Your PhD can be your strongest career asset

This post is by Owain Johnstone. Owain recently submitted his PhD thesis in Socio-Legal Studies at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford University. His research explores the role of the British state in influencing the social construction of ‘human trafficking’ since the first English law was introduced on the topic in the early 2000s. He can be found on LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/owain-johnstone-a1231344.

Is it just me, or does the end of the PhD sometimes feel like you’ve missed out on three (or four, or five) years of the career ladder that your non-academic friends have been busily climbing? Sometimes, when I occasionally contemplate leaving the academic bubble, I worry about having to start again from the bottom.

But I’m not sure I should. In fact, I think a PhD gives you a whole bunch of the sort of transferrable skills that are really valuable to employers. It might be difficult to see this from outside academia – a PhD can be a bit of a mysterious thing to the uninitiated – but that just means that we students need to make our case more clearly. So I’d like to start a conversation about what kinds of skills a PhD gives you that can be taken into the outside world – and that employers should value.

Here’s my list – feel free to add more in the comments!

Self-management

In a lot of disciplines, as a PhD student, you’re pretty much on your own most of the time. Apart from friends and family, nobody much cares where you are, how you dress, what time you work, whether you eat… So it’s down to you. If you don’t have plenty of organisation, drive, self-discipline and time management, you’re going nowhere. If you’ve managed to do a PhD it’s proof that you more than tick the self-starter box.

Expert Communication

As PhD students, we spend a lot of our time writing or presenting to different audiences in different formats. Whether it’s a departmental discussion group, a poster competition, a conference paper, or even just putting forward an idea in a seminar – we’re always thinking about how to get our message across to people who might not share our expertise (or our opinions). And this isn’t just about throwing words out there. We also network – a lot. We need to get our work noticed, so we spend a lot of time persuading people that what we do is really interesting and important. It might feel like an uphill struggle sometimes, but it’s a skill that a lot of other people don’t have.

Management of others

We don’t just manage ourselves – we manage others too. It’s helpful to think in jargon-y terms here. So we sometimes manage downwards (i.e. the traditional kind), perhaps if we’re leading on a conference or heading up a committee or society (it might be something as simple as being student representative). But we also manage ‘horizontally’, when we’re involved in collaborations (maybe organising a workshop or a seminar). Remember that time you convinced your co-convenor to go with your idea? That’s management. Even more importantly, we manage upwards. We manage our supervisors, our directors of graduate studies, our departmental administrators – the list goes on. Think about the last time you negotiated with your supervisor about what your next chapter will look like, or discussed their expectations for when you’ll have it ready.

Managing Money

We don’t have very much of it, and we’re always asking for more. As a PhD student, most of us probably aren’t putting our names to major research grants. But we are applying for fieldwork funding, travel or conference grants, book grants, support funds, scholarships, etc. We spend quite a bit of our time making the case for why people should give us money (including putting together budgets and plans) – and then accounting for how we’ve spent it.

Project management

Self-management is one thing, but it won’t get you anywhere unless you have a workable plan for a thesis project – and then actually carry it out. A three year project is a major undertaking. It requires a lot of forward planning to get right. Plus, things go wrong – holes appear in arguments, fieldwork arrangements go awry, new books get published while you’re writing – and your plan has to adapt to them.

Argument and analysis.

I’ve left this one until last because it’s the most obvious – but that’s not to say it’s not important. Every PhD student can construct and sustain complex arguments, ask interesting questions, and choose appropriate methods to answer them. It’s not just research careers where that’s important.

So there you have it – six reasons why any employer should jump at the chance of taking on a recent PhD. If you’ve done a PhD, chances are you’ve shown you can manage yourself and others, communicate complex ideas clearly, handle money and plan a long, difficult project. What employer wouldn’t want to hire someone with all those skills?

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24 thoughts on “Your PhD can be your strongest career asset

  1. I think this is really useful and there’s no doubt the PhD teaches us skills applicable to many employers. There’s another aspect to post-PhD employment however, that of those who already have significant work experience. I’ve just finished a PhD and want to return to work outside of academia. So far recruiters and managers in the corporate sector are treating my 6 years in academia (Masters & PhD) like I was either in a coma or in jail! It’s like the PhD discounted the 15 years of employment (which were in HR so I know how to sell my skills) I already had. I’d love to read some strategies as to how to re-enter the workforce post-PhD. I am so frustrated given I have so much more to offer than I did before I started my research.

    • I’d love to be able to give you strategies because our research on job ads clearly shows that people like you are what employers want (high level knowledge skills backgrounded by experience). However, I think there’s a lack of awareness about academia and some cultural issues that need closer examination. I need to do some more research on this, but stay tuned! I’m working on it.

      • It’s ironic as my work is on building successful careers. I have a feeling forging my own path will be the way. Look forward to the ongoing conversation.

    • That’s exactly where I am at right now. Also I did ‘work’ in a university as an RA and lab manager, managing fellows, budgets, inventory, fire safety, PI’s temper, but one recruiter said that does not count as real management. Really?

      • There’s a post on Thesis Whisperer today on skills learned from a PhD. The challenge is, as you have recognised, that recruiters (in particular) aren’t interested in skills really, they look at experience in the exact same environment as the job they are recruiting for. This leads to poor hiring in my opinion. Yes we need to sell our skills, but if the buyers can’t recognise them then we still lose.

    • I am in exactly the same situation as you Kim – I’ve applied for countless jobs outside of academia only because there are no academic jobs in my field of Geography being advertised here in Perth and all I have gotten are rejections for the past year. An entire year of no income after working really hard for a PhD. It’s awful.

      I’ve mainly applied for research positions in which I would be able to contribute my theoretical and practical knowledge but I have never even been shortlisted. I mean seriously, when it comes to research ….is there anything that trumps a PhD? I feel your pain, the struggle is definitely real!! I’ve even emailed academics within Geography at Curtin Uni and UWA and all I got was ignored, even though Curtin has a ‘lecturer’ within Geogrpahy and Planning who does not have a PhD. Pretty shocking! So with no hope of getting into academia even doing sessional work or getting a job outside of academia – not sure what options are open to me. What’s the point in the Australian Government funding PhDs when you can’t get a job after?? That funding should come with a guarantee of employment. Seems a waste really!

      • I’m really sorry to hear that you are experiencing this Teri – I think the problem is particularly accute in Australia. Countries like Germany have very open minded employers. I’d love to talk to you more if you want to email me? Hopefully I can help you think about how you are crafting your narrative (while being fully alive to the possibility that this is not the problem) but I’d also like to hear more about your experiences to help me develop this research: inger.mewburn@anu.edu.au (anyone else reading this with a similar experience is welcome to contact me directly too)

      • I’m really sorry to read this as I feel your frustration. We spend so much time getting the PhD only to find there’s nothing we can do with it!

    • Hi Kim, I am a PhD student of a new kind of doctorial training called CDT. They teach us how to be unique and make of your PhD a unique experience which makes you “special” when applying for job. Nature started their campain and teach students to have a life outside academia as only 3% of all PhD students end up gettinh professorships. https://teresuschem.wordpress.com/2017/10/10/life-beyond-phd-what-makes-you-unique/. I think the thesis whisperer should embrace the same spirit and make PhD students aware that they are much more options than post docs or jobs in the same field of study after PhD.

    • Absolutely – I’m in a similar position. I tried to keep up with some industry contacts during my Masters and PhD. And now that I’ve submitted my thesis and my time is more flexible I’m working a few days each month as a volunteer, to keep my skills and sector knowledge fresh. I hope this will help, but it’s early days yet…

      Like Kim, my long-term ambition is to build on my PhD *and* my professional background. I’m also thinking that forging my own path is likely to be the most successful route. I’d definitely be interested in more on strategies for this sort of career. (And happy to contribute to any surveys/discussion etc. if that’s helpful!)

      A general problem (especially for those of us in humanities subjects I think?) is getting non-academic people to see the PhD as professional qualification, rather than a hobby. At the moment I’m happy to do a little voluntary work, but ultimately I want to be paid properly for my skills and expertise!

  2. I would also add to the list long-term focus. In an age of twitter-esque snippets, to be able to focus on a project for 3+ years, find methods for keeping that in your head, and deliver a coherent account of the work is quite an undertaking. The other thing I have been contemplating lately, at the end of my candidature, is about having developed excellent chunking strategies – this is related to focus and your self management – but is the knowledge that no matter how large the task is that I’m to do in future, I’ll be able to desiccate it into manageable chunks and get it done. Thanks for your post!

  3. Pingback: Endings and beginnings | PhD 2017

      • Sorry this was my post before I signed up for an account – have emailed you already. Thanks Kim for your words and opening up the conversation – I imagine there are many many people in a similar position to us. Maybe we should start a union of unemployed PhDs or some sort of union that works with the government to get PhD graduates into industry. Australia seems to have a issue with people sitting in high positions even in Universities, without qualifications. I think industry are often intimidated by PhD graduates, might be the reason why it’s so difficult to get in. I’ve just recently been informed by UWA that they have no money to bring on new staff – absolutely shocking how few academic jobs there are available. The current job market as a PhD graduate is very very depressing.

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  5. I am going to play devil’s advocate here. While it is true that PhD graduates have many terrific, transferable skills, we can also pick up a lot of bad habits during long periods of academic isolation.
    A PhD program is not just about research and learning – it is also about socialization. We as students learn to emulate our academic superiors, many of (or, in some fields, most of) whom have never worked outside of academia themselves. In doing so, we learn to:
    -withstand withering criticism, and also to give it;
    -determinedly defend our convictions until the very end;
    -make decisions only after we have exhausted all possibilities; and
    -work independently, and not ask for help.
    Once outside academia, our hard-earned academic instincts may be seen by non-academics as a lack of perspective, and a difficulty working as part of a team.
    Serious food for thought. Now, to end on a lighter note:
    http://phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1804

  6. I have been in the corporate environment for more than 25 years and recently have been awarded my PhD in Behavioural Medicine, in which I spent six years immersed in study and observed academia up close.

    I didn’t find (my university at least) required any accountability from academics and any excuse seemed to be sufficient to extend deadlines or delay responsibility. Deadlines were missed, promises broken, documents lost – and these shenanigans were done by the supervisors! This sets the “tone” that delays, excuses and non-performance are acceptable.

    Academics are perfectionists, with ample time allowed for the absolute exploration of every minutiae of a project; whereas the corporate environment works on “good enough – due now”, and “get it out 90% right, and deliver immediately” kind of culture.

    I would be hesitant to hire someone who only had a PhD and no “real world” experience because they might not be able to deliver quickly or make decisions without all of the facts first.

    It is a huge cultural shift that some might not be able to make.

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