PhD Skills

The core skills every PhD student has.

All PhDs go on to develop a core set of skills no matter what the subject discipline. The combination and integration of these core skills can open a range of opportunities and career prospects. We must first identify them, and then emphasise them.

At some point, there comes a time when we all start searching what we can do with our PhD after completing. In doing so, it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll come across a range of jobs. More often than not there are a few consistent offenders. Consultancy, project management, research & development, and/or communications officer are a few of the popular ones. The reason that these careers come up is not because of your domain-specific knowledge, it’s because you possess core skills that have been developed from your PhD programme but are highly transferable to these specific industries.

Certainly, these core skills are not only applicable to these careers – if anything you can apply the vast majority of your PhD skills to almost every job. The difficult part is first recognising what your core skills are, and then searching for roles that need them. Throughout this blog we’ve focused on outlining the importance of these transferable skills, with specific posts dedicated to them individually. You can read more about these specific skills elsewhere on this blog, but this post seeks to go one step further to highlight not just that you have these skills, but it’s the holistic combination of them all that really matters.

When we think about the ‘core skills’ all PhD students possess, without question it includes problem-solving, project management, creative/innovative thinking, communication skills, self-resilience, your ability to write, general research skills, and being an excellent learner. In isolation, each of these skills offer you merit and can give you an edge over other candidates so shouldn’t be downplayed. These core skills each have their own use case and it’s really important that this is demonstrated and articulated throughout the job search process. This might include outlining these skills on your CV, LinkedIn, cover letter and especially at an interview. Like anything you talk about, it’s always good to include examples and provide working case scenarios where this has been demonstrated. Once again, these examples serve the purpose of emphasising and making it clear that these are skills you possess and can be drawn upon again when needed. To read more about how and why these skills are relevant, be sure to look through our ‘PhD skills’ section on this blog.

To take this one step further, it’s important to understand how rare these skills are when combined with one another. It’s not too often that someone has excellent problem-solving skills whilst also being a great communicator. You could find someone who has great self-resilience and is willing to ride out problems at work, but this may not come with excellent writing skills which are needed for documentation or reporting for instance. The more and more skills you possess the harder it is to find someone who can integrate and apply all of these to a novel setting. These core skills increase in value if you’re also able to pair them with other skills not listed here. Things like data analysis, domain specific knowledge, or other hard/technical skills needed for a role for instance.

One of the main stumbling blocks PhDs or academics face when embarking on a career transition or moving away from academia is being able to communicate and articulate this effectively. Usually, PhDs spend too much time emphasising what their PhD was in exactly, what the key findings were and how this has contributed to research. Similarly, they may place too much focus on the number of publications they have – providing the full reference(s), impact factor(s), journal name(s), and the respective authors. This ultimately takes up too much space on a recommended 2-page CV whilst not adding much value to people who work outside of academia.

Simply having publications helps demonstrate your research and writing skills. If they want/need to know more about your publications, they’ll ask at an interview in which case you can provide the specific information here. The same also applies for grant awarding’s and other niche activities that you complete during your PhD. If you’re really concerned about cutting this out from your CV and applications, you can provide a supplementary file that lists all these additional contributions. This supplementary file should act more like a portfolio as opposed to your main job application.  

The most effective way to do this is to make use of what’s known as a skills CV (check out our free template if interested). This helps draw attention to your core skills, bringing them centre stage, helping to prevent them from being missed or overlooked by a potential employer. Positioning and marketing yourself in this way may feel quite unnatural. Typically, PhDs are taught to be hyper-specialised with an extremely niche focus in a specific subject. What gives you credibility in academia, isn’t the range of skills per se, it’s the depth of knowledge in a particular domain. Conversely, your best vehicle to achieve social mobility and employment outside of academia is to position yourself as a jack-of-all trades – not a specialist. This is your marketing piece.

Sure, this may feel unorthodox, but if you aim to position yourself as a specialist as you career change, you’re likely to run into some challenges. Other candidates who you will be competing against may not have a PhD, but they’re likely to have more relevant experience in that specific sector. In other words, those who have more direct experience to the position are going to be perceived as more ‘specialised’ than you. However, if you demonstrate that you have more skills relevant to the role than other candidates it’s a lot easier to communicate that you would be better at the role.

The goal is to stand out, not blend in

In short, all PhDs come out with a core set of skills – no matter what the subject discipline is in. These core skills can be easily overlooked, so it’s your responsibility to bring them to the forefront and position yourself in the possible way to achieve success. This isn’t necessarily an easy concept to wrap your head around, so do take some time to pinpoint what your core skills are and then leverage them as much as you can.

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