PhD to Industry: Transferrable Skills

As the job market landscape for PhDs continues to shift, with more and more PhDs opting for non-academic career paths, there is much work to do in supporting PhDs in honing “core competencies” in a way that makes them employable and competitive for industry positions. I’ve spent the past few years working to identify and translate the skills developed during a PhD in the context of industry and government needs, and found that I have the skills, I just needed to work on communicating them to potential employers.

Here are the major skills that aligned between my PhD experiences and responsibilities I frequently found in job posts:

  • Project Management

Juggling thesis research, lab research projects, papers, data collection, and perhaps teaching and serivice-related positions… these are just a few types of projects that PhDs learn how to manage on a regular basis. PhDs usually call it research, academic work, or just the day-to-day, but it’s critical to recognize that in an industry position, all of these components are projects to be managed.

  • Communication

If speaking at invited addresses, giving research presentations at large conferences, contributing to roundtable discussions, teaching, leading workshops, writing and publishing papers, and grant applications don’t count as written and verbal communication skill development then I don’t know what does.

  • Analytical/Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills

This one feels a bit obvious but these are valuable skills in academic and non-academic contexts alike, and should be clearly communicated to employers in industry positions.

  • A Healthy Balance of Independent and Collaborative Work

I’ll admit that this last one can vary between PhD experiences depending on the field, lab culture, university location, and likely a number of other factors, but my experience provided me with a number of opportunities for collaborative in addition to the independent work of a dissertation. I always highlight specific collaborative experiences on my resume and in my cover letter/introduction message when applying for industry positions.

 

In line with my own experience, I’ve recently read a paper1 on core competencies developed during the PhD that outlines 6 themes:

  1. Knowledge and technical skills
  2. Transferable competencies that can be formalized (e.g., communication, project management)
  3. Transferrable competencies that cannot be formalized (e.g., ability to solve complex problems and collaborate)
  4. Dispositions (e.g., creativity, autonomy)
  5. Behaviors (e.g., perseverance)
  6. Meta-competencies (e.g., capacity for adaptation)

My question three years ago was how do I develop and communicate my skills for industry positions? It’s nice to see emerging empirical research on the topic of capitalizing on PhD skills and competencies, and understanding what they are is a great starting point. I look forward to seeing where this research goes, as well as how my competencies will be perceived in my next career step.

References:

1. Durette, B., Fournier, M., & Lafon, M. (2016). The core competencies of PhDs. Studies in Higher Education41(8), 1355-1370. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2014.968540

 

-Rebecca Maymon

 

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