How to develop transferable skills while studying for a PhD
You’re spending three years, or more, writing your PhD. And why? Hopefully, for the love of the subject. But then what?
At the end of our PhD, most of us hope to find work which relates to our research area. This might be in academia, either as a researcher or in teaching. Many of us will end up working in industry, or for a government or charity. On the other hand, you might be fed up with your research area and want to work outside it, or perhaps your research is in a field with few job opportunities, and working elsewhere is common.
The image of a PhD student can be someone working in a narrow field, gaining knowledge and learning techniques with limited application. But this isn’t true. As specific as your research questions may be, you are inevitably developing skills which are valued in the workplace, in or out of academia. And your time at university offers opportunities to gain additional experience and skills.
Which skills are employers looking for?
Some employers will be impressed that you have a doctorate. For many academic jobs, it’s an expectation. For many non-academic jobs, it may be regarded as inessential, or even as a waste of time. Whether you are trying to stand out from a crowd of other PhD-holders, or demonstrate that your time studying was valuable, you need to be able to point to the skills you have developed.
Job adverts usually set out essential and desirable skills. While these obviously vary by industry and by post, certain things are almost always valued: being able to manage your own workload or a whole project, being able to work with or manage others, being able to interpret and analyse information, good communication skills, and being able to work under pressure and to deadlines. If these sound familiar, it’s because they are skills you need to complete your PhD.
If you’re targeting a job in a particular position, or at a specific company, look at recent job adverts they’ve posted, and see how many of the skills they list you could confidently demonstrate. For those where you’re not sure, think about how you might get the experience through, or alongside, your PhD.
What transferable skills can you develop through conducting your research?
A PhD is a major undertaking: you conduct your research, then produce a lengthy thesis with limited supervision, meeting specific requirements, by a set deadline. You have to develop skills in project management, self-management and problem-solving. Depending on your research area, you might also develop specific skills which can be applied elsewhere, like the use of specific software, a strong understanding of the scientific method or interview techniques.
If you’re hoping to work in academic or industrial research, it’s clear how the skills you gain will be transferable. But almost any job will value your skills, if you describe them in the right way.
Every organisation wants to appoint someone reliable, someone who will show up to work and meet the expectations of their post, without requiring micro-management. If you have completed your PhD, where the expectations can be vague, there may be little pressure to show up to work on any particular day, and your deadline is years away, meeting the requirements of a regular job should be a breeze! Similarly, whether you will be managing whole projects in the job you’re applying for, a group of people, or just your own workload, the experience from your PhD will be invaluable. And regardless of what sort of problems might crop up in a post, your experience of analysing problems and solving them is transferable.
What transferable skills can you develop through writing your thesis?
Your thesis is a long and complicated document, in which you are describing and presenting your research and your contribution to your field. You might also get the opportunity to write journal articles, or even news articles. By the end, you have proven that you have strong skills in written English, in communication and presentation, and in project management. You can produce work which meets some very specific requirements, but which also conforms to fairly vague expectations.
While you might never again write anything quite like your thesis, you will have plenty of transferable skills. Being able to write to a high standard is vital in academic research and expected in academic teaching, but is also necessary in a wide range of other jobs. In some cases, you might need to convince prospective employers that your experience is in writing clearly, not using complex and impenetrable language. You could do this by pointing to things you’ve written for a general audience, or even just producing a great cover letter which uses straightforward language to show how your skills and experience meet all the requirements of the job.
If you’ve not yet had a chance to write anything other than sections of your thesis, it’s worth looking at opportunities to do so. Is there a student-run journal at your institution? You could write a short article for LinkedIn, or an academic blog in your area, or pitch something to a news organisation, like The Conversation. (If that’s of interest, take a look here.)
What transferable skills can you develop through presenting your work?
As a PhD student, you will almost certainly be asked to present your work. It might be to a panel of advisers, to a departmental seminar or at a conference. Wherever it is, you are developing presentation skills. You can explain a complex subject in a clear way, for a variety of audiences. You can put together a slideshow, or a poster, using graphics and text together to communicate your ideas in an appealing and well-structured manner.
If you are hoping to go into academic research, good presentation skills will be invaluable. But the same is true of many other jobs. If you are confident at presenting, you can communicate your ideas to your colleagues, or you can sell your ideas to stakeholders. Even your job interview is a type of presentation; with your experience, you can be that bit more confident than those applicants without your presentation skills.
If you’re not yet feeling confident in this area, start small. Take up the offer to present to fellow PhD students, or look for opportunities through your institution to get training. If you have a chance to present to the public, perhaps through events like A Pint of Science, TEDx, or the Three Minute Thesis, be brave and say yes to them.
What transferable skills can you develop through teaching?
There are lots of voluntary activities you can get involved with while at university, and teaching is one of the most valuable. If you can teach, not only do you have experience of presenting, but you also show that you can work with people, often from diverse backgrounds. You can understand people’s needs, and you can engage and inspire people.
If you’re hoping to go into academic teaching, getting this experience while you’re doing your PhD is invaluable. Some people love teaching, and others don’t, and now is the time to find out how you feel about it. But even if you don’t love teaching, the people skills you gain will be useful in any job where you work with trainees, with colleagues who might want to learn from you, or even with the public in general.
If you’ve not yet done any teaching, give it a go. Find out what opportunities there are in your department; these might range from demonstrating or assisting in a lecture, to leading a seminar or a lecture, or even developing your own course for your institution’s outreach programme. Even if you don’t love it, you’ll have a great new skill to add to your resume.
You are picking up and developing useful skills simply by conducting your research and writing your thesis. There are also great opportunities to gain additional skills by undertaking some voluntary activities. We’ve discussed chances to write, present and teach, but there are more. You could get involved with running a student journal or seminar series, get some relevant work experience, make connections with people in your field at conferences or through your research, or undertake voluntary work which builds on your research or interests.
Gaining skills so that you can have the career you want after your PhD needn’t feel like hard work. Find out what opportunities there are at your institution, or online, think about what would interest you, and what would help meet the requirements of the job you want, and then just give things a go. Your PhD is the perfect time to try some new things and gain skills which will benefit you in the future.
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