PhD students are pretty interesting people. I should know. I’ve met a lot of them over the years: as a researcher at two different universities, as an attendee, speaker and organiser at academic conferences in three different countries, and as a fellow patron of various pubs, bars and coffee shops.
They do tend to have one thing in common, though. Most of them are at least slightly interested in an academic career. And most of them see a doctorate as a route towards one.
I know lots of PhD students who’ve gone on to have academic careers. And all the academics I know were once PhD students.
But I also know plenty of PhD graduates who haven’t gone on to work as a university researcher or lecturer. They’re still interesting (and successful) and not one of them regards their PhD as a waste of time. Because it wasn’t.
A PhD develops a wide range of skills and you might be surprised at just how ‘transferable’ some of them are.
Let’s take a look at five of the big ones.
Research is the core part of a PhD: it’s what you’ll be training to do, it’s what you’ll be doing, and it’s what you’ll need to do in order to end up with a successful thesis. You’re going to become very, very good at it.
The problem is, research is so central to the academic focus of a PhD that it’s easy to assume these skills aren’t transferrable.
After all, research is what scholars and students do in the laboratory, or the library, isn’t it?
Other people don’t sit for hours, meticulously setting up experiments and trying not to spill their coffee in the petri dishes, do they?
Other people don’t pore over the shelves in the dusty recesses of a library, trying not to spill their coffee on books no one else has heard of, do they?
And other people don’t drink that much coffee, do they?
You’d probably be surprised about the coffee, but it’s true to say that the majority of jobs don’t involve substantial amounts of time spent in laboratories and libraries, thinking deep thoughts. Unless you’re a lab technician, or a librarian, perhaps.
This misses the point though.
Research is about taking on a question that needs to be answered, identifying the information that might be needed to answer that question, choosing the best methodology to gather and analyse that information, and having the ability to present your results usefully and effectively to an appropriate audience.
These aren’t necessarily academic skills and it isn’t just academics who use them.
Putting together a business plan requires research skills. Designing and developing a new product requires research skills. Deciding upon political and social policy requires research skills. Identifying new markets and audiences requires research skills. Writing for a website like this requires research skills.
Your doctorate is going to provide you with excellent transferable research skills.
Presenting your results is one the research skills discussed above. You’ll do this in various formats, the most important of which will be your final thesis.
But delivering papers, and posters at academic conferences will also be an important part of your development as a scholar.
As you do so, you’ll develop public speaking and presentation experience. Fair enough. Will it actually be relevant, outside the academic community?
Will your ability to speak for twenty minutes (or more) about eighteenth-century history to an audience of eighteenth-century historians be of much use in one of the many twenty-first century jobs that aren’t particularly concerned with eighteenth-century history?
Won’t your expertise be too narrow and your experience be irrelevant?
Again, this misses the point a little. Let’s consider the following hypothetical example:
Darren and Sophie apply for the same position with an exciting new technology start-up.
Amongst other things, this role requires a candidate who can keep up with a rapidly changing industry, understand new challenges and opportunities, and explain these through internal and external presentations.
Both candidates have experience coming up with and presenting cutting edge ideas to very specific audiences.
Is Darren’s experience more relevant than Sophie’s, simply because this new job involves talking about technology, rather than protein folding?
No. Because neither does it involve talking about spoons.
Think about a PhD in detail and it soon becomes apparent that ‘project management’ skills are a big part of a successful research experience.
The clue's in the name, but it's not quite as simple as that.
On an obvious level you will manage a long project, taking it from proposal to submission and being ultimately responsible for the success of that process. What’s more important, however, is how you’ll do that: the challenges you’ll face, the techniques you’ll have to master and the specific kinds of experience you’ll gain.
For one thing, your project will have stakeholders, just like any commercial or professional enterprise. Your university, your research group, your supervisor and your funder: all will be invested in the success of your PhD and all will seek particular outcomes from it.
Your funder, for example, may want to ensure you address some very specific topics in which they have a vested personal, charitable or commercial interest. These might not be the most exciting features of your PhD from an academic point of view, but you’ll need to give them sufficient attention.
Your university, on the other hand, may want to ensure that your individual project support its wider research culture and longer-term objectives. Similarly, your supervisor will be concerned that your scholarly development (and conduct) reflects well on them.
These interests are unlikely to conflict in any significant way, but you’ll need to satisfy them during your project. That could involve some careful expectation management as well as good interpersonal skills.
A PhD is also more than just a single project.
Individual chapters, experiment designs, archival trips, presentations or publications will all involve their own miniature ‘project cycles’. Often you’ll be managing more than one at once.
Thought about in these terms, a PhD really is an exercise in high-level project management, with a lot to offer your CV.
If you’ll humour me a little: I’ve always thought the term ‘PhD student’ a bit of a misnomer.
Yes, you’re studying for another degree and are therefore a student at your university. But you really aren’t much like a conventional student at all.
There are some exceptions, of course. Your supervisor will still pass on knowledge and expertise, where appropriate. You may have some taught classes. And you could also find yourself being formally assessed at key ‘checkpoints’ (such as an MPhil upgrade).
Nonetheless, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. The rest of the time, you’re far more of a leader than a follower – and leadership is an important part of a PhD.
Well, in an obvious sense, you’re the ‘lead’ for your project. Even where that doesn’t involve leading other people, it still means being ultimately responsible for key acts of decision making and for meeting important targets.
There are also likely to be times when you’ll need to demonstrate leadership in a more conventional sense.
It’s not uncommon for PhD students to work as part of larger research teams, to collaborate on shared projects or to help organise conferences and events. All of these require leadership and cooperation.
Many PhD students are also employed as junior academic staff. This is easy to overlook.
The skills you develop when teaching undergraduates aren’t just useful in education (though they clearly are very relevant to appropriate professions). You’ll ‘lead’ students through part of a course, but you’ll also guide their development through group discussion and feedback.
Becoming a leading authority in your field is key to a PhD, but that leadership and authority can be about more than academic expertise.
A PhD is an in-depth research project, focussing on a single, highly-specialised, academic topic, over a period of several years.
That’s exactly why it demonstrates adaptability and flexibility.
Because a PhD isn’t just about specialisation. It’s about the ability to specialise – and that’s a brilliant transferrable skill.
All sorts of careers require workers to focus upon a specific topic, in great detail, for a specific length of time, in order to achieve a specific goal. That’s exactly what you do during a PhD.
During your doctorate you’ll go from knowing next to nothing about your topic to being an expert. The PhD process teaches you to do that. You will learn how to tackle a new topic, solve a new problem, and get results – quite literally.
And then you’ll move on to the next topic and the next challenge. Just like any other academic. Just like any other marketing manager. Just like any other media producer. Just like any other business planner.
The ‘curse’ of over-specialisation may just be one of the biggest myths about PhD study.
A PhD isn't over-specialised. Instead, the modern doctorate is an excellent way to pick up a wide range of transferable skills: including - but not limited to - those discussed here.
Editor's note: This blog was first published on 01/02/2017. We've checked and updated it for current readers.
The extra skills you'll gain are valuable, but it's important to keep working towards a successful thesis. Gaia Cantelli explains how.
From student mentoring and blogging to presentation and publication, here are some tips for maximising your doctoral CV.
How can you use opportunities during your PhD to prepare to (literally) employ the skills it gives you? Ania offers some expert advice.
Great! We're always adding new advice articles, funding tips and student stories. Our free newsletter will keep you updated.