The Skills We Forgot To Mention


Completing a PhD often is a rocky road that ends in a fork. Once PhD candidates are in the final phase of writing up their dissertation, many face a new challenge: Finding their next job. Even though the majority of new PhDs eventually end up working in the private sector, the transition from the university to a company can seem difficult. Many consider their skills too limited and their research experience irrelevant. Some employers share this view, and believe researchers live in a ‘bubble’ or an ‘ivory tower’ where they investigate abstract theoretical concepts that are not relevant for practitioners. Although the world of academics certainly is a world in itself, hiring an employee with a doctoral degree can actually provide companies with the skills and knowledge they need to stay ahead of the crowd. During their time at the university, PhD candidates acquire a set of skills not exclusively related to research that are highly relevant for jobs outside academics. However, as these skills are not the main focus during a PhD project, they tend to be forgotten.

Entering a PhD trajectory is often seen as the first step to a career as a researcher. During a PhD project, a candidate focuses on a specific topic for a number of years and independently conducts multiple studies relevant to that topic. These research-related skills can also be useful outside of academia. For example, if one learns how to conduct a solid study with reliable findings, one can also signal flaws in other studies. This means a PhD can critically assess research from a variety of fields. Scientific findings, for example about the persuasiveness of a message, are crucial for determining the course of action for a company because these decisions should not be based on unreliable assumptions.

In addition to research related skills, PhD candidates acquire many ‘soft’ skills that are useful for all kinds of jobs. Doing a PhD means that you work independently, using creativity to build your studies, handling tight deadlines and keeping your cool when you are under high pressure. Taking the bigger picture into account and identifying main problems is a necessity. PhD’s are also skilled multitaskers; writing one paper, collecting data for another, preparing a conference presentation, teaching one class and grading exams of another, all at the same time, teaches them efficient time management. And do not forget about all those ‘hard’ skills. Data collection, analysis, visualization, and presentations at international conferences are part of most PhD programs in the social sciences. But even more specific skills, like creating apps, scraping social media and other websites, or the use of different programming languages, are not uncommon.

Thus, completing a PhD not only is a preparation for a career in academia – those who successfully finish it, leave with a resume full of skills that allows them to start a career outside of academia as well. That is not to say that changing from a university job to one in the private sector is easy, but this is the case for any career change. In order to make this change successful, it is decisive that we remember all the skills that PhD candidates gain on their way to becoming a doctor. Companies can add a critical, independently working, creative, deadline-adhering, multitasking knowledge-maker to their team. It is just up to the PhD candidate to remember that and tell future employers about it.

This blogpost was inspired by the NeFCA Young Scholars Network panel session “Successfully stepping into the labour market after a PhD” during the yearly conference Etmaal van de Communicatiewetenschap (24 hours of Communication Science), 8-9 February 2018 in Ghent.

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