Not that long ago, relatively few graduates went on to study for a PhD, and those that did planned (and were expected) to go into academia, frequently following their thesis area as they build their careers around research. Most of the PhD supervisors of today are products of this system.
However, today it is well recognized that this is no longer the case, and that a wide range of employers recognize the value of the skill set that is developed during a PhD. Projects in a number of countries have explicitly articulated these skills, as in the UK:
Many articles have been written about this topic, but I think the best way to illustrate this is through some examples. The most profound one I heard in the last 6 years of working closely on PhD training in University College Cork was from a humanities graduate. He had worked on a thesis on British poetry, and was now working for a huge sports agency firm as the head of sales and marketing, and living ‘an MTV lifestyle’ as he arranged sponsorship deals for some of the largest sports stars in the world. Why did they hire him seems an obvious question! The answer as simple – to that company, a PhD showed someone who could take on a big challenge and manage it through to successful completion.
This leads to two hugely important questions at a time when more and more students are tackling a PhD while numbers of academic positions decrease at almost a proportionate rate:
1. How many employers think of PhDs this way?
2. How many PhD graduates would apply for such a job and approach it from the perspective of this aspect of their skills?
An interesting corollary of this was a graduate working for one of the largest IT companies in the world who said that, alongside all the key skills they expect from PhD graduates, there are some habits these graduates have to ‘unlearn’. These included the love of argument for the sake of argument and obsessive attention to detail!
Whatever the destination may be for a PhD graduate, it is highly likely it was not anticipated when the journey began, and an open mind is probably one key attribute not to appear on lists like those mentioned earlier. The hard fact is that increasingly employers sitting across a table from a PhD graduate won’t be specifically interested in the fact that they can sequence DNA, clone a mouse or decipher medieval Latin manuscripts, but that they can lead, manage projects, communicate, and deliver their goals in a very efficient and high-level manner. These skills were always developed as part of doing a PhD, but now instead of being implicit they must be explicit, and graduates need to have a more rounded understanding of their own skills profile, and all the opportunities these can and should open up to them.
Above all, it is critical that everyone (students, supervisors, employers) recognize that a PhD graduate taking a job outside academia is not in any way following a less favoured path, but rather are on the new main pathway for such graduates internationally.
PhD skill exercise: list the skills have you acquired which are not specifically related to your thesis but you feel you can implement much more strongly than before you started the PhD.