Re-Branding Yourself for Non-Academic Careers

By Anders Wallace

Your professional brand is about how you want to be perceived in your chosen field. This might be the field you are currently working in, or it could be the field that you are targeting to transition into. This blog post discusses strategies for re-branding yourself for employment in the non-profit or for-profit world, and is adapted from advice by career transitions expert Richard Montauk (author of the book How to Get Into the Top MBA Programs).

What does a grad student connote for non-academic employers? Fairly or unfairly, some of the following stereotypes about grad students might be used against you, regardless of your actual merits:

  • They hate profit
  • They love knowledge
  • They’re not practical-minded
  • They’re politically leftist
  • They’re moralizing
  • They’re arrogant
  • They expect to start at the top
  • They’re not team players
  • They’re elitist
  • They’re not results-driven
  • They’re easily bored
  • They’re contentious
  • They’re passive not proactive

It can be frustrating but important to be aware of these frequent stereotypes about graduate students. Moreover, this awareness is key in terms of how you can re-brand yourself to show your abilities while assuaging employers’ potential biases.

It’s useful to think about re-branding yourself as a process involving two interrelated areas: the “product” (your skills, abilities, and passions) and the “marketing” (your professional self-presentation, communication or “soft skills,” and social network).

The “product” comes before the “marketing.” Analyze your weaknesses and what you need. Here are some possible gaps that you might want to address:

  • Brand name credentials in work-relevant areas (companies or universities)
  • Skills (practical competencies)
  • Knowledge (expertise and training)
  • Network (your social circles)
  • Self-confidence (perceived self-efficacy)
  • Manifest commitment (passion).

Once you’ve brainstormed your potential weaknesses, think about showing—or going out and obtaining—experiences that will address your weaknesses. These might be things like education, work opportunities, internships, job shadowing, volunteering, or extracurricular activities.


Gaining Experience

Consider auditing a university or community college course, or taking an online course, to gain a credential in a useful area for your career search. Along with internships and extracurricular activities, online courses can be a good way to gain new skills and change your image. In addition, many online courses now incorporate a community aspect, which can be a good way to network with other learners either online or through course-affiliated meetups in your area. In addition, highly-ranked universities now offer online certificate programs for professional studies. Check out offerings from University of California Berkeley, Harvard, UCLA, and University College London. You can also earn certificates through trade associations (for example, the Chartered Institute of Marketing).

Bear in mind that certificates become a more powerful credential when done in combination with some real-world work experience on the side. This shows that not only are you accredited, you are also proactive and achievement-oriented. You want to present yourself as adaptable and results-oriented.

Overall, the most valuable experience is practical experience, especially full-time paid experience. For graduate students especially, it can be useful to use your teaching experience to demonstrate your energy, attitude, and commitment to your work projects.


Showing Experience You Already Have

Other than looking for relevant activities, start looking at your record for evidence of effort and commitment you’ve already invested: courses you’ve taught, extracurricular activities you’ve engaged in (including conference participation and committee service), publications and presentations, and so on. Make sure to frame these activities from the following perspective: What skills and abilities can you demonstrate, and how can you demonstrate them?

Showing evidence consists of presenting things like:

  • Stories (overcoming challenges and achieving results)
  • Dates (duration of a completed project)
  • Outputs (accomplishments, tangible results)
  • Management of people/projects/budgets (displays of responsibility)
  • Attitude (concise, fact-based, and optimistic writing style)
  • Credible references

Frame your abilities using these elements, and repeat this evaluation cycle with all of your full-time work experiences and internships. Anything that connotes project management is useful.

Also, it’s important to reformat your CV as a resume. Unlike an academic CV, with a resume less is more. Be concise and efficient in what you communicate. Formatting your resume in this way demonstrates that you can organize and prioritize. After each job title and description under the category of work experience, mention your achievements as a way to demonstrate your skills and competencies.


Tips and Advice

Consider joining professional organizations (for example, the American Marketing Association) at the student-rate membership to gain exposure to news, trends, and upcoming events or webinars in your desired profession.

Make sure you have credible references who can speak not just to your intellectual acumen, but also to your skills, effectiveness, and personal qualities.

It’s also smart to treat any job seriously, even an interim job. Colleagues or supervisors may turn out to be valued mentors, or useful references for future employment!


Works Cited:

Montauk, Richard. “Rebranding Yourself.” Retooling Your PhD 2014 with Richard Montauk. Workshop held at the CUNY Graduate Center on 5/15/2014.