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Beyond research: essential skills you learn in the PhD

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Guest post by Dr. Katharina Freund

Introduction:  There are an increasing number of opportunities for Higher Degree Research graduates to use their skills and understanding of Higher Education and research to work across a range of professional units in Universities.  I’m delighted to have an input from Dr. Katharina Freund, UOW Digital Media and Communications PhD graduate and Senior Learning Designer at ANU to give us a thorough overview of how valuable her research skills and training have been to her career.  Over to you, Katie…


While I was completing my PhD study at UOW in Media & Communications, I was sure I was going to become an academic. Absolutely positive. I was working as a casual tutor at the time, and the course I was teaching in required me to join Twitter. It was through Twitter that I became exposed to many of the broader issues in higher education: an increasingly casualised workforce, limited research positions, precarious working conditions. I saw many friends and colleagues struggling to balance family life with contract work and publication deadlines. I read a lot of what is commonly called “quit lit”, and was inspired by alt-ac (or alternative academic) career paths. Very rapidly I realised that what I wanted, more than being a researcher, was job stability. And that I would have to look beyond the confines of academic positions to find it.

After undertaking some short-term contracts in the central learning and teaching area at UOW, I found a different career path as a member of professional staff. I am now a Senior Learning Designer at the Australian National University in Canberra. I wanted to share some of my reflections on how PhD study can be valuable for a range of career paths.

There are a huge range of roles in higher education

Universities employ highly trained professionals in a range of areas – education experts, lab managers, research professionals, grant and funding specialists, project managers, strategists, consultants, and many more. PhD graduates have essential familiarity with the higher education sector, and faculties are always looking for people with discipline knowledge. In my own case, I was able to combine my love of teaching with my background in digital communication into my current role as a learning designer, where I lead course development projects on using technology effectively and design courses to be delivered online. According to my manager, it was my teaching experience and background in higher education that was the key factor in why I was an attractive candidate for my current role.

What are your soft skills?

As Leonard Cassuto points out, PhD programs don’t necessarily do a good job of preparing their students for a life outside of academia. I certainly didn’t feel prepared by my program to have a non-academic role. But in retrospect, now that I have found a new career path, I see that it is the soft skills that I learned during my degree that have been so valuable to my employers, rather than any particular discipline knowledge I hold.

Unless someone wants a lecture prepared about digital community structures on Livejournal, in which case–


Writing, editing, and making effective arguments

Writing is a core part of the PhD, and one that is honed over many (many, many, many) drafts of the thesis. I also feel comfortable seeing my writing as a “work in progress”, like the thesis, and am familiar with working with supervisors, editors, and publishers to hone my writing. I may no longer be writing a thesis, but the ability to craft an argument and support it appropriately is key to my professional practice. I use this skill to prepare reports, strategy documents, project proposals, marketing materials, website content, and many other types, and to develop these documents with colleagues and managers.

Taking an evidence-based approach

Using relevant scholarly evidence to support my writing and arguments is key to helping my team make informed decisions. I often begin projects at work with a quick literature review, and incorporate this into proposals, training, and negotiating with management. It allows my team to make more compelling arguments for the approaches we take.

Summarise and explain quickly and clearly

I suspect this particular skill came from my tutoring experience, where I often taught multiple courses simultaneously and had to rapid learn about many different topics and then help first-year students understand them. This meant I have learned to rapidly digest information, and summarise it for non-experts. This particular skill it vital when working on large, collaborative projects with a range of stakeholders from different backgrounds, where I need to negotiate and build understanding.

Public speaking

During my PhD, I spent several years practicing public speaking through conference presentations and lecturing, and over time my comfort and confidence has significantly improved. Many of my work colleagues struggle particularly with public speaking, and now I often find myself “volunteered” to do quite a bit of it! This includes presenting, training, leading seminars, and facilitating meetings.

Moving forward

Despite my overall satisfaction with my current career trajectory, I will confess that part of me still wishes for an academic role. I do consider applying now and then, but as I am not willing to move for work at this stage it limits my options significantly. In the meantime, I try to stay “research-active” by publishing once or twice a year and attending conferences so that I can be considered for academic positions. This can be a difficult balancing act, as my work research is in education and my personal research area is communications and fan studies. I hope to contribute another blog post in the near future about this issue.

What about you?

I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on where to go after the PhD, and what other skills you’ve learned from your research degree. Leave a comment and share your perspectives and we can chat more about it!

About Katie

Dr Katharina Freund is a Senior Learning Designer at the Australian National University, where she leads projects on education technology and professional learning. She completed her PhD in digital communications and media studies at the University of Wollongong in 2012, where she studied online fan communities under the supervision of Professor Philip Kitley, Associate Professor Graham Barwell and Dr. Andrew Whelan.  She has worked as a sessional teacher, project manager, educational designer, and research assistant, and publishes in communications and education technology.

Thanks Katie (and for your enthusiasm to write another post in the future – we won’t forget!)

Keep an eye on professional staff opportunities in Australia HE through websites such as Times Higher Education Unijobs

At UOW, download our list of HDR careers websites and resources from the UOW HDR Careers website  

One Comment

  1. Thanks for having me Sarah! I was very flattered to be invited to share my experiences on this blog – I’d love to hear from other HDR / PhD students and graduates about their experiences, and what soft skills or assets they might be developing in different disciplines!

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