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:

  • adapt and clarify complex information for non-technical audiences
  • communicate with clients effectively to manage expectations
  • train other team members
  • persuade others (e.g. sales and marketing)
  • write a variety of content from social media posts to technical reports

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:

  • when you had to explain to a student why they received a certain grade
  • when you had to intervene to solve interpersonal issues during student group projects
  • when you edited your manuscript after receiving reviewer comments
  • when you made changes to your syllabus or teaching style after reading your teaching evaluations

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.

Join the Beyond the Professoriate Community and connect with other PhDs who have learned how to turn their valuable skills into satisfying new careers.

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