A recent PhD grad in Sociology emailed me with the following question. Her academic advisor suggested she reach out to me for support in making the connection between her qualitative research and business leaders.
“I am a recent PhD grad looking to apply my skills outside of academia, and was wondering how can I prep for meetings with business leaders to discuss qualitative research and its benefits?”
I didn’t have the opportunity to ask this PhD grad any follow-up questions about the type and purpose of these meetings or to clarify what she means by “business leaders.” In my reply, I assumed she means employers and professionals she may meet through networking and job interviews.
Know what you do.
When speaking with employers and anyone outside of your discipline you must be able to describe what you do in clear, jargon free language.
Take a sheet of paper and draw three columns. In the first column, make a quick list of the type of qualitative methods you have used. Be as specific as possible here using the appropriate technical terminology that your discipline uses. In the second column, give specific examples of when you have practiced or used this method. Then the final column is where you write a general statement about when this method is best used to investigate or answer a research question. Draft this column using “plain language” that anyone outside of your discipline can understand.
Keep in mind that the way you and your discipline describe qualitative research and qualitative research skills may not be the same way nonacademics describe them, if they care about them at all.
Know what they do and how they do it.
Determine if and how your qualitative research is of import to these business leaders and their companies.
If these businesses conduct qualitative research or incorporate qualitative research methods in their work, there would be no need to describe the benefits of research. Instead, she would spend her time in meetings highlighting examples of her qualitative research skills, her approach to particular research projects, how she overcame any challenges faced during research or data analysis, and results or impacts of her research.
Here’s the thing. You cannot convince an employer that qualitative research is important to them. But you can translate the relevance of your wide-ranging skills to what they do.
Research the company of interest to find out what the business does and how they talk about their work. You can review annual reports, website sections called “our approach” or “our work,” white papers, project or product descriptions, etc.
Keep notes on what you find. Make a list of the activities employees carry out in their work and large–scale projects that the company drives. Do you notice any familiar or unfamiliar language the company uses to describe their work? You’ve just uncovered the language this company and your new target industry!! This information is golden. Knowing how this industry talks about their work, values and services/products helps you to speak the language of your new field and new colleagues.
Now look back at your list of qualitative research skills. Are there any similarities or relationships between your qualitative skills and the work this company does? If so, great! Match your relevant skills to your list of company activities and projects/products so you can see how your background corresponds to their work. If not, read on.
Highlight your transferable skills.
Research may be the most prominent skill set that you have used in your previous work. However, qualitative research may not be the most relevant skill that you have to offer a potential employer. There are related skills that may be more transferable to your new target career, and thus more relevant to people outside of academe.
This PhD grad can re-launch her job search by searching for employers and types of work that will utilize her other transferable skills. She will have a much more productive time (and much less headache) in conversations and interviews if she can highlight her strengths, transferable skills and relevant experiences, rather than try to convince an employer of the benefits of qualitative research.
*** If this PhD job seeker wants to do work where the primary job function is qualitative research or qualitative data analysis, then she should shift her job search toward organizations that place a high value on this skill. Think tanks, policy organizations, government research and some larger foundations are great examples of these types of organizations.
The career exploration and job search process is not a straight line. Just like a research project, they require you to gather information, assess that information and adapt your method or approach to yield optimal results.