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PhD Transferable Skills

Translating your skills and experiences.

Transferable skills are skills you acquire or learn in one setting that can be applied or translated to new and different settings, environments, and activities. Doctoral students often fall into the trap of seeing their skills as applicable in only one setting, thus do not recognize that they are qualified for a wide variety of career paths. Don’t let this happen to you! In the table below you will find a list of skills most sought after by employers. In the final column of the table are examples of activities that demonstrate these essential skills. For several of the skills you can also take online assessments to identify which areas you still need to develop.

ESSENTIAL SKILLS: Adaptability , Analytic skills , Balance & resilience , Communication skills ( oral and written ), Conflict resolution/negotiation , Cultural/Intercultural , Discipline-specific skills , Ethics & Integrity , Follow-through/Ability to get things done , Fundraising , Independent (self-starter), Intelligence , Inter-/Multi- disciplinary , Interpersonal skills , Leadership (program) , Leadership (personnel/management) , Networking & collaboration , Organization , Outreach , Project management , Research , Self-direction/Entrepreneurial skills , Supervision , Technical skills (information technology), Work ethic

Essential Skills and Competencies for Graduate Students 1 :

1 Contents of table are adapted from Blickley, et al. (2012). “Graduate Student’s Guide to Necessary Skills for Nonacademic Conservation Careers.” Conservation Biology, 27:1. 2 Winterton, Delamare - Le Deist, and Stringfellow (2006). “Typology of knowledge, skills and competences: clarification of the concept and prototype.”

Additional resources on transferable skills:

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The top 3 skills needed to do a PhD are skills employers want too

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Senior Lecturer and Academic Lead, University of Sydney

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Associate Professor, Macquarie University

Disclosure statement

Lilia Mantai is an Executive Member of the Australasian Council for Undergraduate Research (ACUR), a non-for-profit association promoting undergraduate research.

Mauricio Marrone developed the data dashboard and is the founder of ResGap.com.

Macquarie University and University of Sydney provide funding as members of The Conversation AU.

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More and more people are applying to do a PhD. What many don’t know is it takes serious skills to do one – and, more importantly, complete it.

We analysed the selection criteria for PhD candidates on a platform that advertises PhD programs. Our analysis of thousands of these ads revealed exactly what types of skills different countries and disciplines require.

Why do a PhD in the first place?

People pursue a PhD for many reasons. They might want to stand out from the crowd in the job market, learn how to do research, gain a deeper expertise in an area of interest, or pursue an academic career.

Sadly, too many PhD students never finish. The PhD turns out to be too hard, not well supported, mentally taxing, financially draining, etc. Dropping the PhD often means significant financial loss for institutions and individuals, not to mention the psychological costs of other consequences such as low self-esteem, anxiety and loneliness .

Read more: 1 in 5 PhD students could drop out. Here are some tips for how to keep going

Our society and economy can only benefit from a better-educated workforce, so it is in the national interest to manage PhD intakes and be clear about expectations. The expansion of doctoral education led to a more competitive selection process, but the criteria are opaque.

To clarify PhD expectations, we turned to a European research job platform supported by EURAXESS (a pan-European initiative by the European Commission) where PhD programs are advertised as jobs. Required skills are listed in the selection criteria. We analysed 13,562 PhD ads for the types of skills different countries and disciplines require.

We made three specific findings.

1. Top 3 skills needed for a PhD

It turns out that it takes many so-called transferable skills to do a PhD. These are skills that can be translated and applied to any professional context. The top three required skills are:

communication – academic writing, presentation skills, speaking to policy and non-expert audiences

research – disciplinary expertise, data analysis, project management

interpersonal – leadership, networking, teamwork, conflict resolution.

Trending skill categories are digital (information processing and visualisation) and cognitive (abstract, critical and creative thinking and problem-solving).

Bar chart showing percentages of each category of skills/qualifications required by PhD ads

Previous research shows transferable skills are requested for post-PhD careers, including both academic and non-academic jobs. Our research shows such skills are already required to do a PhD. Those keen to do a PhD are well advised to provide strong evidence of such skills when applying.

2. Skill demands vary by country and discipline

Skill demands significantly differ by country and discipline. For example, 62% of medical science ads mention interpersonal skills. This is twice as often as in biological science ads. Digital and cognitive skills score much higher in the Netherlands than in other countries.

Our research article reports on 2016-2019 data and the top five represented countries (Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and the UK) and the top five represented disciplines (biological sciences, physics, chemistry, engineering and medical sciences). However, you can use this tool for granular detail on 52 countries – including non-European countries like Australia, New Zealand, the US, etc. – and 37 disciplines included in the data sample. For continuously updated data, please visit https://www.resgap.com/ .

3. PhD expectations are rising

We see a rise in PhD expectations over time (2016-2019) as more skills are listed year on year. The publish or perish culture prevails and rising demands on academics have led to calls for more engaged research, collaborations with industry, and research commercialisation .

PhD students get accustomed early to competitiveness and high expectations.

Read more: Is it a good time to be getting a PhD? We asked those who've done it

Research-based learning needs to start early

These insights have implications for pre-PhD education and pathways. Undergraduate and postgraduate degrees can further promote PhD readiness by embedding authentic hands-on research with academic or corporate partners, either as part of the curriculum or as extracurricular activities.

Many postgraduate degrees offer authentic research project work opportunities but are shorter. Those entering the PhD without a postgraduate degree miss out on developing essential research skills.

Authentic research experiences need to happen early on in higher education. Organisations like the Council on Undergraduate Research ( CUR ), the Australasian Council for Undergraduate Research ( ACUR ) and the British Conference of Undergraduate Research ( BCUR ) are designed to support institutions and individuals to do this effectively. They showcase great models of undergraduate research.

To get a good idea of what undergraduate research looks like, start with this comprehensive paper and catch up on undergraduate research news from Australasia .

We know research-based learning develops employability skills such as critical thinking, resilience and independence.

Embed career development in PhD programs

Doctoral training needs to take note, too, if it is to further build on the skill set that PhD applicants bring with them.

The good news is doctoral education has transformed in recent decades. It’s catching up to the call for better-skilled graduates for a range of careers. The training focus has shifted towards generating practice-based and problem-solving knowledge, and engaged research with other sectors.

Read more: It's time to reduce the number of PhD students, or rethink how doctoral programs work

Some institutions now offer skill and career training. Generally, though, this sort of training is left to the graduates themselves. Many current PhD candidates will attest that the highly regulated and tight PhD schedule leaves little room for voluntary activities to make them more employable.

Most PhD candidates also know more than half of them will not score a long-term academic job. Institutions would serve them better by formally embedding tailored career development opportunities in PhD programs that prepare for academic and non-academic jobs .

It’s not only PhD graduates’ professional and personal well-being that will benefit but also the national economy.

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Phd transferable skills, you are here.

Sometimes it's difficult for PhD students to identify what skills they have since the academic experience is not necessarily focused on articulating skill sets. We also often find that PhD students struggle, understandably, to present the transferability of their academic experiences to non-academic contexts. Here are examples of PhD skill sets and ways to describe them.

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10 PhD Transferable Skills You Can Use in Most Jobs

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“No one wants to hire PhDs because they are overqualified and too independent!”

This is one thing PhDs are tired of hearing. How can your PhD be a liability to your career? Rather, recruiters prefer PhD candidates over others not just for their qualification but for their PhD transferable skills.

Table of Contents

What are PhD Transferable Skills?

PhD Transferable skills are exactly what the name suggests! These are skills other than technical skills that you develop in your academic program. Furthermore, these skills are so versatile that they can be used everywhere, irrespective of the designation or field. Transferable skills are desirable because if you already have them, your employer will not have to train you on them. Consequently, you can make positive contributions in any career with these skills.

PhD Transferable Skills

Which are the PhD Transferable Skills that You Must Develop?

Considering that a doctorate degree is the highest degree in most fields, the skills that are required to excel in the same are impeccable. Undoubtedly, researchers pursuing their Ph.Ds. or postdocs develop technical skills related to their research. However, what they also need to develop is a host of research transferable skills they can use as they progress in their careers.

Which are 10 PhD Transferable Skills You Can Use in Most Jobs?

With the surge of jobs for PhD in STEM, recruiters struggle to fill those positions with talented candidates. They are always in need of trained professionals who know how to create information from scratch, and not just recreate it in a tinkering manner.

While your work experience and education during PhD is an asset, you’d be surprised to find out that employers in most sectors pay close attention to your skill set. According to a recently published survey report by LinkedIn, 57% of respondents identified soft transferable skills as more important than hard skills (technical knowledge).

Here, we list 10 significant PhD transferable skills students can use in most jobs.

1. Project Management

The most apparent thought that comes to anyone’s mind while thinking about PhD is “project management” skills. A successful research experience goes hand-in-hand with a well-planned project. As simple as it may sound, the management skills of a PhD graduate are not confined to his/her project. It starts right from ideation of the research project to final submission, which results in an ultimate success of the project. Different stages of a PhD’s journey demands customized planning and organizing to ensure that deadlines are met and projects are completed efficiently and effectively. Furthermore, a PhD makes sure that all plans are duly incorporated. Employers seek candidates with PhD transferable skills as they want someone who can not only see a task through, but can visualize what needs to happen on a project from start to finish.

2. Accelerated Learning

As a doctor of philosophy, the ability to ascertain knowledge runs thick in the veins of a PhD researcher. An inquisitive mind and quick comprehension of technical things is interlinked to your accelerated learning ability. Moreover, being a PhD, you attend conferences and read papers to stay on top of the latest trends in your field. Consequently, PhD transferable skills ensure employers of your ability to understand technical procedures, protocols, and methodologies.

3. Time Management

Time waits for none! The key to a tension-free and smooth workflow is effective time management . While planning is important, defining your deadlines, setting realistic and achievable goals, and adhering to them takes you a long way! At a job, every moment spent on an unfocused or frivolous task, is a waste of money. Contradictorily, time management may not be viewed similarly in academia. However, as a PhD your motive has been to complete your program in time. This acts as a serious motivation to develop excellent time management skills.

4. Attention to Detail

One of the essential core skills of a PhD is paying attention to the details. To the best of your experience as a researcher, you are aware that mistakes can be missed in the bat of an eye. Therefore, it is a known fact that PhDs are one of the finest people to make sure that each project runs through a fine-tooth comb. As a result, employers can count on you for detail-oriented assignments that require critical assessment and corrections.

5. Ability to Collaborate

As stated earlier, PhDs are not new to working in groups to achieve common goals. Your significant contribution in research groups, as a researcher and author during your PhD program demonstrates your ability to collaborate . Employers seek candidates who are team players making positive contributions to the success of a group.

6. Writing Proficiency

Given the nature of modern technology, writing may not be a primary task of most job profiles. However, it sure is an essential element for academic and allied knowledge dissemination careers. In due course of pursuing a PhD, you come across countless reading material from authors all around the world. This subsequently stocks up your bank of vocabulary and enhances your writing skills for an unambiguous conveyance of messages and information.

7. Leadership Skills

Leadership skills aren’t only your ability to supervise and manage a team, but to take the lead on a project and get a team to follow through and achieve goals. As a PhD you’re the “lead” for your project. While it doesn’t necessarily involve leading other people, it still means being responsible for major decisions to accomplish targets. Additionally, it is common for PhD students to work in research groups and collaborate on shared projects. Nonetheless, they also demonstrate leadership while organizing conferences and seminars for their department or university. PhDs are also seen showing leadership skills while advising students and mentoring peers.

8. Critical Thinking and Analysis

As a PhD, it’s a given that you are able to analyze data and provide logical reasoning to it. Throughout your program, you collect data, analyze it, and draw conclusions. The ability of a PhD to critically examine everything and deliver logical reasoning behind it is not new to anyone. A PhD is well versed with 360-degree logical thinking without being biased. Employers seek these research transferable skill of a PhD to consider alternative solutions to a problem and suggest next steps for efficient functioning.

9. Communication Skills

This is the master of PhD transferable skills. Even if you decide to step into a career that is a 180-degree sweep from your PhD, you’d still need to communicate! Your ability to communicate efficiently is developed right from preparing for your PhD interview, presenting papers and posters at academic conferences, defending your thesis, etc. As verbal communication affects your ability to work with your peers, it is one of the most sought after research transferable skills by employers.

10. Adaptability

A PhD isn’t only about specialization. Rather, it’s about the ability to specialize. During your PhD you learn to tackle a new topic, solve it, and move on to the next problem. Almost all careers require employees to focus on specific topics and projects in detail to achieve a specific goal. Your ability of in-depth specialization in academic research project demonstrates adaptability and flexibility —quite literally!

So the next time you are asked, “What skills do you bring to this position?”, you certainly know how to answer that! Brush up your PhD transferable skills to help you make the right career switch. Remember that your PhD isn’t a liability after all. In fact, it’s an asset! Let us know how you acquired these valuable skills that are highly sought after by employers today.

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The 5 Skills of Successful PhD Students

The soft skills you need to be a successful PhD student.

A PhD is not only a test of professional aptitude but also a test of character. Looking back at my time as a PhD student, I can say that it has been a taxing but equally rewarding time that I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world. Doing a PhD has not only improved my scientific and technical understanding but has also strengthened my character.

In this post I describe five characteristics that I found to be helpful in successfully completing my PhD.

1. Self-Reliance

Doing a PhD, self-reliance is essential. Why? You need to pursue projects yourself with miniscule external oversight. This means that you continually need to motivate yourself and need to develop strategies for tackling the challenges along the way.

Of course, you have a supervisor to guide you during your studies. While it’s extremely important to have a good relationship with your supervisor, you also shouldn’t grow too dependent on him. For example, when my supervisor left for a faculty position at another university, I had to rely on myself much more than before.

You should not expect your supervisor’s assistance to be a silver bullet to all of your problems for the following reasons:

2. Commitment

A PhD requires a tremendous investment of time and energy. When I started my PhD, I knew that I would have to commit the next several years of your life to this task. “Why does a PhD require a greater level of commitment than other degrees?”, you may ask. Doing a PhD is challenging in several respects, for example:

So, to successfully complete a PhD you need a very high level of commitment. However, you should not forget to maintain an appropriate work-life balance . Burning the candle at both ends may threaten your success.

3. Resilience

Resilience is the ability to get back on your feet after a major setback. During my PhD I have experienced many setbacks, for example:

So, try to see setbacks as part of the journey rather than nuisances.

4. Confidence

While pushing to expand the boundaries of knowledge, you will also become aware of your own ignorance. When this happens, it is easy to fall prey to the imposter syndrome . However, one should realize that this is normal. Even Socrates’ once said the following:

His statement suggests that a person who is aware of his own ignorance is wiser than the one who is not. Achieving this awareness should be seen as an indicator of growth rather than an indicator of incompetence.

5. Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence means awareness of one’s own emotions and those of others. As a PhD student, you will work with different stakeholders: your supervisor, your colleagues, your collaborators, etc. Each one of these people has different goals that only partially overlap, for example:

Due to the differences in goals, conflicts are pre-programmed. However, with emotional intelligence you can navigate your way through conflicts without losing track of your goals. If you know what motivates the people you are working together with, this can go a long way towards fostering emotional understanding.

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phd student skills

Beyond the Professoriate

10 Transferable Skills from Your PhD that Employers Want

In a job interview, an employer may ask you: “What skills do you bring to this position?”

Do you know how to answer this question?

You may be surprised to find out that your PhD may not be your most important asset. In addition to your work experience and education, employers in the private sector pay close attention to your core skill set.

The good news is that you have valuable skills as a PhD. You have transferable skills that employers want. A transferable skill is a skill you have used in one work context (in this case, in higher education), and that you can use in a different work context (e.g. in government, at a non-profit, in a corporate setting).

When speaking with employers or when crafting job documents, you need to clearly articulate your skills and illustrate how they are relevant to the specific role you are seeking. You will be translating your academic experience using language that is familiar to the employer.

Here is a list of 10 transferable skills that you have developed during your PhD and that are valuable to employers:

1. Communication skills

Written and oral communication skills are extremely valuable in today’s workplace. Employers seek job candidates who can:

Think about the ways in which you did this during your PhD.

You wrote business communications (so many emails!), recommendation letters, course syllabi and calendars, course assignments, lectures, slides, conference papers and posters, and/or grant proposals. Perhaps you ran your department’s social media, edited papers for publication, and wrote articles in the university newspaper. Don’t forget your book-length dissertation and the various articles you published in peer-reviewed journals.

In your free time, you may have volunteered at the university radio station, created blogs or podcasts, wrote poetry or novels, tutored, or performed in concerts or in plays.

2. Presentation and facilitation skills

Businesses are always on the lookout for people with storytelling skills who can take their customers or employees on a journey. They want candidates who can present ideas in a compelling format, in scenarios or case studies. They value applicants who can “think on their feet” while facilitating discussions.

As an instructor you practice presentation and facilitation skills every day in the classroom. You had to lead discussions and train members in your lab. You defended project proposals and your dissertation, you chaired sessions, gave guest lectures, and presented conference papers and posters to expert audiences.

3. Organizational skills

To function as a teaching assistant you needed to stay organized. You kept track of your students’ records, attendance, and grades. You also maintained a syllabus calendar and set deadlines for assignments and research projects. You kept a lab notebook. You took notes to organize your research materials and ideas. You certainly juggled multiple projects at once, perhaps teaching several courses while also conducting research projects and writing your dissertation.

In the fast-paced environment of industry jobs, employers seek candidates who can stay on top of their various projects while respecting deadlines.

Organizational skills are project management skills. To make this skill even more marketable, consider learning how to use a task management software (e.g. Trello, Asana) to manage your own projects.

4. Feedback and evaluation skills

As a PhD or faculty member, you are used to giving and to receiving feedback from students, advisors, colleagues, and reviewers. You know how to make appropriate changes to your work or processes after reviewing feedback.

In the age of online reviews, employers want to collect and monitor customer or client satisfaction feedback to make positive changes to their business. They want job candidates who know how to resolve conflict when clients or teammates are unhappy.

You certainly have exercised your feedback and evaluation skills numerous times during your PhD:

Show the employer that you are adaptable.

5. Critical thinking skills

As a PhD, you know how to solve problems and how to analyze and interpret data. You are able to consider alternative solutions to a problem and suggest next steps.

Employers look for candidates who demonstrate 360-degree thinking, who can see a problem from various angles.

During interviews, employers evaluate your ability to think critically when asking certain behavioral questions. For example, they may ask you, “What was your most challenging job situation?” or “Tell me about a problem you solved at work.”

Brainstorm examples that you could share in an interview or conversation with an employer. Perhaps you coached a colleague who faced a difficult classroom situation or perhaps you had to help a student solve a problem with an assignment.

The employer will be paying attention to your decision-making process. Explain why you took each step. Choose an example with a positive outcome.

6. Leadership and mentoring skills

Today’s employers want to hire leaders and mentors, candidates who demonstrate empathy, patience, flexibility, and adaptability. They want candidates who know how to create and share a vision or plan, and who have guided employees through a process.

During your PhD, you have shown leadership and mentoring skills while advising students, holding office hours, and mentoring peers. You have created a vision for the semester with your syllabus, in which you outline the goals and outcomes for the course. You have guided your students through a 16-week process to meet their learning objectives.

You were flexible and adaptable when you had to adjust the course calendar to account for university closure on snow or ice days. If you had to conduct research internationally, you had to adapt to a new environment and perhaps even learn a new language.

7. Management and supervision skills

A manager and supervisor helps the team move towards a common goal by following up on the progress of a project and making adjustments when things get off course.

There are no grades in the corporate world, but you may be managing and supervising employees’ work.

During your PhD, perhaps you had to supervise a team of teaching assistants as a lead TA. As a faculty member, you likely acted as an advisor to a student club, supervised theses, coordinated course sections, and mentored teaching assistants. In the classroom and in extra-curricular activities, you have overseen work, supervised people, and kept them on task.

Employers seek candidates who are able to self-manage. If you wrote a dissertation, you had to manage your time and a project on your own.

8. Creativity and innovation skills

Employers look for creative and innovative candidates. Think of ways in which you taught in a creative, open-minded way. During your PhD, did you create a piece of art, invent something, write a piece of music? Perhaps you came up with a new process to solve problems, or an alternative approach to completing a task. Use these examples in your job documents and interviews. Demonstrate that you are not afraid to try new things.

9. Listening and reflection skills

Companies need to listen to their customers to stay in business, and many positions now pay attention to the “voice of the customer”. Companies struggle to keep their most talented employees and realize that they also need to pay attention to what their employees and team members are saying. They want employees who show empathy.

You refined these skills during your PhD since teaching is a customer-facing position. You have listened to feedback from your students and from your supervisor, and have reflected on what works and what doesn’t in the classroom. Thanks to your experience, you can tell if a student is frustrated by the way in which they ask questions. You have the skills to help solve problematic situations.

10. Learning skills

Your PhD proves that you are a master at learning.

Employers seek job candidates who are willing to learn and who are intellectually curious. If you go to networking events in your desired industry and ask questions, employers will take notice. Attend conferences and read industry papers to stay on top of the latest trends.

You want to show that you are not afraid to learn new things. You can sign up for day workshops to learn how to use software that is required for industry jobs. On LinkedIn Learning, you can take short courses and post these certificates of completion on your profile.

Employers want self-directed learners who can find resources to help solve a problem for the team and for the company. Show how you translate theory into practice in the examples you give the employer.

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  2. The top 3 skills needed to do a PhD are skills employers want too

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  3. PhD transferable skills | University Career Center

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  8. 10 Transferable Skills from Your PhD that Employers Want

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