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Graduate Matters

You are more than your thesis: core competencies acquired during doctoral work

PhD grads gain a range of business-ready skills, regardless of their discipline.


While many PhD candidates initially aim for a career in academia, there are great career opportunities outside of it, for which they are extremely well-suited. What a lot of PhDs (and businesses) don’t realize is that a doctoral education is, in fact, a professional activity, and that PhDs come with a rich range of business-ready competencies.

Adoc Talent Management, a recruitment agency based in Montreal, has led several studies on doctoral competencies acquisition and development and found that while PhDs specialize in specific topics during their thesis, they also develop a common set of more general skills that are attractive to recruiters. We call these core competencies, which are skills that have the same probability of being acquired at the outcome of the PhD, regardless of discipline, date of graduation, or other factors. We group them under six categories:

  • Knowledge and technical skills: these are well-known and refer to techniques and knowledge that one has developed in a specific discipline or field of knowledge.
  • Transferable competencies that can be formalized: these are competencies that can be used in a broad variety of professional contexts. Core competencies in this category include communication – oral and written – innovation management and scientific monitoring; project management; time management and planning; and languages.
  • Transferable competencies that cannot be formalized: these are skills that can benefit any profession, but they are not normally learned through formalized PhD studies. Core competencies in this category include cognitive abilities, problem-solving skills, and teamwork skills.
  • Dispositions: these complement the other competencies and are important in defining one’s work attitudes and ethic. The core competencies in this category consist of rigor, critical thinking, creativity, and autonomy.
  • Behaviours: these competencies comprise what is commonly known as “soft skills,” i.e. social, interpersonal skills. The core competency in this category is perseverance, but the category also includes empathy and diplomacy, among others.
  • Meta-competencies: meta-competencies are vital to maintaining and developing one’s pool of competencies over time, and also making good use of other competencies in professional contexts. Adaptability is PhD’s core meta-competency in this category.

All six categories of competencies listed above are important for employers and candidates to consider. It is true, however, that most job offers focus on the technical aspects of a position and these are what recruiters stress when they first contact candidates. However, we have found that the “soft skills” listed above, such as dispositions and behaviours, are extremely crucial, even though they may be overlooked by HR staffers or external recruiters: such skills can make or break a hire.

For example, Adoc was selected by a multi-billion-dollar firm to find candidates for a high-ranking executive position. One of the candidates presented to them was excellent from an academic and technical point of view. However, he did not make it to the final round of interviews as he was perceived as lacking modesty and humility. For another contract, we were to help our client in recruiting a deep-tech specialist. At the end of the process, two candidates with different profiles remained in the running. One of them was an expert in the subject, while the other had a more general background. But, the latter candidate showed more motivation and adaptability, which led our client to choose her to fill the position.

What can PhDs do to improve their employability?

Being knowledgeable about the issues faced by businesses is imperative. Jobs in academia and in businesses can share tasks, objectives, and activities, but the stakes may be different. Recruiters should not have to read between the lines when it comes to determining a candidate’s employability. It is crucial, therefore, that competencies be communicated in a language that both employer and employees can understand. It’s not just a question of semantics; developing clear communication regarding competencies also shows that you can synthesize information, which is, of course, an important skill in itself.

Adoc is currently realizing a new large-scale study in Canada called PhDetectives. The study includes a survey directed toward recruiters, with the goal of collecting information on the kind of competencies they are looking for.


Matthieu Lafon holds a PhD in cognitive psychology. He worked for three years in a renowned French company in the energy sector, after which he co-founded Adoc Talent Management, in 2008; Marianne Chevrier is a researcher and recruitment consultant at Adoc and holds a PhD in educational psychology; Simon Lindsay is a communications officer at Adoc.
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