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The alternative academic: celebrate your transferable PhD skills!

This is the second in a series of posts covering the I wish I knew then what I know now!aspects of PhD life. If you have any questions, big or small, about anything related to PhD life or alternative academic jobs, leave a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!
(Also, if you have any “if I knew back then…” tips or advice that YOU would like to share then please let me know! It’d be great to share your experiences!)

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Towards the end of my PhD, I had a bit of a panic. I knew it was time to start applying for alternative academic jobs, but hadn’t yet given serious thought to how my “soft skills” might transfer to non-academic roles. Worse, my journey from undergraduate to self-funded doctoral candidate had, barring a succession of part-time jobs at shops and bars, left a seven-year employment gap in my CV that may not have compared favourably against applicants from other backgrounds. In short, I may have been a font of knowledge when it came to Shakespeare and early modern burial practice, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to sell myself to potential employers.

If any of that sounds familiar, fear not! I promise you: whatever point you’re at in your doctoral programme, it’s a safe bet that by now you’ve already developed the kinds of useful and *demonstrable* transferable skills that employers love.

We’ll put aside for the time being the skills of specialist research and scholarly writing you’ve already spent years honing (and these are undoubtedly fabulous strings to your bow, especially if you have an academic role in your sights). Instead, I’d like to focus on four important qualities that, as a PhD student or postdoc, you showcase every single day. Not only will these skills prove to be invaluable in any alt-ac career – they’ll also distinguish you from the competition in the job market!

  1. You have DRIVE (and you have the thesis to prove it)
  2. You can Project Manage
  3. You can Innovate and Adapt with the best of them
  4. You possess *outstanding* Communication Skills – far more than you may realise!

These skills aren’t “fluffy” or abstract. They’re real, they carry weight. A PhD is a job (and a worthy one at that), but if you’re concerned that an employer may need some convincing, your on-the-job training will allow you to evidence these skills in ways that other applicants may not be able to.

1. Proven Drive

“Drive” is one of those maligned terms, like “grit” and “passion”, that you’re sometimes told to avoid when writing letters of application. Without clear evidence to justify their presence, these words can feel like hollow clichés, or make you sound like a candidate on The Apprentice. Fortunately for you, though, you can provide clear evidence! Pages and pages of it!

One cannot begin, let alone complete, a PhD without incredible determination and drive. By its very nature the doctoral programme is a largely (often entirely!) self-motivated uphill climb that requires researchers to document every hard-earned step. Every word that you’ve typed, every paper you’ve read, every task you’ve completed and every project that you’ve worked on is testament to your ability to convert energy into progress. A PhD doesn’t write itself.

If you consider for one moment everything you’ve achieved so far and the hard work it’s taken to get there, it’s easy to see why your application would be attractive to an employer. You’ve chosen to work for 70 hours a week to convince your lecturers, your peers, academic boards, conference organisers, and editors of publications that your subject contains true academic merit. Over the course of your programme you’ve produced a body of work that may have been commended by world-leaders in the field. You’ve written extensive, innovative, persuasive criticism – and perhaps you’ve done it while working two jobs and struggling in debt. How many books, manuscripts, and research papers have you synthesised into one coherent thesis? By the time you’ve completed your thesis you will have done ALL of these things and more in order to make an original contribution to a complex subject. They deserve to be mentioned – and you deserve to be proud of yourself.

Your drive, then, isn’t something waffly – it’s palpable. Let employers know that if they are willing to invest in your salary, you will pour the energy that you’ve put into academia into a new, exciting field.

2. Project Management…

…and all that this term entails!

It’s hard to imagine when you’re in the middle of it, but many people outside of your field, employers included, won’t always know what “doing a PhD” actually entails. They’ll probably have a good grasp of the concept – three more years, a labour of love, original research, big essay, series of experiments etc – but a lot of people may not realise just how well the day-to-day logistics of a doctoral programme might prepare somebody for a non-academic career. It’s important, then, to emphasise the strategic planning that goes into a successful doctorate.

Many people may claim that their degree taught them effective time management, but as a doctoral candidate you can back that claim up in ways that others simply can’t. To undertake a PhD is to take charge of an extended project that takes between three and eight years (if you’re part-time) to complete – and completion only occurs if the work is a high enough standard to satisfy an inspection by external moderators (the viva!). Your work is by its very nature multifaceted and finely-balanced, and success hinges upon you allocating appropriate portions of time to research, writing, administrative tasks, meetings with supervisors, teaching, workshops, conferences…

Moreover, the project is (more or less) entirely self-directed. Your supervisors require termly and yearly progress reports, and your long-term deadline will be dictated by factors such as funding and the academic calendar, but within these parameters the programme is yours to manage as you see fit. You have responsibility for the scope of the project, for identifying what does and doesn’t work, and for monitoring your own output and efficiency.

By the end of your programme, then, you’ll have vital experience and a proven track record across the spectrum of project management. A PhD is about more than simply (ha!) turning around work within tight deadlines; it’s about developing a strategy and planning for the short-, medium- and long-term.

3. Innovation and Adaptation

You, dear reader, are that rare person: a true, successful, tried-and-tested innovator. According to the University of Cambridge, your PhD will make

a significant contribution to learning, for example through the discovery of new knowledge, the connection of previously unrelated facts, the development of a new theory, or the revision of older views.

What this means outside of an academic context is that you’re trained to identify gaps in the market. Regardless of your discipline, your PhD is testament to your ability to analyse existing data in order to spot trends and patterns and, in doing so, identify opportunities for growth. These are exciting, valuable skills!

Your power to innovate goes hand-in-hand with your adaptability – your capacity to assimilate new information and act accordingly. In one sense this means that if you can handle a PhD, the chances are that you’ll be able to manage life in a fast-moving industry with varied demands and shifting targets. In another sense, though, it demonstrates the kind of initiative that employers love to see: you’re capable of assimilating new information and adapting your strategy accordingly. It’s one thing to follow instructions, but another thing entirely to make yourself truly useful. With a PhD under your belt, you can become very useful indeed.

4. Communication Skills

Communication is your *SUPERPOWER.*

To be more specific your PhD is proof positive of your ability to communicate complex ideas successfully, both written and orally, for a wide range of purposes while constantly adapting your style of communication to meet the needs of your audience. Over the course of your PhD you produce formal academic writing for your examiners; you compose funding / job applications for various institutions; you shape articles to suit specific journals; you trim conference papers to a handful of easy-to-follow key points and deliver them to diverse audiences.

As alluded to above, though, the success of your doctorate – the success of your innovation! – is as much a result of your ability to take on information as it is to share it. In other words, your PhD trains you to be an excellent listener, and to view topics and ideas from perspectives other than your own. This is particularly the case if you’ve had the opportunity to teach at all during your programme.

More than anything else, though, you have an unparalleled ability to ask questions. It’s the most useful weapon in your considerable communicative arsenal. If the aim of a PhD is to innovate, the methodology to a PhD must involve asking questions that have not yet been considered. Furthermore, the success of your doctorate is contingent upon you working tirelessly to ask the best questions to elicit the most fruitful answers. That’s not just useful in academia or teaching – every business needs people who can pose critical questions that get to the very heart of a topic. That’s you. You’re that superhero!

Wrapping up: the next mountain

To be clear: all of the above is based on conversations with colleagues and employers from several different alt-ac industries – including a good many of my PhD peers who have gone on to achieve great success. I’m also, of course, basing a lot of the advice above on my personal experiences of job-hunting and alt-ac employment!

It took me a long time to realise just how easily my skills as a PhD researcher could transfer over to careers outside of Higher Education. It took me an even longer time to work out how to accentuate my PhD strengths in ways that would appeal to employers! Once I worked out how to sell my abilities, though, the process of writing job applications became far less daunting, and my hard work was rewarded with interviews (some from a few surprising places) and job offers.

If you’d like more advice on how to translate PhD success into a new career, a swift search of the web will put you in contact with plenty of alternative academics willing to share their experiences – the good AND the bad.

After spending so much time and effort climbing the PhD mountain, it’s ok to feel – as I did – anxious about ascending a new one beyond academia. Whatever that next mountain is, though, you’re not alone – and you already have more tools to make the journey easier than you realise.

Good luck!

For more on alternative academic careers, and finding your post-PhD vocation, why not check out the From PhD to Life website, run by the very talented and super-motivational Dr Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife)?

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