Following on from last week’s article, ‘Academia – Is it for me?’, this week, we will be focusing on how your PhD makes you employable. Identifying the skills and experiences that you learn over the course of a PhD and translating them into applications for jobs can be hard. However, there are many ways your PhD and your skills are highly valued by employers. Read on to find out why!
A PhD involves spending at least 3 to 4 years researching a specialist topic. By the time you submit your thesis and are preparing for the final viva examination, you will be an expert on your subject. It is during these closing last stages of your project that you may be considering your options after the PhD, and applying to a range of roles both within and outside of academia.
There may be concerns about finding employment after a PhD. Doctoral students are all too aware of the challenges of finding a role within academia. As a result, many researchers are searching for employment outside of the traditional post-doctorate, lecturer pathway. Sally Hancock writes that from a group of just under 5,000 UK PhD holders who graduated in 2008/9 or 2010/11, 70.1% have left the academic sector three and a half years after graduation (‘The employment of PhD graduates in the UK: what do we know?’, The Higher Education Policy Institute, February 2020). While the numbers of doctoral students who remain in academia vary depending on their PhD subject, there has been an overall increase in PhD students seeking employment outside of the institution.
Leaving the security of the academic path can be daunting, because it is often assumed that a PhD may leave you overqualified for many positions, or too specialised within a particular field. However, the process of undertaking a PhD enriches your professional skillset and provides many opportunities to showcase transferrable skills and qualities that employers find extremely valuable. Below, some of the top soft skills that employers look for are listed with examples of how you may have used them in your PhD.
Employers want to know that you can put ideas across clearly and that you are able to listen to others. During a PhD, you develop both written and spoken communication skills:
- Writing your thesis and research papers enhances your ability to clearly express your argument to a high standard. Research papers particularly develop your ability to explain complex ideas to a non-specialist audience
- Conference presentations require the effective delivery of a well written paper, often under timed conditions. Being able to answer questions on your paper and engage in discussion demonstrate effective listening skills
Resilience & Adaptability
Employers are keen to find out how you might deal with setbacks or things going wrong. At times, a PhD can be unpredictable and doctoral students need to be able to adapt and draw on resilience to be able to succeed:
- You have not obtained the results you were looking for and have to change the thesis as a result
- The dreaded moment where someone else publishes a paper on a very similar topic to yours, meaning you need to adapt your argument
- Life! Sometimes things don’t go to plan because of things outside of our control. Perhaps you may have had to deal with setbacks to funding, maybe the COVID-19 pandemic affected your project, or perhaps other reasons have meant you had to adapt your studies and change plan
Planning & Research
Being able to put together a plan of action, analyse processes and systems that are already in place and conduct research are vital skills that employers seek. Luckily, these skills are at the core of a PhD project:
- Planning a 3 to 4 year project from the very first term and developing your research structure shows that you are able to think ahead. Meetings with your supervisors and annual reviews are evidence that you can manage your project
- Creating effective research management and using reference organisation software or your own systems display your ability to gather materials. However, what is even more valuable is how you use these materials and analyse them. Research during a PhD is all about critical thinking based off your sources and considering how they fit within your project
Working alongside others is a given in the majority of roles, both within and outside of academia. Even though PhDs are often thought to be largely independent, there are many moments where you will find yourself working with others:
- Collaborating with other PhD students, your supervisors, members of your department, or academic societies and organisations to write a paper or hold an event (conferences, seminars, workshops)
- If your project involves surveying groups of people, you will need to be able to work with them to ensure you can get the data you need.
- Working on a PhD means that you will have at least one supervisor overseeing the progress of your project, and most of the time, they will be your closest team member as they guide you through your project and help you make decisions.
The ability to motivate others to achieve a shared goal and also the ability to self-manage and demonstrate your own time management and organisation are essential in any role, even if you are not applying for a management position. A PhD may give you several opportunities to develop your leadership skills:
- Teaching other students is a great way that you can show your leadership skills, because your role as a teacher is to inspire and motivate students in their learning. As an additional activity, teaching requires your time management and organisation to be of a high level.
- Organising an event necessitates leadership skills to ensure that you can successfully deliver.
- A PhD teaches and develops your self-management skills and the ability to ensure that you are organised, can effectively manage your time and prioritise tasks. As research projects are often individually lead, these skills are essential to ensure that you successfully complete your project.
This post has provided detail on how undertaking a PhD can teach and develop key transferrable skills that are valued by employers. It is important to know how to identify which of your skills and experiences translate into these valuable qualities that are sought after by employers. While your PhD activities will likely directly correspond to academic job roles, it is equally useful to be able to discuss your skills in a non-academic setting. If you’ve read, ‘Academia – Is it for me?’ or perhaps have already been considering a non-academic route after your PhD, keep an eye out for next week’s post which is all about taking your PhD outside of academia, and the options that may be available to you.
Domonique Davies is a full-time PhD student in the School of English Literature and Languages at the University of Reading. Her project, part-funded by the Reading Regional Bursary, looks at the relationships between 20th century poetry and the current ecological crisis. She works part-time at the University of Reading Careers Service as a Careers Information and Events Assistant.