A recent post about curriculum vitae, specifically what to leave off of it, yielded the following question from a reader:
...One question I have is what types of professional experience does the academic community care to see with respect to those of us attempting to enter the field of academics from the work place?
What work experiences do graduate admissions committees seek on the part of applicants? This varies by field, but generally speaking most committees do not expect specific work experiences. Many applicants are finishing their baccalaureate degrees and are not yet in the workforce. So "work" experience isn't needed, but committees look for some experience in the discipline. For most programs that means research experience working with a faculty member, under supervision, or as a paid assistant. It may also take the form of applied experiences such as internships, fellowships, and volunteer experiences.
The degree to which applied experiences are valued depends on the discipline. Professional programs in fields such as social work, business, and nursing may place a higher value on applied experience than do doctoral programs that emphasize theory and basic science. One-on-one experiences with faculty such as independent studies and guided readings courses are also useful because they show that a faculty member invested time in you. Of course these experiences are enriching as well - and can give a faculty member something to write about in a recommendation letter.
If you have "real world" work experience, frame it in terms of what skills you have learned and demonstrated and how that translates into your ability to succeed in grad school and your chosen career. Although most graduate programs do not require work experience, some grad programs, particularly MBA programs, prefer more seasoned applicants - those with at least a few years of employed experience under their belts. Regardless, work experience can only enhance your application to any program, especially if you can discuss those qualities that translate into an academic environment, such as critical thinking, leadership, planning skill, and so on.