At one point in the CHE discussion on transferability of ideas across courses, a participant noted that students graduating from their program often expressed concern as to whether all they had taken added up to anything useful in the Real World. As conditions out there become increasingly difficult particularly for new graduates, this is a completely legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed explicitly by faculty (see Part 1 of this discussion.) But it also occurred to me that this issue of “how does what I know apply in other areas?” doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door, but is a continuing concern throughout one’s career.
At the moment, I am at the age of 69 and without a job for a substantial period for the first time in my post-college life. Interesting work opportunities have tended to present themselves at crucial points, and this has added up to a long and very interesting and varied career. This time, fate seems to be striking out; however, I’m not ready to pack it all in just yet. Thus, I’m trying to sort out just what I can do and why it might matter to someone. What may look to me like excellent qualifications for many different positions seem to look to many potential employers like either lack of focus or over-qualification. I’ve put my name in on perhaps 25 different opportunities, and have yet to receive even a nibble. This tells me that my experiences, and by extension the presumed skills that I would have to have to have done what I have done (wow, that’s quite a tongue-twister!) count for just about diddly. Obviously, I’ve been able to transfer ideas and skills between different kinds of organizations and across industry, government, and university sectors, but I have yet to figure out how to reflect this in a way that’s meaningful to my potential next employer.
It’s very similar to the plight of the brand new graduate trying to reflect how their education qualifies them to do anything. The broader the scope of what they’ve studied, and presumably their ability to transfer ideas and skills among different environments, the less focus they seem to have. Likewise, my highly varied and diverse career seems to look like dilettantism, and fails to appeal to employers looking for a specific kind of person. I never thought that being a polymath would actually work against me in the marketplace. Demonstrating the value of transferability requires actually getting in the door – and that’s hard to do in a workplace increasingly focused on specific skills.
I’m not complaining here, or whining about how potential employers aren’t giving me a fair shake or properly attending to my credentials; I’ll do that on my own time, not yours. What I’m simply posing here is the idea that developing generalizable and transferable skills across one’s career is very like developing generalizable and transferable ideas across a student’s program of study. The difference is that in the case of the student, the burden for development of transferability lies on the faculty teaching him/her; in the case of the mature professional, the burden lies on the individual to develop and demonstrate such skills. The paradox is that the more varied one’s career may be, the less valued transferability may be to potential employers.
I’m trying to develop a way of understanding and describing myself that portrays my set of varied professional experiences as adding up to something rather than as a lack of focus. Any thoughts and suggestions that you, my dear readers, might have on this issue will be warmly received and attentively respected. Thanks!