“Students often give up when they realise how few jobs there are in their specialism. Believing they have nothing else to offer they end up jobless.”
The long haul is over and the prospect of lucrative job offers are an enticing alternative to months of solitary confinement in the research laboratory. Yet very few PhD students do themselves justice in the job market, often under-selling themselves to prospective employers because they fail to appreciate the value of the special skills they have honed during their research.
Surprisingly few doctoral students are aware of their employability. They often give up when they realise how few jobs are on offer in their specialist area. Believing they have nothing to offer elsewhere, they end up depressed and jobless.
Others cannot see beyond their contribution to their field of study. But most employers do not view findings at the frontiers of knowledge as relevant to their business, except in rare cases.
In order to be more attractive to employers and to prepare for a wider range of careers, PhD students need to thing further than their subject expertise. They need to be able to sell those skills and abilities developed during the process of the PhD, and which are valued in wider settings – the so-called transferable skills.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters in its reports, Skills for the Twenty-First Century, suggests that graduates who are most attractive to employers will possess transferable skills in four broad areas: specialist, generalist, self-reliance, and teamwork.
Specialist skills are easily recognised. Therefore a great deal of work has to be done to shed light on the skills in the other three areas, largely due to the Employment Department’s Enterprise in Higher Education Initiative, but it has been almost entirely for undergraduates. Little work has been done on what additional skills it is reasonable to expect at PhD level. There are a few transferable skills which employers would value, and which it is reasonable to expect from postgraduates. The crucial point about these skills is that they should develop naturally, as part of the PhD process. Students, who are aware of these additional skills should have a competitive edge. Furthermore, in jobs outside their specialisms, they should attract higher salaries than applicants without PhDs. All PhD students will, by the time they finish, have spent three or more years on their research, with its various highs and lows. This feat should develop the transferable skill of being able to see any prolonged task or project through to completion. It should include, to varying extents which depend on the discipline and the research topic, the abilities to plan, to allocate time and money, and to trouble-shoot.
In addition, the PhD research needs to keep up with the subject, to be flexible and able to change direction. The abilities to think laterally and creatively and to develop alternative approaches are also highly necessary. Adaptability is highly valued by employers who need people to anticipate and lead change in a fast-moving world, yet resist it where it is only for its own sake. All PhD students should have learned to set their work in a wider field of knowledge. The process requires an extensive study of literature and should develop the transferable skills of being able to sift through large quantities of information, to take on board other points of view, challenge premises, question procedures and interpret meaning.
All PhD students have to be able to present their work through seminars, progress reports and their thesis. Seminars should develop confident presentation, and group discussion skills. Dealing with criticism and presenting cases ought to be second nature. Report and thesis-writing should develop the skills needed for composing reports, manuals and press releases and for summarising bulky documents.
The doctoral road can be lonely, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Yet the skills of coping with isolation are transferable and can be valued highly by employers. They include self-direction; self-discipline; self-motivation; resilience; tenacity and the abilities to prioritise and juggle a number of tasks at once. Students working on group projects should be able to claim advance team-working skills.
Further examples of transferable skills are many and depend on the interests of the student and the nature of research. Think about advanced computer literacy, facility with the Internet, and the ability to teach effectively. Negotiation skills in accessing resources can be highly sought after. And doctoral students used to networking with others, using project management techniques, and finding their way round specialist libraries or archives.
Since transferable skills of the type I have suggested should be developed naturally during the PhD, the problem for students does normally not lie in acquiring them, but in appreciating the full scope of what they are, in recognising the extent to which they have been acquired and in being able to demonstrate them to potential employers.
How much better it would be if PhD students could be made aware of their exciting and developing transferable skills as a regular ongoing part of their PhD. This would need only modest amounts of time and money. At institutional level, probably all this would need would be overt encouragement.
The main action would start at the level of the department or research group, to develop a checklist of possible transferable skills along the lines described above, but with an emphasis appropriate for the discipline. Supervisors as well as students would need to contribute to this task, so as to use all the available experience, enthusiasm and creativity. There would then need to be small but regular inputs of awareness raising activities, possibly within supervisions, or as part of a departmental seminar series, or provided centrally, perhaps by a graduate school.
To reach the largest number of students successfully, the provision must be integrated into their PhD programmes, so that supervisors, tutors and heads of department regard it as mainstream rather than peripheral. Bolt-on extras have little appeal as they do not contribute directly to the students’ main aim which is to complete the PhD. Ideally any such provision would also help students to show that they have acquired their transferable skills. There may be a case for a small portfolio containing, for example, photographs of press cuttings, etc. showing the student’s involvement in key activities; products or results of research, or plans, photographs or sketches representing them; and documentation of any special awards or commendations. Very little of this is done at the moment. This is both surprising and unfortunate. It is surprising since training in transferable skills is not uncommon at PhD level. Many PhD students, particularly in large departments in science and professional subjects, are trained in those transferable skills which now have general currency at undergraduate level. Also many PhD students are trained, via an institutional careers service, in the skills for career progression, such as researching the job-market, making applications and performing well in interviews and selection tests.
The lack of provision of the sort I envisage is unfortunate because it would require only modest resourcing and would be highly cost-effective in terms of raising the self-esteem of those PhD students who believe they have little to offer employers outside their field; improving the employment prospects of all participating students; and benefiting society by enabling employers to utilise expertise that they might not otherwise know existed.
At the time of writing this article Pat Cryer was a senior visiting professor at University College London and the originator and convenor of the Postgraduate Issues Network of the Society for Research into Higher Education.
The Times Higher: Research Opportunities. May 16 1997 p.1. The original article.
See also: Cryer, P. & Harris, M. The Research Student’s Guide to Success, 2000 (2nd Edn)
Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.