PostGradual: The PhD Careers Blog

What skills do I have as a PhD? Getting a fresh perspective on an old-time question

‘Although we are taught our whole graduate careers to become narrower in our specialities, the alt-ac mindset is more about thinking broadly about the skills and abilities we bring to the table.’

– Kathryn E. Linder, Kevin Kelly & Thomas J. Tobin, Going Alt-Ac (2020: 49)

Photo of light bulb group with shining fibres in ABILITY, SKILL and KNOWLEDGE shape isolated on black background

Working for a consultancy firm that specialises in economics and data analysis didn’t seem like a predictable move after a PhD in ancient history. But when I caught up with one PhD graduate recently, this was the move she’d made. I was intrigued by her story: originally, she’d approached the company about a writing-based job, but upon seeing her research background and skills, the hiring manager thought she’d actually make a great addition to the consulting arm of their business. Until then, it hadn’t occurred to her that she could apply her broader research skills to a role that was, as she described it, ‘market driven.’

Then, she said something that pretty much summed up my life as a PhD graduate and a careers practitioner as it’s happened so far:

‘We often get told that, as researchers, we have a bunch of useful transferable skills. But I don’t think we really BELIEVE it.’

At this point I probably pulled a really strange Zoom-face as I heard the sound of a thousand hammers hitting a thousand nails precisely on their heads. For this particular PhD grad, it had taken an incidental conversation with a generous hiring manager for her to:

Something in what she said resonated with my own post-PhD experience. Looking back on it, it had only really been when my first post-PhD line manager (thanks Steve… again) had reflected back to me the things that I did well for him that I properly realised what my PhD experience had made me good at. Things that mostly involved getting to grips with new ideas in a short space of time, being able to write with clarity and purpose, and having the confidence to have a camera shoved in my face and to talk with fluency and authenticity about postgrad student experiences. These were all things I could leverage to work in a field like student recruitment or education marketing. But as with the grad I’d been speaking with recently, it took a third party pointing out the relevance for me to see and understand it.

Generalising from my experience and this particular grad’s experience got me thinking: perhaps it really is easier for us to see our skills and abilities ‘in the second person?’ That sometimes, it takes for others to reflect back to us ‘hey, you’re good at X’ or ‘I know I can always come to you for Y’ for us to recognise and trust in our skills. The more I thought this, the more it made sense, especially since:

  1. The competitive nature of academia so often pushes us to compare ourselves with others, so it becomes easier to focus on what others are good at rather than on our own abilities and value
  2. People already working within a specific industry (like the hiring manager and my first boss mentioned above) offer good insights into the kinds of skills valued in that industry. They’re well aware of the kinds of problems they need to solve in their work and what skills can help them take on these problems. If you have these skills then they’re likely to spot them in you, given that you have a chance to demonstrate them
  3. We may tend to be more generous to others than we are to ourselves.

If we’re struggling to ‘mine’ our PhD experience for wider skills that we can leverage to find work, then perhaps what we need are more opportunities to see what we’re good at through the eyes of others, untainted by any issues with self-confidence or self-deprecation. So, here are three strategies to get that once-removed insight into what it is that you have to offer:

1. Turn your PhD into a person spec

This post opened with a quote from Kathryn E. Linder, Kevin Kelly, and Thomas J. Tobin’s book Going Alt-Ac (2020) which is packed with useful, practical tips for deviating from ‘traditional’ academic career paths in teaching and research. One of the more left-field strategies that Linder et al. suggest is turning your PhD into a job description: laying out what it actually is that you do day-to-day to see which parts might transfer over into other areas of the labour market. I’d actually go one step further than this and suggest the following…

Imagine you’re going on a lovely long sabbatical. Whilst you’re away though having all the downtime, sipping mojitos (other drinks are available) by the pool, you need to hire someone else to take your place on your PhD or postdoc, to take care of things and push the project forward whilst you’re gone.

What you need to do is to produce a person specification that will help you attract and recruit the right candidate with the skills needed to slip in and take over from you. Think: what specialist knowledge will they need to have? What research methodologies or techniques will they need to know? What equipment will they need to be able to use? What other broader abilities will they need to make your project run smoothly?

As a guide… try to make sure every point starts with the words ‘you’ll need….’

Here’s an example I made earlier:

PhD project: Building resilience in the UK’s creative sector by enhancing the sector’s engagement with digital technologies

Person spec:

So go on, have a go… it could be a really useful way to see your skills in the second person, and an exercise in translating what you do into how you go about doing it.

2. Talk to people who know you about what they think you’re good at

Some key questions to cover here include:

This can help us to uncover some of the things we ‘can’t help but do’… some of the bits of ourselves that we use do day-to-day that come so naturally to us, we don’t even consciously notice them.

3. Talk to people working beyond academia about what’s most needed in their industry

Start with people you know. Friends, family, anybody. What is it about a job candidate that really ‘convinces’ them… that makes them the person who can help to solve the problems that need to be solved in that job/ industry? Are there any abilities they think are especially hard to find? And how do they know when they’ve spotted those abilities in someone?

This can help you to start to translate your own abilities into the language of industry ‘need’ and ‘value.’ If you’re looking to break into working in a particular sector, then make these some of your key research questions when networking.

After years of having our work critiqued and our ideas picked apart in academia, it can be difficult to recognise… and to admit to… our wider skills and abilities. Seeking out opportunities to see them through the eyes of others can give us insights and lead us in directions we may not find ourselves.