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PhD Skills

Highlighting your PhD creative thinking skills.

Being creative and innovative is integral to completing a PhD as you seek to produce something novel for your field. This skill can be applied to a range of professions, careers, and future opportunities.

Embarking on a PhD is a once in a lifetime opportunity that will likely shape and mould the future of your professional life. A key benefit of doing a PhD is that it gives you a range of transferable skills which will inevitably follow you throughout your career(s). One of these core skills is the ability to be creative, think outside the box, and be able to innovate. Certainly, a lot of the elements related to being creative and innovative overlap with problem-solving skills. They do differ, but ever so slightly – maybe not enough for it to be a something to worry about, but we’ll define it anyway.

Problem-solving usually hinges on troubleshooting, asking questions, figuring out who to get information from, and just ‘finding a way’ to get things done. On the other hand, creative thinking can be thought of a as a different skill set because it can be used for different purposes. For example, you may use your creative thinking skills to solve problems. However, it differs from problem solving in this situation as you will most likely be creating a solution that hasn’t been done before. It’s likely to be novel or integrate a range of pre-existing ideas together in a way that makes sense. In lay terms, creative thinking relies more on abstract thought, being able to connect dots between things that don’t currently exist. You must pioneer your work, field, or topic area.

The main reason why almost all PhDs develop excellent creative/innovative thinking is because, by definition, a PhD is a novel contribution to its respective field. In order to complete your PhD successfully, you need to articulate and explain how your research is different. When you’re in full swing of your PhD this becomes almost automatic. Out for dinner with your friends, at a party and you’ve met some people for the first time, at a poster conference, basically almost anywhere. Explaining what your PhD is about eventually rolls off the tongue. Due to the novel contribution your PhD sets to produce, you will also likely need to integrate a range of concepts together. Often, PhDs build on the past literature or evidence base, but it’s quite common to extrapolate and apply previous work to your own, integrate multiple different concepts together to form a new theory or framework, or just produce something from scratch. All with the pressure of deadlines and publications.

Having the ability to be creative and innovative sets you up for success in the long-term. This skill is often why a lot of PhDs pursue careers or ventures in entrepreneurship. Being an entrepreneur is a role that is constantly changing and can look like anything you want it to. Typically, entrepreneurs are thought of as innovators, solving problems, creating new products or systems to address an issue. Similarly, being creative can help with other career avenues such as project management and consultancy. In consultancy you’re often provided with a range of abstract problems that need to be solved with innovative and creative solutions. More often than not, consultancy firms don’t hire PhDs for their domain specific knowledge (as you’ll likely never have a project that involves that hard knowledge), but instead hire them on their ability to be creative, think outside the box, and look at problems in a new way that hasn’t been done before.

Project management is a bit similar, in the sense of having to be creative, however these creative skills are applied in a different context. Typically, with project management you might need to find creative ways to be more efficient, manage resources and budgets better, or possibly even forecast potential issues that might arise in the future to be able to prevent them from happening in the first place.

These are just some examples, and your creative skills reach far beyond the usual ‘careers’ PhDs embark on once they graduate. Creativity can be applied to a whole host of professions, whether it be the ones mention above, or something completely different. As with any career change, it’s all about your transferable skills and what really matters is how well you explain why your creativity skills is relevant to the job in question. You can do this on your CV by emphasising your skills more, outlining it in your cover letter, on your LinkedIn profile, and of course at a job interview. Essentially getting the interviewer to understand the value of these skills is key, not necessarily having the right skills in the first place (which is where a lot of our focus ends up when we start job searching).

No matter what happens, creativity joins the long list of skills you possess which make you more employable outside of academia. Be sure to emphasise it as it could be the missing piece to finding your alternative career!


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