The importance of learning the lingo of jobs outside academe (opinion) | Inside Higher Ed

The importance of learning the lingo of jobs outside academe


The best way to get from job interview to job offer is to sound like you are already a member of the organization you wish to join. That’s true for everyone, but it can be an especially daunting obstacle for academics seeking work beyond higher education.

We all spend years learning and adopting discipline-specific jargon, modes of argument, even values—and it can feel as if every minute spent not playing that role is a minute longer that it will take us to become “real” academics. As a result, many of us finish our Ph.D.s or opt to leave the lab, library or classroom without significant exposure to other professional cultures. We apply for jobs and hope that others will see the value our experience will bring to whatever work their organization undertakes.

But hope is a poor substitute for strategy, and translating your experience means more than quoting a few phrases from an organization’s “About” or “Mission” page. Rather, it requires appropriate adoption of language that is meaningful to your future colleagues and sufficient knowledge of their context to frame the value of your experience in terms that resonate.

A thought experiment will demonstrate how this knowledge gap can make academics look out of their depth as they attempt to pivot to a new career. Imagine you are an editor at a university press. Imagine, too, that I am a classics Ph.D. who has come to propose a new translation of the epic poet Virgil from his original Latin into Japanese. You can safely assume my knowledge of Latin is up to snuff: classics is the study of ancient Greek and Roman culture, literature and language. Before we have a serious discussion, however, you will want to probe my knowledge of Japanese.

“No need to worry about that,” I reply. “My credentials in Latin are excellent.”

At this point, you will rightly laugh as you shoo me from your office. Translation requires expertise not only in one area, but in two. My knowledge of Latin is meaningless, at least for the purposes of translation, without a corresponding knowledge of Japanese. Only a fool would tell you otherwise.

The point of this scenario should be as unobjectionable as it is obvious: you can’t translate without knowing both the original and the target languages—and without being culturally bilingual enough to find analogous terms as you carry peculiar concepts and traditions over from one to the other.

While most academics would readily admit this fact, it is nevertheless common to hear career guidance for Ph.D.s along the following lines:

  • “Everyone will recognize the value of your degree.”
  • “You can do anything with a Ph.D.”
  • “Your skills are transferable.”

Such encouragement is surely better than head-in-sand refusals to discuss postdoctoral job prospects at all. But it is also gravely misguided. The people who offer this advice are essentially telling their advisees they should not worry about learning the language and culture of other professions—that knowledge of “academese” is enough.

Learning New Jargons and Values

If these observations reveal a major failing of nonacademic career discussions, they also suggest a solution: when academics prepare to look for work beyond higher education, they must learn the jargon and cultural values of other professions first.

Informational interviews offer an effective strategy to do so in short order. Meetings to learn more about a job or industry from someone working in it provide various types of information. Speaking to people who have jobs you do not replaces assumption with fact, illuminating how they spend their days, whether you might be interested in their role and what skills you need to develop to credibly apply for work in that sphere. At the same time, informational interviews teach you how other professionals speak and think about their work—that is, how they structure information, what they value or devalue, and how they integrate or disentangle their personal and professional interests.

Put differently, informational interviews provide you with an array of data points from which to identify trends in your interests and to begin learning a new profession’s language. Once you identify those trends, you can validate or refine your initial impressions by conducting further interviews, reading white papers or thought leadership articles related to sectors that interest you, and exploring job listings that seem to be a fit for your skills and experience. These iterative efforts allow you to deepen your understanding of a new professional language, while additional meetings provide opportunities to practice translating from academese.

To extend the metaphor once again, informational interviews are akin to an immersion program. By embracing constant, low-stakes opportunities to translate your experience, you rapidly improve and prepare yourself to communicate effectively in job interviews and—eventually—a new work setting.

Approaching nonacademic careers with this translation model in mind helps to avoid a common error people make when looking for work beyond higher education. All too often, converting a CV to a résumé is cast as a mechanical change: “put your education at the end instead of the beginning; keep it to one or two pages; use bullets instead of full sentences.”

To return to my translation metaphor, this descriptive guidance is like telling someone that Latin puts its adjectives after the noun they modify, whereas English puts them before. The statement may be true, but it falls far short of teaching someone how to convey a meaningful thought.

A better approach to composing a résumé comes when you understand its context. Outside higher education, the résumé—even more than the cover letter—is the most important document you submit. Its sole purpose is to persuade a hiring manager that you are worth more of their time. Not to persuade them that you’re the right fit. Not to land you the job. Just to pique a human being’s interest enough to justify a live conversation about your suitability for an open role.

Like any persuasive document, a résumé’s form and content depend on the audience. The more you know about that audience, the better you can shape your experience to create the desired impact. This is where informational interviews provide invaluable insight: through meetings with people who work in a given profession, you gain an idea of what elements of your experience are relevant to the work that actually occurs in a specific role. Ideally, you will even have spoken with someone at the organization in question so you can write with specificity and demonstrate knowledge of what they require you to do. At that point, translating between two professional languages—and holding yourself to a few bullets—is a relatively straightforward exercise.

Selecting the Right Details

Of course, translation is an imperfect art. Nobody can capture every nuance when carrying ideas over from one language, culture and time to another. Translators’ choices invariably give some concepts more emphasis than they received in the original and may even leave some ideas out altogether. This imperfection comes with the job. Yet translators forge ahead because they are invested in being understood—however incomplete that understanding will necessarily be and in spite of the linguistic and cultural barriers that make total accuracy impossible.

The same limitations apply to translating experience from one professional background to another. You will necessarily make choices in how you tell your story that enhance, obscure or warp specific details any time you tell it. What makes you a better or worse translator is how you select details that matter to your audience rather than privileging those issues that matter to you.

For example, if I tell someone in a corporate or nonprofit setting that I taught a 3-3 as a VAP, they will likely ask, “What’s a 33 vap?” But if I tell a hiring manager in business that I delivered educational services valued at $500,000 per year for the department of classical studies, they will intuit my work’s significance—supporting the organization’s core service offering—even if they remain unsure of what I precisely did.

Likewise, I might tell the executive director of a foundation that I developed programs that met my team’s immediate objectives while advancing the shared goals of my division and the organization’s larger strategy (that is, I taught courses that met departmental or core requirements while aligning with administrative visions for the college’s future). This framing privileges my experience accounting for organizational mission and collective needs when doing my day-to-day work.

Do these translations encompass the entire scope of my academic experience? Of course not. Did I do all of those things when I taught my 3-3? Absolutely.

To put a finer point on it, being understood is the only objective that truly matters when you are trying to apply your Ph.D. outside the lab or library. You can only do so effectively, however, after speaking with people from other professional backgrounds and taking time to learn their professional language. Adopting the mentality of a translator makes it easier to embrace that reality and prepares you to talk the talk when you eventually have a job on the line.



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