I just got off a coaching call1where the key outcomes included identifying five transferable skills and then how they can be used to move forward.
Followed by identify future industries or employers who might be interested in hiring you based on your PhD experiences and/or research findings.
I thought these would be useful topics PhD students, those considering a PhD as well as recent graduates thinking about their future career options.
The coming blogs will:
- List some transferable skills most or all PhD graduates have or could expect to develop (this blog).
- Provide a way to identify your specific transferable skills.
- List some generic industries that employ PhD graduates.
- Provide a way to identify industries that might employ you specifically.
Common transferable skills listed for PhD students include:
- Problem solving: this should be the number one reason you do a PhD (not to get a job in research, but). You PhD should be all about developing your ability to identify a problem and then subsequently, develop and refine your ability to solve it. Be careful that your PhD does not cover the ability to identify problems. Be careful that you are not told how to solve the problems, but that you work your way (in collaboration if needed) through the problems of your PhD.
- Project Management: Overseeing the conduct of a project. From start to finish. Be mindful that not all industries view Project Management in the same way. Some like the use of formal project management methodology (e.g. PRINCE2, Waterfall, PMBOK, Agile, Scrum). If these terms aren’t familiar to you – google them and read more about them before you say you can do project management. Also, be mindful that most project managers like to stick closely to time and budget. Both of which are often missed within research and PhDs.
- Written communication: Putting your thoughts or actions into a written form. This is mostly based on journal article and grant writing. Thus, I would prefer to qualify this as technical written communication, rather than written communication. Understand that there are many types of written communication and that some are more transferable than others. For example, blogs, social media and reports to non-research stakeholders are probably more valuable if you’re not intending to stay in academic research long term.
- Oral communication: Conversing with your colleagues (other students, Post Docs, Collaborators and supervisors) about your research. A large amount of research is collaborative and conducted in groups. Thus, a large amount of communication is conducted orally/verbally. In many cases this is technical, but it isn’t always. To broaden this out, talk to non-research stakeholders (e.g. parents, friends and relatives not in your field) about your work. The more you practice, the better you become a clear verbal communication. Don’t be satisfied if at the end of your speech their eyes have glazed over. You haven’t done a good job if that is the case. Re-think what you said and try to improve the next time.
- Presentation skills: This combines oral and written communication into an audio-visual presentation of your work. That could be talking about your thesis (aka thesis defence); it could be your confirmation of candidature or second year presentation (often made in front of a learned but unfamiliar audience). It could even be a graphically designed report. It relies on being able to identify, structure and subsequently present an argument and the associated story of your work.
Written communication is a
transferable skills. But be careful you
don't mean technical writing
Skills that are transferable, but often missed:
- Tenacity: Perseverance through adversity. Not many people stick with one project for a year, let alone three years or more. The ability to stay focused for that long on one thing. On answering one question. That is immensely valuable to potential employers. For some, this could also extend to specific examples within your PhD. These include the number of times you need to perform an experiment in order to have an appropriate sample size. How long an individual experiment takes. The time required to sit at a machine, scope, bench, camera etc to record the data you needed.
- Collaboration: Builds on the oral communication skill listed above. However, recognises that communication is two-way. It is about following orders (also called follow-ship), as well as giving orders (also called management and sometimes called leadership). It is about knowing when to challenge an idea and when to get your head down and work. It is about dividing up tasks to make their completion easier, faster, cheaper or more efficient in some way. We hear a lot about how research could learn a lot from industry. To me, collaboration something that the research sector could easily claim it does much better than the non-research sector.
- Comprehension: Rapidly finding, assimilating and interpreting new information. Particularly in the context of an existing system, process or knowledge. Throughout your PhD you have likely learnt new skills, found new information, developed a new understanding. This ability to update your thinking is valuable to potential employers.
- Qualitative and/or Quantitative analysis: You’ll need to be good at one or both of these for a successful PhD. Qualitative and/or quantitative analysis are a cornerstone for business decision making. The major difference is the amount of certainty required in order to make a decision. In research, almost 100% certainty is required. In business, you only need to be more certain than your next best option. And therefore, an acceptable level of certainty could be lower than 50%. Its also not likely to be called qualitative and/or quantitative analysis. It is more likely to be called business analytics, business decision making, risk analytics or risk planning.
- Software use: you’ve probably become particularly good at various office-type software packages covering word processing, spreadsheeting, presentations. For those people entering the workforce direct from their undergraduate training they have not been forced to use some of the more advance (yet time-saving) features of these programs.