Graduation season is upon us — and that means approximately 700,000 U.S. students will be receiving master’s degrees and another 150,000 or so will be getting their doctorates. For some, the path forward is clear: the math experts will be snapped up by hedge funds, the software engineers will have their pick of start-ups, and elite investment banks and consultancies will duke it out for the top MBAs. But a significant number of those students will fling off their mortarboards only to find themselves bereft of job prospects.
Fourteen years ago, that was me. I was graduating with a master’s degree in theological studies; aiming for a career in academia, I had been utterly unconcerned about the practical applicability of my degree. But when I was turned down by every doctoral program I applied to, I suddenly needed a plan to earn a living. That led to a variety of professional adventures, ranging from journalism to documentary film-making to nonprofit management to serving as a presidential campaign spokesperson.
But one of the hardest parts of the journey was the initial step — entering the workforce after two years of rigorous graduate studies and explaining my degree (no, I wasn’t training to become a minister) and, even more critically, its value in the marketplace. If you’ve earned a graduate degree that puts you on a less-than-certain professional trajectory — one that naysayers may even declare “useless” — here are a few strategies that have worked for me.
The truth is, your subject matter knowledge may be irrelevant to anything going on in the business world today. Expert in ancient Roman politics? Biblical exegesis? South American literature? Anyone will want you at their dinner party — but maybe not working at their company. That’s why you need to emphasize your skills, not your content expertise. In college (studying philosophy) and in divinity school, I learned to read abstruse texts with careful comprehension, and fashion tight, logical arguments. That’s an applicable business skill, even if witty badinage about the writings of Thomas Aquinas is not.
Next, you’ll want to position yourself as a potential fount of innovation. How so? Check out the writings of thinkers like Frans Johansson, who argues in The Medici Effect that the best ideas arise from interdisciplinary intersections. You’re never going to win the argument that you’re better qualified than someone who has studied a relevant business discipline — or who has worked in the field for years. So don’t even try. You’re differently qualified, and your unique perspective may be just what the company needs to move to the next level.
You’ll also want to cite your work experience. Many graduate students serve as research assistants, teaching fellows, or writing-center tutors — and you may even have had internships in your field. Those provide valuable “real-world” credentials that will likely be more impressive to potential employers than your degree itself. Can you lead and inspire those in your charge (i.e., a classroom full of twenty skeptical undergrads)? Bridge cultural divides by enabling non-native English speakers to better express themselves? Solve difficult research challenges and unearth crucial facts? Those are abilities that any workplace would covet.
Finally, I’ve found that my theology degree serves another, unexpected purpose: it allows me to make meaningful connections with the people around me. Some could care less, of course. But others have a personal interest in religion or theology; when they find out about my studies, they’re eager to talk and share their own stories. I’ve seen personal sides of colleagues that never would have come out otherwise — their longing to find a calling, or their own faith journey. In a world where business is driven by personal connections, it’s been a powerful vehicle to engage deeply with others. Many people have strong feelings about, or interest in, religion. But even if it’s a shared interest in geography, or urban planning, or British literature, it can be a powerful way to cement a relationship.
In practical terms, my theology degree wasn’t relevant to my subsequent professional life (though I did finally make it into academia, teaching at business schools in addition to my work as a strategy consultant). But it was very relevant to my development as a human being. Grad school may or may not be worth it, depending on your individual goals and circumstances. But if you’ve taken the plunge and are now entering the work world, you owe it to yourself to make the best case possible in explaining its value to others.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on May 8, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.