The annual ‘PhD Pathways’ event at Manchester University attracts 500 delegates and dozens of speakers, all former PhDs. It covers both academic and non-academic careers across twenty different workshops. I have recently taken up the reins of PGR lead within our careers team, and decided to pop along to this year’s event to find out about life beyond the PhD…
There was far too much (engaging!) content to cover in a single blog post, and I don’t think I could possibly do justice to the scale of the event. Instead, I’ve summarised my experience – and thoughts – in the following Q&A:
What distinguishes those who find it easier to find work which satisfies them at the end of their studies?
- Explore and are curious
- Connect – with each other, and with potential employers
- Bounce back if things go wrong
What they don’t do is sit back and wait for success to happen.
Aside from their technical skills, do PhDs have skills which they don’t show?
Yes! Resilience (see above). Commitment. Writing to a high standard. Self-starters. Problem solvers. People who are willing to take responsibility. Flexibility and ability to think laterally. PhD students are more than the subject they are studying.
When PhD students go for roles outside academia, what are the potential tripwires?
- (Perceived) Lack of business acumen
- (Perceived) Lack of teamwork skills.
- Failure to appreciate the need to prove yourself before you move on and up.
All is far from lost, however. If you have previous business experience which you can articulate (and re-frame if necessary) then you won’t fall foul of the “commercial or business awareness” requirement. Similarly PhD applicants who can anticipate concerns around team working and collaboration will find evidence to counteract this assumption. Don’t limit your horizons by thinking about your experience in narrow terms. Sometimes, it’s just a case of semantics. Yes, the two worlds may be divided by language, but there’s considerable overlap when it comes to skills and competencies – you just have to divorce yourself from an entrenched mindset.
There are a myriad examples of former PhDs whose rewards came not so much from the initial position they gained directly post-doctorate, but because they utilised their skills and capabilities within the professional workplace to good effect, persuading employers to give them additional projects, promotions and other opportunities for career development. As a PhD graduate you may have to start at a fairly modest level in the non-academic environment (or certainly more modest than you might hope after three years’ hard slog) but once ensconced in the workplace, progression and promotion can happen at a rapid rate.
Does the corporate world have a forced positivity which doesn’t exist in academia?
Answer: Yes! In a sense. Managers are not paid to not know, whereas not knowing is the starting point for a PhD and academic research. Shareholders want as close to certainty as possible, not the opposite! But seeing how your skills (and knowledge) can make a clear and demonstrable contribution to the success and profitability of an organisation may make the corporate world an attractive option. And for those seeking a stimulating environment, there’s the chance to use your intellectual agility and resourcefulness to solve new problems and learn new skills. (Although it wasn’t mentioned specifically, the fact that there are far more PhD students than academic positions was an additional reason to be reassured by the many contributors who absolutely loved the roles they found themselves in)
How do I best market my skills?
Story-telling, including telling stories about (and to make sense of) ourselves, is something we all do – so marketing yourself should be about telling your story in a powerful and compelling manner. Tell your story in a way which is interesting to your intended audience, and in a way which reflects the person you want to be. Marketing is about authentic communication, not contrived superficiality. ‘Making connections’ and ‘Sharing Stories’ are in fact close – arguably more satisfying – synonyms to marketing. As with any story, it’s important to find a clear narrative arc and use this to hook and engage your audience.
So – a question for you – what story are you going to tell?