PhD Skills

Affirming your PhD communication skills.

A PhD fosters multiple opportunities to develop your written and verbal communication skills, which can be leveraged when seeking post-PhD careers. This post provides examples of how to demonstrate these skills and make them more tangible.

One of the core competencies all PhD students go on to develop is their communication skills. When looking to transition away from academia, not do a post-doc, or possibly stay within academia – your communication skills are certainly something to leverage to your advantage. Communication skills can, on occasion, be overlooked as a skill in and of itself – especially in academia.

Being a good communicator is essential to doing good research, and fortunately enough, the academic world does quite well at reinforcing these skills and giving you opportunities to develop and practice them. When looking to industry, communication skills are highly sought after and in fact can be the decider when hiring someone for a role. The caveat with communication skills is that it’s almost an intangible skill. It’s really difficult to conceptualise, emphasise at an interview, or even leverage as a selling point. Most employers expect this skill to the point where they often fail to outline or define it. It’s a pre-requisite, and if you don’t have it, you’ll most certainly struggle post-PhD and possibly throughout your career.

‘Communication skills’ is also a broad term which doesn’t help with providing an outline either. Typically, communication skills can be broken down into other skills, such as written communication, verbal communication, and non-verbal communication. For each of these, we’ll break them down in more detail and identify working examples from your PhD which you can use to demonstrate each one.

Firstly, written communication shouldn’t come as a surprise. As part of the PhD, a core feature includes writing and consolidating your research into a variety of formats. These written formats are of course intended for a certain audience, and therefore you’re having to communicate a certain set of findings into a coherent narrative. Typically, careers outside of academic settings do not require writing to this standard. Certain roles are heavily report focused but even then, the standard and detail required for them vastly differs from a PhD. Ultimately, writing a paper or even your thesis will likely be the biggest and largest piece of writing you’ll ever have to do.

Once you’ve been able to write this, everything else that follows will be a walk in the park. The best way to demonstrate your written communication skills is through publications – you don’t necessarily need to provide the full reference or explain what it is you’ve published in your CV or at an interview, but just emphasising the fact you have a publication in an academic journal is one of the most efficient ways to demonstrate your written communication skills.  

In the instance you were not able to publish during your PhD, all is not lost. You can still demonstrate your written communication skills for any other documents you’ve had to write. This could include things like ethics applications for research, research protocols, standard operating procedures (SOPs), or any other comms that have gone out as part of research dissemination. This might look like blog articles or newspaper articles. Certainly, outputs such as ethics applications and research protocols align more with STEM PhDs. For non-STEM PhDs, you will still have a lot of evidence. Reflective pieces, written summaries of work, blog posts/newspaper articles again, or any written feedback you’ve given to students if you’ve had a teaching position alongside your PhD all count.

A key one for all PhD students is conference posters. Yes of course, a poster is supplemented with oral presentation skills but being able to summarise a piece of work into a one-page poster is still written communication. Posters should still be interpretable and readable just from the text and images provided. In essence, being able to produce a good poster is another written output that can help demonstrate your written communication skills. Compared to those from non-academic backgrounds, you’re likely to have more evidence to emphasise this skill, so don’t undersell yourself.

The next core piece of communication skills is your verbal/oral communication. Just like written documents, you are likely to have a range of evidence to demonstrate this. First at foremost, your verbal communication will likely be assessed at a job interview – this is important to be aware of and you shouldn’t take it lightly. Having good interpersonal skills is also a by-product of having good verbal communication skills. Additional opportunities to demonstrate your verbal communication skills reside in common PhD activities.

We’ve already discussed how a poster presentation is a good demonstration of your written skills, but also interacting with an audience, talking them through the presentation, and simply engaging with them in a conversation is the perfect way to make your verbal skills tangible. Similarly, presenting at conferences, delivering seminars/webinars, teaching a group of students during your PhD, having supervision with your supervisor, explaining complex problems and the appropriate solutions are also great ways to demonstrate your verbal communication skills. The list goes on. Essentially, any time you’re having to explain your work to someone, it counts. Even 3-minute thesis sessions (where you have to summarise your PhD in less than 3 minutes), is a great way to demonstrate your verbal communication skills. There’s bound to be more examples where these come in to play, but just like your written communication skills, don’t undersell it. Within industry, people have a hard time explaining abstract or complex problems. By now, or at least at the end of your PhD, this will feel second nature to you. For all careers, being able to explain clearly what you’re working on, what you’ve found, and any challenges is an integral skill to have.

The last piece for communication skills is non-verbal communication. This one is slightly harder, and in all honesty may be better to explain this more as your interpersonal skills. Non-verbal communication is everything that happens in a room with another person when you’re not speaking. This includes the subtle things like smiling, nodding, having good eye contact, your tone of voice, your body language, and a whole host of behaviours which we often don’t think about. The reason these skills are important is because it helps build rapport. When interacting with others, rapport is that process where you’re able to develop trust and friendship with someone else. Being the best written or verbal communicator can become redundant or at least less valuable if you’ve got bad non-verbal communication skills. Being able to interact with someone so they feel heard and listened too, without feeling judged or rushed is essential to having good communication.

This one is difficult to demonstrate with tangible evidence, and instead is likely to be assessed at an interview or during informal/casual day-to-day interactions. You ever heard advice to interact positively with everyone when you turn up to an interview? That’s why. It’s important. If you’re able to build rapport with an audience or another person, it can help make up for any mistakes or errors in your written or verbal communication. It’s a lot easier to overlook someone’s flaws if we find then likeable or are invested in who they are as a person. Any time you’ve interacted with your supervisor, other PhD students, worked in a team, engaged with research participants (if applicable), or had informal talks with people at your institution or outside your institution, you’ve had to utilise your non-verbal communication skills.

Overall, being able to demonstrate these three communication skills is likely to bolster your employability. Being able to communicate your written and verbal communication skills (ironic right) on a CV, in a cover letter, or on your LinkedIn profile is always advisable and shouldn’t be overlooked. For careers that are not as closely connected to your PhD, demonstrating your suitability to the role and your transferable skills should be your angle, and if you do this well enough, employers are less likely to be concerned about your technical or domain-specific knowledge. As always, your transferable skills are your selling point, and you should always play to your strengths.

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