PhDs are highly specialised qualifications. In fact, they’re the most specialised qualifications available. By its very nature every PhD is a unique project, focussing on a topic no one has researched before.
But PhDs aren’t just about specialisation. Successfully completing a three-year research project means developing many more general skills, all of which are highly transferrable.
There are relatively few non-academic careers based on the theological significance of eighteenth-century lyric poetry or the effects of altitude on arboreal biodiversity.
But there are lots of careers out there for self-motivated project managers with excellent organisational skills, experience of public speaking and event planning plus the ability to effectively analyse and communicate large amounts of complex information.
Those people are very employable. And your PhD could make you one of them.
The following are some of the core transferrable skills you’re likely to develop during a PhD.
This one is fairly obvious, but it’s probably more significant than you give it credit for.
A PhD requires you to complete an extended research project and to do so almost entirely independently. You’ll have support from your supervisor, but the day to day management of your time, resources and objectives is down to you.
You’ll need to assess the demands of specific tasks, plan ahead to ensure the availability of key materials and solve a wide range of problems (both anticipated and unforeseen).
You might also be responsible for managing expenses and keeping your project within the limits set by its own funding – or that of the research group you’re working within.
Even a self-financed PhD involves managing a budget – and potentially securing additional investment for your work.
Successful managing a PhD project can also mean successfully managing your relationships with other people.
You’ll need to maintain a productive relationship with your supervisor and with fellow students within your laboratory, workshop or department.
Looking further afield, you’ll need to identify and connect with researchers working on similar topics at other universities. And, if you present at conferences yourself, you’ll become experienced in sharing information within an expert network and discussing ideas with your professional peers.
It’s also highly likely that you’ll work more closely with other researchers at some point during your PhD. This could be part of a short-term project, or whilst organising a conference or other event (see below).
So don’t be misled by the image of the solitary scholar: collaboration, team-work (and team building) are also important parts of a modern PhD.
Teaching and mentoring
Academic teaching is another part of the typical PhD experience. Most universities provide at least some opportunity for postgraduate researchers to lead classes, demonstrate experiments or mentor undergraduate students.
This is important training for an academic career, but it’s not just limited to work in the university sector.
Teaching experience is obviously useful if you’re interested in working in other branches of education – such as a secondary school or sixth form college. Showing that you can communicate your specialist subject knowledge is a great way to leverage a PhD for these careers.
Academic teaching also tends to involve coursework assessment, feedback and one-to-one tutorials. These skills can transfer out of purely educational contexts as you develop experience in mentoring others and providing leadership.
Academic publication isn’t part of every PhD, but many students do have the opportunity to author journal articles or produce other records of their research.
This kind of publication is obviously different to ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ publishing (we’re not suggesting it’s a short-step from a Nature paper to winning the Man Booker Prize). But some of the skills you’ll gain are common to all forms of publication.
Preparing, copy-editing and proofing a professional manuscript is necessary to publication in all contexts: whether you’re authoring a journal article, a novel, an industry whitepaper – or a website.
And proficiency in composing and communicating complex ideas is valuable in many careers – even the ones that don’t actually involve ‘publication.’
You might think it strange to think of PhD research as an opportunity to develop skills in oral communication, but the presentation and discussion of your ideas will play an important role in their development.
The majority of students speak at academic conferences at some point during their doctorates. This is an important means of making the academic community aware of your work and of receiving expert feedback.
In the process you’ll also become a capable public speaker, with the ability to select and shape material for a presentation and the confidence to deliver that presentation professionally and effectively.
And remember, the topic of a presentation isn’t important. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking about economic history in front of an audience of academics or about market research in front of an audience of clients. Both scenarios require you to present specialist information, effectively, to other specialists.
Event management and organisation
PhD students don’t just speak at conferences: they often have the chance to organise them. This can range from running small seminar events to planning and arranging large international conferences.
The challenges involved in this – booking venues, setting up facilities, advertising, registering, taking care of delegates – aren’t unique to academia. They also crop up in a range of professions where large conferences and events are a regular occurrence – from politics to trade fairs.
Branches of some careers – such as marketing or entertainment – actually focus entirely upon events management.
One of the most valuable skills you gain with a PhD could, quite simply, be the ability to do research.
The task of identifying, managing and analysing large amounts of complex information isn’t simple. Nor is it easy to digest that information and re-present your conclusions in an appropriate and useful format.
As a PhD student, you’re going to become an undisputed expert in doing all of this. Because, if nothing else, your doctorate will make you a professional researcher.
And professional researchers don’t just work in academia. All sorts of careers draw upon these skills, from public administration, government and politics to public relations management, marketing and journalism.