In the journey towards a PhD degree, a research scholar develops not only subject knowledge and technical skills, but also a number of other skills that can be valuable for a wide range of career paths. This article showcases some of these ‘transferable’ skills.
The spectrum of career opportunities outside academia has expanded in recent years. Previously, post-PhD career choices were limited to traditional academic positions in universities or research institutes, or to R&D positions in the industry. For a PhD student contemplating the next career move, a plethora of options exists in the current scenario, including science administration, research management, science/research communication, science policy, science outreach, and scientific publishing. In addition, local science and technology clusters, science parks and museums, and incubation centres are the latest science and technology ecosystems that offer attractive and challenging job opportunities to talented research professionals and PhDs.
However, choosing from these options is not an easy decision because PhD scholars often lack clarity about whether they have the right skills required to pursue these careers. The reality is that while earning a PhD degree, a researcher gains core skills that are fundamental to success in diverse careers. That is why these are recognized as transferable skills by employers.
You will be surprised to discover the gamut of technical and soft skills that you already possess; all you need to do is to apply them in a context different from that of a laboratory. Let us take a close look at some of these transferrable skills.
1. Critical thinking and logical reasoning: These are functions that your mind is constantly engaged with throughout the course of your PhD. Many organizations invest heavily in helping their workforce learn critical-thinking and problem-solving skills by hiring external trainers. As a PhD scholar, you are already proficient in defining and solving a problem and hence are ready to take on jobs requiring these skills.
2. Communication skills: Excellent communication is a key skill that employers value deeply, being among the most listed traits on referee forms or recommendation letters from previous employers. During your PhD, you are exposed to diverse scenarios where you learn and apply these skills. Participation in conferences, seminars, webinars, panel discussions, poster presentations, work update presentations, thesis defense, etc., helps you develop and hone oral communication skills. On the other hand, writing research papers, review articles, progress reports, and theses makes you understand the nuances of written communication. You learn the art and science of communicating clearly, concisely, and in simple language while retaining technical finesse — skills which cannot always be taught even through continuous training. This often gives PhD scholars an edge over others.
3. Project management: Project management is a core activity at many organizations and requires trained professionals. Working to obtain a PhD degree is an academic project with defined objectives tied to deliverables and measurable outcomes. Conducting research requires elements of design thinking, ideation, and decision-making to ensure the efficient completion of the research project. While selecting a research methodology, a researcher carefully thinks of all steps from start to finish and selects those that yield the best data to answer a research question. For an employer, a PhD degree often counts as an equivalent of prior experience in project management.
4. Accelerated learning: Most employers typically expect newly recruited professionals to be ready to work in their roles at the earliest. Adapting to a new workplace and performing a new role involves a steep learning curve, and many candidates struggle initially to comprehend and internalize workplace knowledge and processes at a pace expected by employers. A PhD degree helps a person become adept at not only acquiring new knowledge but also applying it in the right context by connecting the dots. Hence, a PhD makes you an accelerated learner by design and can help you perform better than others when it comes to understanding processes/methods and acquiring other domain-specific knowledge.
5. Fostering Collaborations: Getting stakeholders on board and managing their involvement to meet common goals is another highly sought-after skill in many workplaces. In today’s world, research has become a global enterprise requiring extensive collaboration. Thus, it is not uncommon for researchers to build and nurture partnerships and deliver against the expectations of academic partners globally and locally. This is, therefore, another advantage you can have in the job market.
6. Planning and time management: Conducting a research project requires meticulous planning, anticipating challenges and being prepared to deal with them, and — most importantly — managing time. These can be difficult skills for many to master. During a PhD, you learn how to map multiple milestones against a time span of several years (drafting a research proposal, meeting with doctoral advisory committees several times, preparing the thesis, etc.). These are crucial for both short- and long-term project management.
Apart from the above skills, a PhD imparts the traits of adaptability and resilience. You start and finish working on a problem, move on to another objective, revise an objective if your work is not yielding results, and so on. Accountability is yet another trait that a PhD inculcates and is desired at workplaces. Research teaches you to be accountable for every experiment that you do, each equipment that you use, each collaborator that you partner with, and each research paper that you publish. To conclude, a PhD helps you acquire a multitude of transferrable skills, a unique persona, and the readiness to take on any challenging new career along with the ability to succeed in it.