Career Advice

Transferring Your Transferable Skills

Lisa M. Balbes

So, you’ve decided to change direction with your career and move away from bench work. You’ve identi­fied the transferable skills, abilities, and areas of expertise that you want to develop in the next phase of your career. You have evaluated your personal values and re­searched possible career paths. You now know what you want to do next and the companies that hire people to do that.

The next step is convincing others—especially poten­tial employers—that you can and will do that new job. To make a successful transition, it’s time for a complete professional makeover.

Refresh Your Attitude About What You've Done

Before you can convince others that you can do something, you need to really believe it yourself. If you become ener­gized when thinking or talking about this new field, and if you are always looking for more information and ways to try it out, you know you are on the right path. Identifying things you have already done will give you confidence as well as provide specific examples you can use when talking to new colleagues and potential employers. For example, if you want to move into technical writing, start listing all the things you have written, including lab reports, papers, newsletter articles, proposals, and so on.

Since you’ve proven you can do it, you can describe yourself in terms of your new field. To continue with our example, you’re not “a chem­ist who likes to write,” you are a “technical writer with a background in chemistry.” Just by switching the order, you will change others’ first impression of you and also reinforce how you think of yourself. De­scribing yourself this way will also make you start feel­ing like a technical writer.

Now that you have your new description, add a sentence or two describing what you are looking for in order to create an elevator speech. An elevator speech is a short description of who you are, what you can do, and what you are looking for. It’s the answer to “tell me about yourself,” customized to the specific situation. You never know who you are going to meet, so you should al­ways have a succinct description of yourself and your goals ready, updating it as your skills and de­sires change throughout your career.

Then it’s time to revise the rest of your professional iden­tity to match your new description. This includes reorganizing your written documents, lists of skill sets, and professional references.

Refresh Your Resume

Unlike the resume you use in academia, where a single ver­sion of your curriculum vitae suffices, your industrial resume must be customized each time you apply for a new job.

Especially when you are shifting directions, your resume must be edited to showcase your transferrable skills using the terminology of the new field. During your research into career possibilities, you learned the terminology, not only what they do, but what it’s called. Job titles and functions change over time—ads today are for software developers or engineers, not programmers—but you can use current job advertisements as resources for proper terminology.

Put yourself into the mindset of a hiring manager in the new field, and then reorganize the information on your resume to appeal to such an individual. Expand your accom­plishments in the new field, while shortening or eliminating items related to lab-based activities.

Most of this reorganization will take place in the list of professional accomplishments under each of your job head­ings. All jobs should be listed in reverse chronological order, usually under the heading “Professional Experience.” For each position, include the job title, employer, dates of employment (month and year), and the city and state in which you worked. Under each position, list at most six bulleted items—your most significant accomplishments while in that position.

Ideally, you will create a “library” version of your re­sume that includes all your significant accomplishments— maybe many more than six. Now is the time to make sure all your accomplishments in the new field are both listed and placed earlier in the listing. A potential employer won’t care whether you got paid or not, he or she will only care about whether you know how to do something. The best way to show that is by having done it already. Review your existing accomplishments, and see if you can reword them to empha­size the new field.

Once you have created the library version of your resume, when applying for a new job you can just make a copy and de­lete the least relevant items, then reorder and edit the remain­ing ones to match the requirements of the new position.

For example, if you are moving from a computational chemistry postdoc into software development, you would highlight your coding skills and programming languages, not quantum mechanical methods development.

In addition to your resume, you need to edit your LinkedIn profile to make sure it’s telling a consistent story. Not only should the data match your resume exactly, but it should be obvious how this new direction is the logical next step based on your career path to date.

Build Your Expertise

If you want to really strengthen your position, take a class in the new field at your university or a community college. These days, there are all kinds of online educational opportunities as well; many of them are free, and some offer certificates. Join the relevant professional society and attend their meet­ings, seminars, and workshops. Even better, volunteer to help organize an activity. This will provide you not only with experience in how things work in the new field, but also with valuable connections with other professionals. These activities could be listed in a “Continuing Education” or “Professional Activities” section of your resume, and they show that you re­ally are committed to this new area, putting in time and effort to grow your skills in the new direction.

Seek out, or create, practical experience in the area you have chosen. Can you find a project that will give you real-world experience in your new field? For example, if you really want to move into intellectual property, ask your adviser if you can help write his next patent, or ask your university’s technical transfer office if you can help search for prior art. By doing something in your new sphere, you build both experi­ence and confidence. You will be that much closer to becoming an intellectual property specialist with a background in analyti­cal chemistry, not a chemist who once helped write a patent.

While seeking experience, make a conscious effort to expand your network. Seek out friends of friends to ask for information, ideas, and introductions to your new area. New contacts are more likely to see you in a new light than are old friends who have already categorized you. 

Rethink Your References

Once you’ve updated the way you see yourself and revised your resume and other documentation, you need others who will talk about you in this new light. Who do you currently list as references, and what is their relationship with you? Is your undergraduate research adviser going to be able to sell potential employers on your skills in technical writing, or is she only going to talk about how great you are at fixing the GC/MS? Perhaps you want to use someone else, with whom you have worked on something more closely related to your new direction. 

Change is scary, but it’s also exciting. Be positive. Focus on the reasons you are moving TO the new field, not all the problems you had with the old one. You know you will be successful in this new direction, because you’ve already done some of it. You just have to make sure the rest of the world knows what you want, and sees what you can do.