Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Career hacks for PhD researchers: know your transferable skills

The inspiration for this post comes from a question raised at one of our workshops on professional development for PhD researchers. In a discussion about careers, a PhD researcher asked “Should I tell potential employers that I have a PhD?”

The question was motivated by the impression that some employers considered PhD researchers to be too academic and too specialised to work in industry. Here, I focus on why PhD researchers have a powerful contribution to make to industry careers. Yes, PhD researchers have very specialised skills, but they also have a broad range of abilities that are highly prized by industry, as well as academia and other non-academic research careers.

Here’s a list of the skills that I discuss here:

1. PhD researchers can successfully manage a demanding and long-term project.
2. PhD researchers are excellent at managing their own learning, and reflecting on professional practice
3. They know how to negotiate professional relationships with line managers.
4. They are creative and persistent problem-solvers.
5. PhD researchers are experienced in collaboration and team communication.
6. They can understand complex information, and expertly communicate via multiple media
8. PhD researchers have very high leadership potential.

1. PhD researchers can successfully manage a demanding and long-term project.
Almost by definition, PhD research is demanding. Some projects are more demanding than others, and projects differ in the nature of the demands. PhD research is always long-term, requiring a minimum of three or four years, and often longer. This requires a considerable degree of strategic prioritisation of objectives, long-term and short-term planning, effort in implementation, review of progress and reporting of the outcomes to a high standard. These facets (and there are many others) of PhD research alone are direct evidence of your ability to manage a demanding project, and to have the persistence to see it through to completion over a substantial duration.

2. PhD researchers are excellent at managing their own learning, and reflecting on professional practice
PhD researchers are excellent at taking responsibility for their own learning. The demanding nature of the PhD typically challenges researchers to learn new knowledge and new technical skills. This can include self-directed reading to learn about theoretical developments, reading to learn about project management, registering for courses in communication, and participating in workshops on quantitative methods. It can also include attendance at seminars and conferences, as well as seeking out help on specific topics from more experienced PhD researchers, postdocs, their supervisor, or other members of faculty. All of these activities contribute to high-level learning, and are a regular and normal part of PhD practice.

An important element of learning during doctoral research comes from reflection and learning from experience, and takes several forms. PhD researchers are able to ‘fail well’! This might sound strange; however, failure can be a brilliant learning opportunity – but only when sufficient reflection occurs to gain new insight on the causes of failure, and how to avoid these in the future.

                   “I’ve failed over and over and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan
In my own PhD, very little of the work that I did in the first year appeared in my thesis, due to multiple failures caused by a mix of overly ambitious questions, inexperience and bad luck! These failures, however, were the foundation of a successful project because I learned from these mistakes. Importantly, these hard lessons were some of the best learning experiences in my career! Failure is a common theme in PhD research, but PhD researchers are excellent in learning from failure. This is what I mean by ‘failing well’, and the ability to fail well and be persistent is a valued professional skill in any setting.

PhD researchers have a high appreciation of the standards of professional practice. They are aware of the best practices in their discipline and the consequences of not adopting best practice. They understand the ethical issues, and have a high awareness of the political implications of their research.

 3. They know how to negotiate professional relationships with line managers.
Although the relationship between PhD researchers and their supervisors can be quite different from that between employees and line managers, there are many similarities. Supervisors vary enormously in their approaches to supervision. Regardless of the type of supervisor, PhD researchers learn how to negotiate that relationship by implementing skills that are equally relevant to the workplace.

I know of a PhD student who was very keen to attend a statistics workshop that was being held in a few months’ time in another country. She approached her supervisor one morning and asked would he be able to fund the €1000 needed for the workshop. The supervisor said no. She accepted the decision gracefully, but was extremely disappointed about this afterwards. After a little reflection on how to approach it a better way, she repeated her request a few days later. She waited until she knew her supervisor was definitely in a good mood (a manuscript of his had been accepted that morning!). This time, she provided an outline of the workshop. She pointed out the relevance of the methods not just to her research, but to other researchers in the lab. She pointed out how the workshop would improve the quality of her planned papers, and help improve the target journal for this work. She pointed out how she had minimised the costs by using the cheapest flights and hotel. The supervisor immediately agreed to pay for her to attend the workshop.

This is a simple example, but it illustrates a common feature of workplace relationships. It’s important to have negotiation skills, and to build a case to achieve desired outcomes. Despite disagreements, it’s important to maintain trusting professional relationships – this is a strong basis for being able to persuade someone to change their decision. (Imagine the chance of the supervisor changing his decision if the PhD researcher had accused the supervisor of being a control freak with the budget!). Through their interactions with their supervisors and other staff, PhD researchers learn these skills.


4. PhD researchers are creative and persistent problem-solvers.
Doctoral research requires an original contribution to knowledge, which is a rich breeding ground for novel and unpredictable problems. PhD researchers become familiar with high-level problem-solving that requires a persistent attitude, and a creative ability to solve problems. These solutions often require some combination of new theory, the application of new quantitative methods, and/or the development of new methodology.

The ability to tackle difficult and unpredictable problems in novel ways is a highly-prized skill in any profession. The successful completion of a PhD project should offer plenty of examples of your ability to evaluate, select, combine and use a range of methods to solve problems.

5. PhD researchers are experienced in collaboration and team communication.
The vast majority of PhD researchers have to collaborate and communicate with other people A LOT during their PhD. For example, this can take the form of:

-         Sharing and discussing highly technical information
-         Discussing and agreeing strategic priorities
-         Writing reports and manuscripts
-         Teaching undergraduate courses
-         Engaging with and contributing to professional societies
-         Engaging in professional communication with journal editors, reviewers.  

More and more, PhD researchers work within formal teams and collaborative projects. This inevitably requires them to co-ordinate the activities of other people (especially when it involves change), which is an important skill in all workplaces. Even PhD researchers who find themselves working in situations that are not embedded in teams and may seem more isolated inevitably have to interact with other faculty staff, other students and other scholars. These teamwork and collaborative skills are highly valued in every modern workplace.

6. They can understand complex information, and expertly communicate via multiple media
Of all these skills, this one should be the most self-evident!
PhD researchers are adept at handling data, analysing data and converting data into information. They can deploy a range of methods for doing so, and can master a wide range of media and presentation formats.
PhD researchers have an excellent ability to work at the limits of understanding in particular fields, and can cope not just with the ‘certain’ and complex knowledge in a discipline, but also the ‘uncertain’ knowledge in a discipline. Importantly, they are directly contributing to the creation and clarification of new knowledge. Working at this interface between knowing and not knowing means that they have a highly developed ability to deal with complexity. In addition, they have the ability to both recognise and help resolve contradictions in the knowledge base.

7. PhD researchers have very high leadership potential.
Many PhD researchers conduct projects almost entirely on their own, especially as they progress beyond their first year of the PhD project and their PhD supervisors afford them more and more responsibility. Over time, they take charge of much of the strategic direction and decision-making, and tend to work quite independently. PhD researchers therefore have a strong ability to identify new problems, develop (novel) solutions, see the implementation of their decisions through to the end, and then review their effectiveness.

If they work as part of a team, or have a high degree of collaboration and stakeholder engagement, then they are able to develop solutions in dialogue with others. They are also able to persuade others of the value of their work.

These are leadership skills that are appropriate to the early-career phase of PhD researchers, and are indicative of the strong leadership potential of PhD researchers. These leadership qualities are highly sought after in academia, research and industry.

While the discipline and specialised topic of an individual PhD thesis may not be so widely applicable or of interest, it is no wonder that so many industries value the abilities of PhD graduates. More and more, employers are aware of these skills, but if you encounter an employer who is not, be prepared to convince them of your value:
“…very few people, outside academia, know how you ‘do a PhD’.  …employers think that you just sit around talking in depth about nebulous topics rather than actually doing any ‘real’ work… There are so many skills you develop over the course of your research that are highly valuable and if you want a career inside or outside academia, learning how to articulate these skills is vital.” (Shari Walsh)
Thus, the challenge for PhD researchers is to not just better recognise the range of transferable skills that they have, but to actively develop these, and be able to communicate these skills to potential employers.

This post is based on an invited lecture “What’s the value of PhD?: peering beyond the viva” to the INSPECT symposium in University College Cork in September 2015.

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