. That's the difference between interviews that go "Do you have X?" and "Do you know Y?" and the ones that go "Oh wow, you're interested in that? How did that come about?" and "What an interesting problem, how did you solve that? Oh, how did you learn to do that"?

As far as selling it, from the "Tell me about yourself" jumping-off point, I'd say something like "I am really good at blah-blah-blah, which from my understanding of the position/your company, I think it'd be really interesting to use that to do blah-blah-blah-job-duty." This way I can talk about what I can do, that perhaps someone who looks better on paper might not be able to do, and I can demonstrate that I've thought about things that the company needs. Even if I'm not correct, that I couldn't use that skill to do that thing, it might start the other person thinking about what I could use that skill for; it would at least start a dialogue about my skills versus their requirements.

This is much easier to do in person than on paper (in a cover letter, for example), so if you still have access to those job fairs, you should use it. And I think I'm going to take another crack at the whole informational interview thing based on Wolfster's recommendation.
posted by thebazilist at 9:58 AM on April 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

« Older Help me understand the way the world works!   |   help me find my happy medium groove Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.