During your PhD, you become an expert in your field. You will gain a deeper understanding than most of your peers on a very specific topic. This knowledge is valuable for research, as well as when an expert opinion on this particular topic is required.
Besides the technical knowledge you obtain during your PhD, you also learn a large number of transferable skills. Indeed, the doctoral journey with its large research component is different from the previous degrees. The research project addresses a complex research problem and stretches out over various years. Certainly, tackling doctoral research is a different league than solving homework.
Given the complexity of doctoral research, you don’t only learn highly specialised laboratory or computer programming skills, but you also pick up a number of skills that will serve you for the rest of your life: in research, in your career, and in life in general.
Top 10 transferable skills
Today, we are going to discuss the ten most important transferable skills that you develop during your PhD. These skills will help you in a wide variety of circumstances. I’ll explain each of these skills to you, and will show you how your PhD gave you these skills.
- Writing: Clear and concise writing is a key communication skill that serves us in many aspects of life: from drafting a business report for your boss at work to redacting a clear email, written communication is key in any job as well as in life.
The final product of your PhD is your doctoral dissertation: a long work of writing in which clear argumentation of a hypothesis is key. To get to the end of the PhD, you certainly need to learn how to write for your intended audience.
- Presenting: Orally presenting insights is a second key communication skill that is crucial in research as well as in any job. If you can present your insights in an accessible way to inform your audience, or if you can convince them through a short talk, you will influence and access others in your organisation.
During your PhD, you give various presentations for different audiences. You learn how to communicate your insights in a way that suits the situation and audience, as well as how to express your thoughts clearly.
- Visualising information: Your presentations and written documents come to life when you illustrate them with clear visualisations. Being able to draw well and show graphs in a clear way is a crucial complimentary communication skill.
No doctoral thesis consists of text alone. You will develop visualisations, and typically discuss with your supervisor and lab mates on how you can present the data in a more accessible manner – as such, you learn how to make clearer visualizations.
- Time management: In research as well as in a modern office setting, we have various demands on our time and several sources of communication that can distract us. Being able to prioritise important tasks so that all projects move forward, is an important skill in the digital age.
The many years of the doctoral journey may seem like an ocean of time, but ask a current doctoral candidate, and they certainly feel pressed for time. Learning how to manage your time is an important skill to learn during the PhD to graduate in a timely manner and meet all deadlines.
- Analytical thinking: Solving complex problems in research, business, and life requires analysing the problem in depth, comparing potential solutions, and making decisions about ways forward along the way. Being able to think in a structured manner is an attribute that can be applied in many situations.
Analytical thinking is also a key skill you learn during the PhD as you work through the research process and learn the scientific method. You combine various sources of information from the literature as well as your own data to answer your research questions.
- Teamwork: Our relations to others define how well we do in research, in our job, and in life. No man is an island, and no researcher is an island. The ability to work with others, with different opinions and different working habits, is a key skill in many settings.
From working together in the laboratory to exchanging ideas with your cohort mates in the PhD, you will certainly have learned that research is much more collaborative than you would have thought before.
- Resilience: Being able to recover quickly after setbacks and looking for a plan B is something that can set you apart from others. If you are resilient, you know how to persist and get the project done or the goal achieved regardless of the headwinds you faced.
Failure is a common component of research: a lab setup doesn’t function, a manuscript gets rejected, or your code won’t run. As you are responsible for your research, you learn to step up your game and try other solutions until you fix your problem, or you rework your manuscript until you think it is ready for resubmission.
- Creativity: Being able to think out of the box, or generate a variety of solutions is a skill that is appreciated by many. If you are the one on the work floor who comes up with fresh ideas, those around and above you will notice quickly.
Research is inherently creative. You need to answer a research question nobody addressed before, so you need to think creatively on how to study the question. Moreover, as you deal with various failures and setbacks, you train yourself in creativity and coming up with new solutions.
- Negotiating: If you are able to satisfy various stakeholders in a project, you show leadership skills that will advance your career.
Negotiating may not be a skill you associate with your PhD research but think again. Have you had to balance various opinions of committee members, or reconcile demands of your funding agency, teaching schedule, and requirements of your supervisor? In those cases, you’ve learned to balance the demands of various voices around you and negotiate a solution.
- Autonomy: If you are self-directed in your work and don’t have to ask your boss continuously what to do next, they will appreciate your ability to do so.
The long years of the PhD require research work that is carried out under the supervision of a professor, but their input is usually limited to a weekly meeting or another type of regular review. You learn how to carry out your research without needing your professor to present you with a task list to complete.
How to market your transferable skills
When you are finalising your doctorate or post-doc and looking to expand your horizons, you may first focus on positions that are very similar in expertise to what you were doing before.
But think again. With your variety of transferable skills, you have many options you could explore. The key lies in how you communicate your abilities to potential employers.
Don’t brand yourself as the expert in your research topic. Instead, focus on the company and your skills. What can you bring to the table? How can you show them that you are a great fit? Focus on the match between you and the company, based on your skills and goals, not based on who you are narrowly as a researcher.
In this post, you learned how you gather many transferable skills during the PhD on top of the expert technical knowledge you develop as a researcher. You learned how these transferable skills can serve you in research, at work, and in life, and how you obtained these skills during the PhD. Finally, you also learned how you can communicate your skillset to a variety of companies.
For further post PhD advice see:
- Getting your post-PhD job during COVID-19
- ECRs: Sharpening your virtual networking strategies
- Three key tips for successful grant-writing
- Changes to Academic Research