PhD Skills

What are my transferable PhD skills?

Here we outline what transferable skills you’ve acquired throughout the course of your PhD and how this applies outside of academia.

After deciding to leave academia, getting in the right frame of mind or even considering leaving, the biggest question people struggle with is…

What CAN I do with my PhD?

This question is really daunting, at least for me it was. You think to yourself, ‘who’s going to hire an expert in *insert your PhD title here*?’.  Even if you think more broadly, your PhD might not even represent a specific industry, which makes your PhD feel useless outside of academia. However, I promise you this isn’t the case.

For most people, if not all, the PhD is actually a training course on how to do something to a better standard. That’s the main reason why you have a Viva at the end of it – to see if you are ready to continue studying or doing research in your respective field. Baring this in mind, you should think about what skills were required for you to complete your PhD.

Often people hyper focus on their hard skills, their expert knowledge, or other pieces of information that they believe to be essential to their PhD.  And in some respect, yes, this is a skill, but this isn’t your only skill. Being around academics, PhD students and other experts begins to warp your reality. Essentially, everyone you work with has a comprehensive or bigger skill set than yours and that makes you think you can’t do much in comparison. But in reality, when applying for jobs outside of academia you’re not competing with other academics, experts or PhD students necessarily, you’re competing with the rest of the population who do not have a PhD. So, in short, what are the general skills you needed to complete your PhD successfully?

One of the easiest ways to identify your skillset is to think about the individual projects within your PhD. For me, I had four distinct research questions I needed to address, and each project required a different skillset. Most of the time I was reading and synthesising large amounts of information, I had to think critically about the work, understand and interpret results, communicate my own findings to others, and in both written and verbal formats. Even managing these projects was a skill in itself. So, to identify what you want to do after your PhD, it’s essential to understand what you’re good at and maybe what you’re not so good at. Try to make a comprehensive list, and of course this will vary from person to person, but most PhD students possess a similar skill set.

As you probably have, I’ve searched endlessly for transferable skills PhD students have. But one of the most useful pieces of information I stumbled across was a paper published by Sinche et al (2017). It’s an evidence-based evaluation of the skills and job satisfaction of PhD students from a range of science backgrounds including life, physical, computational and social sciences or engineering from a range of universities from the United States. The good thing about this is that they’re all vastly different disciplines which means they will most likely transfer to other PhD disciplines outside the sciences. Not all of the data collected is from lab based or research focused PhD students.

In short, PhD students ranked all transferable skills higher than neutral, indicating that they had develop a broad set of skills during their PhD. These skills were:

  • Discipline specific knowledge
  • Ability to gather and interpret information
  • Ability to analyse data
  • Oral communication skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Written communication skills
  • Ability to learn quickly
  • Project management
  • Creativity/ Innovative thinking
  • Ability to set goals
  • Time management
  • Teamwork
  • Ability to work with people outside of the organisation
  • Ability to manage others
  • Career planning and career awareness

These skills were then compared to the competency needed for employment. Three skills of discipline specific knowledge (as expected), gathering and interpreting information and the ability to analyse data came out above the required standard. Five skills were significantly below the employment standard, specifically time management, teamwork, working with others outside the organisation, managing others and career planning/awareness. The remaining skills did not differ significantly from the employment standard – indicating a relatively level playing field.

Taking this into consideration – there’s thousands of jobs that require these set of skills. Also, these skills are not exclusive, additional skills I found myself possessing that are not mentioned above included:

  • Critical thinking
  • Interpersonal skills (I worked a lot with mental health patients)
  • Presentation skills (good ol’ conferences)
  • Intellectual curiosity
  • Data interpretation, analysis, management and visualisation
  • Research methodology (knowing how to plan and do research)
  • Recruitment (getting people to take part in research isn’t easy)
  • Ability to work under pressure
  • Facilitating groups/discussions
  • Quantitative and Qualitative analysis
  • Self-starter and the ability to work independently
  • Resilience and perseverance (PhD’s are a slog)
  • Organising, planning and logistics
  • Teaching and Marking (this mirrors leadership skills)
  • R and SPSS skills (these are hard skills, but may still apply).

Looking at this list, it’s better asking yourself,

What CAN’T you do?

These skills are applicable to a whole host of jobs. The tricky part is finding out what job you want to use these skills in and what you will enjoy. The same paper mentioned above by Sinche et al (2017) went on to evaluate job satisfaction in research and non-research careers. Most of the respondents were either satisfied or very satisfied with their career path. This also didn’t differ between research and non-research careers. So, whatever you choose, or wherever you end up, there’s a pretty high chance you’ll enjoy doing it. Not having the skills to do the job itself isn’t the challenge and besides, if you don’t have the skills to do the job, you’re a PhD student – you’re smarter and can learn quicker than the average person outside of academia – which means you’ll have no trouble picking things up on the way.

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