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!
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.
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.
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.
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?