What researchers have to offer
The key thing to remember when identifying what you have to offer is to view your research degree as a job. So, in effect you already have at least three years of employment history behind you, and a range of experiences, skills, attributes and behaviours to draw on when approaching new employers.
Your challenge is to see yourself as others could see you – a professional researcher with expert knowledge, a wide range of relevant skills and a desirable qualification.
Three examples of how to develop your skills during your PhD
Abigail Hernandez, PhD student, talks about why she applied for the Building Experience and Skill Travel Scholarship (BESTS) and the benefits.
Dr Victoria Richards, Senior Editor at global publisher Springer Nature, talks about how she developed her editing skills while studying a PhD at Nottingham.
Dr Carl Mundy is an analyst consultant for Tessella, part of the Altram Group, a global leader in engineering and R&D services.
Carl explains how he wanted to use specific aspects of his PhD in astronomy in his future career.
He also talks about the transferable skills he developed during his PhD and how he uses these in his current role.
How to map your skills
When considering your skills, attributes and behaviours – the following questions may also provide useful prompts:
- What did you think you would need/use in your research degree?
- What have you used most so far?
- Have you developed and used other skills and behaviours? List them.
- What would those supervisors and peers say were your main skills?
If you’re struggling to articulate your skills and need some ideas to start you off, use these websites:
Jobs on Toast - employability skills Vitae - list of researchers’ skills and competencies
Vitae, a non-profit organisation dedicated to supporting the professional development of researchers, produced their ‘Employers’ briefing: Targeting the postgraduate and researcher market’' in 2009, in which they outlined for employers the employability skills gained by doctoral level applicants:
- An ability to understand and create knowledge at the forefront of their discipline
- An ability to conceptualise, design and implement projects for the generation of new knowledge and/or understanding
- An ability to analyse a problem and generate creative solutions to it, drawing on existing knowledge and the gathering of new knowledge
- An ability to work independently and under their own initiative
- An ability to plan and deliver a large piece of work independently and over a long period of time
- Experience of cutting-edge research skills and techniques
What are employers looking for?
There are various useful sources of information that will help you to understand what employers are looking for:
Generic skills - Confederation of British Industry
In member surveys undertaken annually by organisations such as the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the lists of generic skills employers value commonly include the following:
- Team working
- Problem solving and analytical skills
- Communication skills
- International cultural awareness
- Self management/resilience
- Business and customer awareness
Sector specific skills - Professional bodies
If you already have a specific sector in mind, relevant professional bodies often conduct surveys of their members, focusing on skills shortages. This should help you to identify valuable skills to emphasise in job applications.
Role specific - Prospects
Prospects provides a long list of job profiles covering a wide range of sectors. While they are primarily aimed at the undergraduate reader, they do include PhD specific information where relevant, and they all incorporate a list of the skills required in each role
Sector specific skills - Sector Skills Councils
Sector Skills Councils often provide relevant information on their websites. Although primarily aimed at a school or undergraduate audience, they will give you a good overview of skill requirements in a particular sector.
Employers attitudes to recruiting doctoral students - Vitae
In a 2009 Vitae survey of employer practice looking at attitudes towards applications from doctoral graduates, 73% of employers surveyed would welcome more applications from PhDs.
Sector or role specific skills - job adverts
Another way to identify the skills required by a particular sector or role is to review a number of currently advertised job descriptions and person specifications and look for common themes.
It’s worth noting, that while job descriptions for academic posts require highly specific knowledge and technical expertise, outside academia the ‘essentials’ are not always set in stone and the successful candidate may not be able to tick every box in a person specification. Having the right mix of skills and experience, or particularly strong skills in a key area, can secure the role.