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PhD Skills

Emphasising your leadership and mentoring skills.

Leadership and mentoring skills are often hard to foster during a PhD due to limited opportunities. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t highlight it as a transferable skill or something you can consciously work on whilst in your PhD.

In almost every job you’ll be working within teams or collaborating with others. Sure, some jobs or career paths, like entrepreneurship, might be more siloed or autonomous, but nonetheless, to some degree or another you’ll need to work with others and demonstrate leadership and mentoring skills. Evidence relating to PhD students skills highlights that leadership and mentoring are often skills PhD students lack, or at least fall below average when compared to other non-academic professionals (Sinche et al., 2017). To some extent, this makes a lot of sense. Skills like your ability to work on a team, to work with people outside of your organisation, or even managing others, naturally don’t present themselves as opportunities during the PhD journey. In turn, it’s hard to develop these skills and be able to demonstrate them well through a CV or even a LinkedIn profile.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule and if you know that during your PhD you have had good opportunities to work on a team, work with external clients, and dabble in managing others you’re likely to already have leadership and mentoring skills down to a t. In which case, don’t be shy when it comes to highlighting these as transferable skills. As always, when it comes to career changing, the diverse set of skills is your unique selling point. Not necessarily being an ‘expert’ (I mean, who is an expert these days anyway), but your adaptability and flexibility to take on a range of challenges, problem solve, and of course learn incredibly fast. As a PhD, it’s going to take you significantly less time to get yourself up to speed, whilst offering a more impactful return on investment for the organisation who decide to hire you. That’s your angle. The tricky part is being able to convey that across in cover letters, CVs, and interviews

Leadership and mentoring are important for any organisation because people are ultimately always at the heart of everything. Being able to inspire, motivate, and encourage others is what it means to being a leader. Similarly, being able to mentor, support, troubleshoot and assist someone with their own personal development is great for any organisation. All in all, if you have your leadership and mentoring skills figured out, it’s likely to be reflective of your interpersonal skills and your ability to play nice/work well with others.

When it comes to conveying your leadership and mentoring skills to an new employer it’s important to draw upon any kind of opportunities that speak to these skills. Remember, non-academic people have no idea what a PhD or academic profession entails, so you do really need to spell it out to them. If you’ve been collaborating on a project, leading on your own research output, or even keeping your supervisor updated all speak to those skills. If you have also participated in other activities adjacent or in parallel to your PhD, be sure to include them as well. Things like teaching, mentoring, or supervising masters or undergraduate students can demonstrate your ability to manage and work with others well. The degree to which you emphasise these skills is always dependent on the role you’re applying for. Career paths that are going to be more siloed, roles that are more junior, or organisations that have a ‘flat’ hierarchy of employment (start-ups for example) are going to be less concerned about your leadership or mentoring skills as they’re likely to place more emphasise or screen of a different skill set.

Conversely, career paths like project management, or any kind of people management are obviously going to need to check your track record of good leadership and mentoring skills. Thinking about what the role is looking for, the skills needed to thrive in the role, and the core competencies listed in the job application are likely to give it away! These will in turn impact how you portray yourself, or present yourself in your CV, cover letter, and during an interview

If you’re still in your PhD first year, close to finishing, or already career transitioned out of academia and worry about your leadership and mentoring skills, don’t fret. There’s always time and opportunities to develop these skills, and it’s simply about being more purposeful in your current role. If you’re still in academia, it’s going to be taking on teaching if you haven’t already, taking more ownership of projects that involve a broad range of people, or simply developing and engineering opportunities to lead and mentor others. Similarly, if you’re outside of academia it could be things like taking on secondment management positions, providing more informal leadership and mentoring, networking, or again engineering opportunities where you get more exposure to leading and mentoring skills.

Much of this framework aligns with setting yourself up for success post-PhD. Throughout your career, especially whilst you’re in academia, the focus should be on acquiring new skills through exposure to different things. You never know what skills you’ll need in the future, so a nice broad range is always a good starting point! And as always, it’s about how you sell yourself not necessarily if you’re competent enough – because you definitely are if you have a PhD.


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