‘Someone who can’… how to close-read your way to convincing post-PhD job applications

‘You might think, for example, that as a teacher you’re an obvious fit for a non-profit seeking someone with “great communication skills.” But unless you know what that phrase means in the context of the organisation, you’re likely to miss the mark when enumerating your specific talents.’

Dr Christopher L. Caterine

Photo by Wallace Chuck on Pexels.com

I haven’t talked about Elaine Showalter for a long time. A bastion of feminist literary criticism who coined the term gynocriticism, Showalter used to get at least a once-weekly name drop from me in my days as a literature student. My long-suffering seminar buddy Sean would role his eyes: ‘There you go with your Showalter again.’ Once, I think he may even described me as having ‘pulled a Showalter.’ Ah… simpler times.

Anyway, Showalter also has a lot to say on the teaching of literature. She draws particular attention to the act of close reading: of stepping back from the overarching narrative and paying closer attention to its constituent parts. Close reading, Showalter says, is ‘a form of defamiliarisation we use in order to break through our habitual and casual reading practices’ (2003: 98). A bit like the literary equivalent of active listening.

Do not adjust your screens… I haven’t turned this site into a literary theory blog overnight. The point here is that Showalter’s observations about the illuminatory capabilities of close reading might also have a lot to tell us about reading job descriptions: especially if we want to avoid ‘not hitting the mark’ as Caterine describes in our opening quote.

Here I go again with my tenuous careers-related analogies…….

Before you roll your eyes, think about it. Showalter suggests that we slip into ‘habitual and casual reading practices’ (2003: 98) that can lead us to miss more subtle meanings in what we read. For any of you currently job hunting post-PhD, this is worth a thought. As you’re sifting through reams of job ads, it’s easy for the positions you’re looking at to blur into one, and to miss some of the nuances between them as they do so.

This blurring means it’s easy for us to lose sense of the unique context of each different role. On the surface, a bunch of job ads that interest us may look like similar types of jobs asking for pretty similar skills. This is where we need to pay attention to those ‘habitual and casual’ reading processes that Showalter describes. For example, in my first post-PhD job hunt I was targeting several different sectors, but the same kinds of skills seemed to crop up in almost every person specification. The way I approached this was to say ‘ok, all these jobs are asking for communication skills, so I just need my one example of communication skills, and I can use that for all of the applications, right?’

Hmmmm… not so much.

Had I ‘pulled a Showalter’ when I needed to most, a close reading would have revealed that whilst one job in arts administration required the communication skills to effectively engage new audiences, another job in student recruitment required the communication skills to explain the benefits of higher education to young people. Both asked for ‘excellent communication skills,’ but close reading reveals that the application of these communication skills is slightly different from one role to another. This is exactly what Caterine means when he warns against taking a skill at face value (‘communication skills’) vs. considering what that skill actually looks like within the context of the role in question.

In close reading a job advertisement therefore, stage one is understanding what skills are being sought that will help you to do that job well. Stage two is to reflect on your experience, and ‘translate’ it into examples of these skills. Here, though, is a secret-ingredient-stage-three… to choose the examples that best demonstrate the application of those skills in ways that are relevant to the advertised job. Not only does this show an employer that you are aware of your own skills and value: it also implicitly demonstrates that you know what the role involves, and that you can relate to it.

Here’s my trick to help you push into this ‘extra’ stage three in your job applications. I call it the ‘someone who can’ method.

To introduce it, let’s look at an example of an Assistant Editor role with an educational publishing company. Now, when we’re applying for a host of jobs, there can be a temptation to skip over the job details and go straight to the person specification: the things that the employer is asking for. In this case, they are looking for someone to:

  • Have a strong academic background and awareness of the Higher Education environment
  • Have a superb command of written English and a sharp eye for detail
  • Have excellent communication skills
  • Have experience of the peer review process
  • Demonstrate market research skills
  • Demonstrate commercial awareness
  • Be enthusiastic, with the ability to thrive in a challenging environment

So let’s focus on one of the things they are looking for here: communication skills.

Fresh out of my PhD, what I would probably have done here is think ‘ok, from doing a PhD, I’ve gained communication skills. I’ve done loads of writing and presenting. That’s communication, right!’ So, in my CV for this role, to show my communication skills, I might have written something like this:

  • Produced an original 80,000-word PhD thesis, demonstrating excellent communication skills

But… if we heed Caterine’s advice and think about this skill within the context of this job, we need to tap into what this company really need us to be able to do in this job by considering the job description carefully. This job doesn’t involve writing academic texts; it involves analysing them, preparing them for peer review, and communicating with their authors. So, what kind of communication skills would be most useful in this particular role?

Here, we need to marry up the skills in the person spec with the job description. If we go back to the job details, we find the following:

Assistant Editor

The Assistant Editor provides valuable administrative and editorial support to the editors, and fosters strong working relationships with authors. Key responsibilities of the job include:

  • Competitor and market research
  • Management of peer review process for manuscript drafts
  • Analysis of reviews and manuscript drafts
  • Planning and preparation of material for websites that accompany textbooks
  • Communicating with other departments and with academic authors

Here we can see that they’re not just looking for communication skills in general; they are looking for someone who can communicate appropriately and foster good relationships with academic authors. So now we know the specific kind of communication skills they want, because we know who they want us to be able to communicate with, and in what context. Consequently, we can choose an example from our experience that best shows this, if we have one. Rather than the vaguer bullet point above, we now get something like:

  • Compiled proceedings for international Shakespeare conference to a strict deadline, by managing timely email communications with 12 academic authors from four different countries

Which is great, if we have ‘direct’ experience of what they are asking for, like this person who has clearly done quite similar work before, perhaps ‘on the side’ of their PhD. But what if our experience comes from a slightly different place? The we can still ‘translate’ this into the type of communication skills most relevant to this role. For example:

  • Negotiated with two academic supervisors from different disciplines to mutually agree on a research question, demonstrating ability to communicate effectively with academics

One way to do this is turn each of the requirements for the role from a ‘vague skill’ into a statement that starts with the words ‘someone who can.’ For example, the requirements said they were looking for good communication skills. But here, we see that this is because they want someone who can communicate appropriately and foster good relationships with academic authors. So, you can choose an example from your experience that best shows that you are someone who can do this. Let’s try that with their other requirements:

  • A sharp eye for detail = someone who can read academic writing and spot and rectify mistakes
  • Market research skills = someone who can research what other publishing companies are doing
  • Commercial awareness = someone who can show that they understand how publishing companies operate and make money

Then, we can think about which examples from our experience best show that we are someone who can do those things, making sure we echo the employer’s language and use the terms ‘eye for detail,’ ‘market research’ and ‘commercial awareness’ in our examples. And if the job description is vague and really gives you no clues? Then it’s time to go beyond the text, by talking to people already working in the industry about how they apply these skills, or setting up a pre-application call with the named contact on the job advert to find out more about the context of the role.

So, why is this all especially important for people with PhDs applying for jobs beyond academia? Well, if we look at a few reports on non-academic employers’ perceptions of candidates with higher degrees, high on the moan-list seems to be doctoral graduates’ apparent difficulties in conveying their skills to employers in relevant ways. For example, Rubio & Hooley surveyed 104 UK employers about recruiting doctoral graduates. They note several employers lamenting that candidates with higher degrees ‘often don’t seem equipped to answer questions about their skills’ (2010: 9). Meanwhile the NCUB found that nearly 70 of the 100 employers they surveyed for a similar report agreed that one of their main issues in recruiting doctoral graduates was their ‘inability to market skills’ effectively (2010: 11).

There’s something about this that makes sense; in academia we’re often taught to value our ‘academic outputs’ without reflecting on the skills that went into producing them. In this post though, we’ve gone one step further than communicating your broader skills to an employer; we’ve looked at how you can explicitly show them that you are someone who can do what they need you to do. And if you can show an employer that by activating your inner Showalter, then you’re much less likely to ‘miss the mark’ as Caterine warns.

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