Translating academic experiences into business language (opinion)


It’s become cliché to tell graduate students and Ph.Ds leaving higher ed to translate their academic experiences into terms business and industry employers will understand. That is often presented as the first step of converting an academic CV into a résumé.

Such advice is sound. However, few people who give it appreciate the monumental challenge this translation presents many graduate students and Ph.Ds, particularly those who have spent most of their adulthood thus far cocooned in the academic cult and who may never have written a nonacademic résumé in their lives. .

To translate is to overcome a language barrier. Academics are advised to translate from their native tongue—”academese,” let’s call it—to the language of the country to which they seek admission, or “businessese.”

But how can one translate into a language they’ve never spoken, originating from a land they’ve rarely if ever visited? How can one speak to the wants and needs of nonacademic employers with whom they hardly ever interact?

Graduate students and Ph.Ds are often told that, by virtue of their writing and teaching experiences, they possess strong communication skills. That is true in the narrow sense—that they are fluent in their native disciplinary dialect of academia.

But businessese is another language. It has its own unwritten rules, its own tacit assumptions and cultural norms, its own criteria for effective communication. The difference between academic and business is a profound lesson that far too many academic expatriates learn the hard way: through flubbed phone screens, wallpapers of rejected résumés and the screaming silence of an empty inbox the week after the final round of interviews.

Academese-to-Businessese Translator

This table is designed to make the translation process as straightforward as possible. It is intended to help graduate students, Ph.Ds and anyone else leaving higher ed begin to surmount the academic/business language barrier. It may be especially useful for writing a nonacademic résumé, building a LinkedIn profile or formulating answers to common interview questions.

Academese

Businessese

I wrote a dissertation, published a book or conducted some other major research project.

  • Conducted a multiyear research project that resulted in an X-page dissertation/book and multiple public presentations at national and international conferences.
  • Managed parallel, long-term research objectives and synthesized them into a large-scale research report.
  • Took ownership of all phases of content production and optimization including planning, information gathering, writing, reviewing, editing and final approval.
  • Effectively communicated with stakeholders and cross-functional teams comprising X, Y and Z.

I published in scholarly journals.

  • Published X articles in peer-reviewed journals while balancing multiple priorities in tight timelines.
  • Conducted research and communicated key findings and insights to subject-matter experts.

I received fellowships, grants or awards.

  • Secured over $X in funding from home institutions as well as multiple international organizations.
  • Produced high-level overviews of research projects. Summarized key project details while articulating broader significance to various organizations and stakeholders.

I presented at conferences.

  • Organized X panels and gave Y public presentations at national and international conferences.
  • Effectively communicated complex ideas to diverse audiences, including non-native English speakers.

I taught or TA’d courses.

  • Managed over X students across Y course sections. Tracked learning objectives and devised criteria to evaluate student success.
  • Planned and presented over X lectures of one hour each on a wide range of topics, communicating complex ideas to diverse audiences with varying degrees of preparation and familiarity with subject materials.
  • Boosted course retention rate by X percent over a Y-month period.
  • Exceeded college averages in content comprehension and overall student satisfaction by X percent. (Course evaluations may help quantify this.)
  • Evaluated and provided critical feedback on over X assignments.
  • Expressed complex ideas to students clearly and diplomatically. Provided ongoing constructive feedback on assignments, resulting in improved writing and analysis.
  • Coordinated teaching assistants and administered midterms and final exams.
  • Conducted games, debates and other interactive and engaging learning activities.

I designed my own courses or programs.

  • Designed and directed in-person and remote courses. Developed examination and essay assignments to assess student understanding and critical thinking.
  • Devised appropriate learning activities based on course requirements and learning objectives.
  • Proposed and negotiated structural revisions for university programs that cover X course sections per year, delivering Y percent course fill rate.
  • Collaborated with faculty and the department chair in overhauling the program’s flagship survey course delivered to over X students.

I tutored, worked with or assisted students in some other capacity.

  • Tutored students to significantly boost overall course grades by X percent.
  • Managed a class of X students during an intensive Y-week summer session comprising over Z hours of instruction.
  • Coached and mentored student/faculty liaisons and trained students for professional success.
  • Delivered X hours of instruction via e-learning and learning management systems (Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, etc.).

I was department chair, graduate student liaison or some other admin role.

  • Served as X for the Y department at the University of Z.
  • Assisted in boosting enrollment/course retention/student completion by X percent over a Y-month period.

These bullets are designed to be imported into the “Experience” section of a résumé. However, they are not set in stone. If you use this table to write a résumé, tailor each bullet to your circumstances as well as to the jobs you are applying for.

Start each line with a strong action verb, ideally one that conveys an improvement of some kind: “boosted,” “exceeded,” “overhauled” and so on. Add numbers wherever possible: students taught, funding procured, percent improvement and the like. Numbers provide a concrete measure of professional achievements. If you don’t have exact numbers handy, take a ballpark guess.

You can expand or combine many of these bullets into STAR stories to be deployed during a nonacademic interview. If you’re unfamiliar with the STAR method, an interview technique that provides a format for telling a story by describing the situation, task, action and result, see this article. STAR is by far the most common structured interview method. If you’re seeking to break into business and industry, keep two to three STAR stories in your back pocket at all times.

To sum up, in all stages of the job search—résumé writing, interviewing and beyond—translating academic experiences into business and industry terms is essential. Effective communication requires more than writing and public speaking skills. It requires the ability to address an audience in their own language, using familiar terms to articulate their wants and needs while heeding the tacit assumptions and cultural norms behind everything said. Translating is possible, and experience is the best teacher. This table is only meant as a starting point.



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