Life After Your Doctorate -Transferable skills

So you’ve handed in your thesis, passed your viva with flying colours and now you’re ready for the world of gainful employment.

Or you’re still in the middle of it all but are beginning to think it never hurts to have a plan B.

Whatever your situation it can be daunting thinking about sending out CVs for actual, proper work. It’s not that your PhD isn’t a job and a half but doctoral life, for all its faults and insecurities, is a comfortable bubble compared to the job market.

This post isn’t to explore the pros and cons of an academic or non-academic postdoctoral path. That’s a decision that will be shaped by choice and circumstance and realistically, your future may well include a bit of both. This post is about using your PhD experience to demonstrate your experience in a way that will help in any context.

It’s all about transferable skills.

When you’re in the middle of a PhD it can feel as the world stops. The research is everything and the skills you are learning are so specific to your doctoral research they belong only to that.

But to a prospective employer, your PhD can represent a whole heap of valuable skills that can be pretty hard to come by in other contexts. Quite apart from any experience you might have built up in teaching, organising events or applying for funding, the core work of your thesis is valuable far beyond the subject matter.

A thesis is a big project – which you’ve managed to a successful conclusion. You know about planning work and about dividing up a big piece of work into manageable chunks. Project management is a highly prized skill these days and even though you might not have the specific qualifications employers might be looking for, you can demonstrate that you know what you’re doing.

You’re used to writing for a range of audiences. There’s so much emphasis on impact in academia these days that we as PhD students are bombarded with courses that will tell us how to explain our research to different audiences. Activities like PubPhD and 3 Minute Thesis are all about selling your research. You might have had the opportunity to take part in a community outreach project or taken part in a scheme like The Brilliant Club, which again often involve talking about your research at to a wide range of audiences. If you can translate your very specific and technical project to a range of audiences then you can do the same for anything. This opens up the possibility of marketing or content writing roles – because don’t forget, you’re also a writer.

Researching a PhD involves critically reading a huge amount of material and analysing it. We are trained to keep up with our field and to search for useful research. These are skills which are very highly skilled in a range of areas. Anywhere that produces reports for example, be that government departments, the civil service, the tech industry, think tanks or the charities sector or journalism. It’s all about keeping an open mind and reading job specs carefully to see where you might fit in. Don’t worry if you don’t seem to tick every box, explain what you could bring to the role and how your experience will give you an edge.

What about if you’ve taught or even presented at conferences? So many jobs these days involve giving presentations. Being able to produce one with visual flair and simplify sometimes complex information will stand you in good stead. If you’ve taught a seminar group over a course then you can manage people. It’s a rather different dynamic to managing a team but a lot of the core skills are the same.

And of course, you can type.

Use your time in university wisely to gain as much experience in a range of things as you can. Talk to the Careers and Employability Centre here in the Library – they can really help you to highlight the skills you have and advise you on the best way to present them to get a job.

There’s a lot of good information online as well. This post from the Thesis Whisperer, for example, goes into a lot more detail than I have here. It’s worth having a look around that website while you’re there actually as they’ve a lot of good insights. There’s also The Cheeky Scientist, who have a free ebook on this very subject.

Our next Doctoral Discussion, coming up on Wednesday May 8th, is also about post-PhD careers. Details of how to book are here. We’ll also be having a Twitter chat on Tuesday May 14th from 7pm till 9. Join us on the hashtag #sussexphdchat and let’s continue the conversation.


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