Describing your skills in a job letter

When you apply for a job, your message to an employer is “here is how my skills, demonstrated by my experience, can address your needs.”  When you apply for a non-academic job, you must describe your skills and experience in terms that make sense to non-academic employers.  That happens in job letters, on a résumé, and in an interview.

Unlike academic jobs and postdocs, almost all of which require a substantial, relatively detailed introductory letter as part of your application, non-academic jobs usually require a briefer letter with the application, or, in the case of online applications, no more than a long paragraph in a text box. So in addition to describing your skills and experience (not your thesis) in non-academic terms, you must also be concise: with rare exceptions, a job letter should be no longer than the equivalent of one page of single-spaced text with reasonable margins (3/4-1″) and type size (11 or 12). Here are some guidelines to help you write a job letter for a non-academic job application.  When you are done reading this, read the post on what specific phrases you should not use, and what you should say instead.

1.  Read the job posting, noting the skills and experience it asks for.  Here’s how non-academic job postings are usually structured. Here’s a guide to non-academic job-posting terminology.

2. Abstract your skills from your field of graduate study; this is the single most important thing you must do and one thing at which graduate students, especially those late in doctoral programs, often fail.  Skills that many graduate students have include planning and conducting research, creative problem solving, analyzing data, synthesizing overviews of large-scale inputs, working independently, driving groups  to consensus (think: seminars, research teams), explaining difficult work clearly and persuasively. Problem solving, by the way, includes the ability to find alternative methods and tools of analysis when your first plan fails, so don’t neglect your failures as sources of skills: employers prize adaptability and resilience, because we all fail at our jobs sometimes.

Remember, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature is not a skill; research abilities, problem-solving, and explanatory abilities are.  Your thesis is not, per se, the unit of accomplishment or relevance; your skills and experience are.

3. Don’t forget skills gained from your non-academic work and life.  You have more skills than you gained from your graduate work; mine your jobs, no matter how mundane, for what you learned.  Every place you worked or volunteered or participated in a group activity is a potential source of the skills employers value.  When you look at a job posting, you should have a printed list of every place you have worked or volunteered beside you, to remind you where you have acquired skills that may be relevant.

4. Describe how you have demonstrated those abstract skills in concrete experience(s).  “As a result of my analysis of  [group]’s website, I recommended four discrete SEO changes; once they were implemented, our website visitor traffic increased X%.”  “After researching how other conferences gathered feedback from attendees, I changed [my conference’s] method from X to Y, and our response rate went up Z% from the previous year.”  “When my research facility discontinued support for [critical thing I needed], I successfully applied for a grant to travel to [facility that had it] to complete my research.” “As leader of a group of N instructors, I led revisions to [course].”

5. Unless your research is directly relevant to the job you are applying for, the knowledge base acquired during your graduate work may well not be relevant to the job, either.  In those cases where it is clearly relevant, you should show that through your skills and experience: “My work with [large consumer datasets] to assess customer behavior enables me to support your strategic research team on [topic].”

6. The tools you used, particularly advanced research or data-analytics tools, may be relevant to an employer, and if they are will likely be specifically mentioned in the job description, particularly for entry-level research jobs.  You, however, will probably not mention these directly in the letter; more likely they will appear as a set on your résumé: “Experienced with SQL, mySQL.” Employers assume you know how to use a standard suite of office-productivity tools (Microsoft, Google, or equivalent).

7. Do not use the phrase “In my thesis, [title], I argue that…”  It bears repeating that your thesis is, as such, irrelevant to an employer, but the skills and experience (and, in some cases, the knowledge) you have gained while working on it may indeed be relevant.  Many graduate students have trouble not focusing on their theses, but its title and other details normally belong on a résumé, not in a job letter. Focusing on the thesis as the unit of meaning and importance is a sign to an employer that you are focusing on the habits and values of your old workplace rather than the one you hope to join.