As group after group of new PhD graduates exit grad school we all come to the same conclusion in quick order: “I have no skills”. This realization typically occurs when we sit down to write a resume for the first time or possibly when well meaning parents ask: “So what is it you can do now?”. Do I actually know anything useful? — to which the answer is always “No, but I could find out”. Of course this is exactly what differentiates the [over-]educated from the trained. We can find things out, we can teach ourselves, and, in general, we have no fear of intellectual sources of information whether they are books or human experts.

Still, if we are trying to sell ourselves, our selling points are rather vague. Employers don’t hire for character traits like intelligence, persistence, creativity, curiosity, or < gasp > intellectualism. They hire for specific functions. Only if functions can not be supplied directly (by a college graduate with a bachelors and 3 years of experience) will they turn to the nebulous PhD graduate.

I am encountering similar problems in my sailing adventures. Finding a the equivalent of a “job”, that is, a crew position, is easy if you have skills. I have pretty much no skills. Fortunately, I have the equivalent of the right character, that is, I can swim, I’m athletic and fairly strong (for my size anyway), I’m flexible, laid back and intense (a strange combination), and I got drive. I have few particular skills though. I speak English (but so does everybody else). I speak a little German (but that is not so useful as French or Spanish would be) as well as some obscure language that is only spoken by 5 million people (no, it’s not Klingon), and I can cook. That’s it! However, this just makes me a wannabe(*) like a great deal of others.

(*) Writing articles on eHow has also made me realize how few skills I actually have. Based on what I have written about, here’s the tangible list of what I apparently know something about: hockey, bike repair, investing. The rest of my knowledge, aside from my education which is pretty much useless to everybody except maybe a handful of persons on the planet, is pretty trivial. Quite humbling, it is. The only thing I got going for me is a particular philosophy and certain character traits which apparently makes me unsuitable for the comfortable misery of long-term employment but pretty suitable for “grand challenge” problems, that is, things that others have given up on or say is impossible or at least very hard. You can never have it all. Anyway, …

On a boat one needs to have real skills. Therefore I need to acquire real skills. In particular, I need to get a HAM radio license. I should get a first responder certification(*), which is essentially a 40 hour long course in advanced first aid. If nothing else, these two certifications are generally useful anyway. PADI certification would not work against me. I think keelboat certification is a maybe. It would be nice, but apprenticing might yield the same kind of knowledge. Beyond experience in sailing something larger than 25′, other knowledge would include marine diesels, cabinet making, sail making, electric systems, refrigeration, and what have you.

These are all things I know very little about, but I bet I could find out.

(*) I’m having a hard time figuring out whether Red Cross in CA offers this. I know the local community college offers a one semester course leading to certification as a first responder. They even offer EMT-1.

Originally posted 2009-10-08 00:32:50.