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The Black Hole

How Doing A PhD Prepares You For Those "Other" Jobs

BY BETH | NOV 26 2009

Shortly after I got my new job, I was out for dinner with some friends of mine with whom I had gone to grad school.  I was telling them about my new position and one of them said, “How did you convince them that you are an ‘Evaluation Specialist’?  You didn’t do your education in evaluation.”

Which brings up one of the fundamental differences between applying for academic jobs and nonacademic jobs. With academic jobs, it’s pretty clear how all that education you have relates to the job – you have a PhD in Chemistry and you are applying to be a prof in the Chemistry Department.  Or you’ve conducted research using a particular technique and you are applying for a postdoc in an area where you will continue to use that technique and learn complementary ones.  Your publications are the currency.

With nonacademic jobs, you have to start to think about yourself in a different way.  Suddenly, those hard earned papers and conference presentations aren’t the thing that will get you a job.  You have to think about all the skills you’ve developed over your time as a graduate student – and don’t sell yourself short – there are *a lot* of skills developed through the slog of getting that higher degree. A lot of the job postings I’ve looked at ask for someone who can “work well under pressure with minimal supervision” – can you think of a better description of grad school?

Some of the other skills that doing a PhD helps you to develop include:

  • Project management. While you may not know all the PM lingo ((Check out the Project Management Institute if you are interested in learning to talk the Project Management talk)), your PhD thesis is a project that you’ve taken from initial conception and design through to successful completion.  Through this you’ve developed skills around effective planning and time management.  You have the ability to prioritize. Work on any big projects involving several people?  Then add teamwork skills. Did you oversee volunteers, undergraduate or Master’s students?  Add human resources management, supervisory skills and leadership skills to your list.  Depending on how big your lab is (or isn’t), you may have also been responsible for budgeting and other finance-related tasks.
  • Critical thinking skills.  The training you get in grad school requires you to critically analyze the literature, think critically – and creatively – about your own (and other people’s) projects, put your research into the wider context of the literature.  Lab and field work inevitably results in the need to solve problems, troubleshoot, think on your feet, and interpret data.
  • Self-direction. Completing a PhD thesis, even in a big lab and even with your committee and colleagues around you for support, is ultimately a lone endeavor.  It’s just you who has to go into the lab and run those assays.  It’s just you up at 2 a.m. pounding out that manuscript.  It’s just you at the bar with a pile of literature to sift through ((What, you’ve never sat at a bar with a pile of papers from the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research?  Maybe that one was just me…)).  Finishing that dissertation shows that you take initiative and are committed, self-motivated, self-disciplined and very tenacious.  Work well under pressure and with minimal supervision?  You betcha!
  • Computer skills.  Undoubtedly after writing a behemoth document like a PhD dissertation, you are a master of Word, Pages or LaTeX. As well, you’ve probably used a whole slew of data analysis software, spreadsheets, databases, etc.
  • Communication skills.  Writing manuscripts = written communication  skills.  Teaching and conference presentations = public speaking skills and the ability to explain complex material in an easy-to-understand manner.
  • Quick learner.  While there have been lots of things I had to get up to speed on in the jobs I’ve had since I finished my PhD, having done a PhD shows that I have the skills to being an expert in new areas quite quickly.

One thing to remember is that many employers outside academia don’t understand what doing a PhD is all about – so you need to highlight all these skills!  And don’t forgot all the extracurricular things you’ve worked on – committees, hobbies, sports and jobs are all a wellspring of transferable skills too!

For Further Reading:
There’s tonnes of information out there on this kind of thing, so Google away!  Here are a few of the things that I read along the way:

  • PhD Skills by Pat Cryer
  • Identifying Transferable Skills and Applying for Jobs Outside Academy


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