HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

The useful PhD: transferable skills for a range of sectors


r by an Guest post by Dr. Colin Cortie

Introduction:  Communicating the value of your research qualification in sectors where it is not a common qualification can be a challenge.  Dr. Colin Cortie explains how he translated his PhD qualification by emphasising transferable skills in this useful post focussed on recognising your skills, addressing selection criteria and preparing for interview. 

Completing a PhD will give you a lot of skills, but are those skills useful outside of academia? Will they get you a job? I had to ask myself these tough questions when I finished my PhD and started looking for work outside of my academic field. At that point I wasn’t even entirely sure what my skills were outside of very specific lab-based techniques, and so I asked for help from the HDR careers counsellor and attended a careers session called ‘Get Shortlisted: Resume and Selection Criteria for HDR students’. As part of this training we looked at the Australian Qualifications Framework , and I was pleasantly surprised to see that people with PhDs have the “knowledge and skills to demonstrate autonomy, authoritative judgement, adaptability and responsibility as an expert and leading practitioner or scholar”. That sounds impressive (and it is), but is it employable?

The answer is yes, but you may have to work hard to convince employers of it. Recent research from Australian National University (Mewburn, Suominen and Grant, 2017),  has shown that a lot of advertised jobs ask for the types of skills PhDs have but don’t list a PhD in the job criteria. This suggests that employers aren’t always aware what skills PhDs can contribute. It gets worse, because according to one of the report’s authors, Will Grant: “There also seems to be a lack of trust in the PhD qualification as producing work-ready employees”.

But the years spent getting your PhD is an experience that should count towards being career-ready. One way to prove that it does is to focus on the transferable skills that come from having a PhD.  There is some discussion in the employment and management literature as to what transferable skills are most employable, but according to Seek  seven ‘universal’ skills that make transferring between industries easy are:

  1. Great communication skills
  2. Flexibility, adaptability and innovation
  3. Creativity and problem solving
  4. Results focused
  5. Great interpersonal skills
  6. Computer skills
  7. Ability to research

You need to be able to demonstrate that you have experience for each skill using an example of Challenge you faced, the Action you took, and the Results you got (the CAR method of answering questions. It works.) Simply saying ‘I have a PhD’ for each question is a sure-fire way not to get an interview.

Let’s start with the easy ones first. According to the Australian Qualifications Framework, having a PhD means you will have ‘specialised research skills for the advancement of learning and/or for professional practice’. This means you can tick ‘Ability to research’ off as a strength, probably even your defining strength. This doesn’t just apply to your work, either, but to also to mastering the other six skills as well. You have the skills to research better ways to communicate, to be creative, to improve your computer skills – completing a PhD should make you an expert in self-education.

Creativity and problem solving’ are also be strengths considering you should be able to ‘engage in critical reflection, synthesis and evaluation’ – you’ve been doing it for years now, all you need is a good example to showcase your skills. Likewise for ‘Flexibility, adaptability and innovation’, because you should be able to ‘extend and redefine existing knowledge or professional practice’. Did you have to adapt to changing theory or technology? Did you write code, build something, create something? Use it.

Moving on to:

  1. Results focused
  2. Computer skills

Are you results focussed, or are you going to be doing your PhD full time for the next decade? That’s up to you, but at least you have the time to make sure your computer skills are excellent. Mastering the Microsoft products is a must, but don’t stop there. Your supervisor might think that using the statistical coding program R might be overkill for your project, but being able to use R might be what gets you a job in data science.

Finally then:

  1. Great communication skills
  2. Great interpersonal skills

Communication is the number one transferable skill for one single reason: teamwork. Unlike your PhD, which you may largely work on alone or in a small research group, most work you do in the future will require working in a team or convincing people they want to work in a team with you. You need to be able to “disseminate and promote new insights to peers and the community”, and the community includes the people who might employ you. You will be given many opportunities to practise this (such as the Three-Minute Thesis). Remember, having good examples of communication will get you an interview, but what really matters is how you communicate in the interview itself. You need to practise.

Last of all is interpersonal skills. How you treat people will always matter, but the stereotype is that people with PhDs are introverted and socially awkward by both nature and by training (or is that just the scientists and engineers?). By the end of my PhD, I had spent so much time writing that my interpersonal skills had become rusty and I struggled to make small talk. I knew this would affect the way I came across in interviews (Challenge) and so I set out to address it using my research skills to find ways to improve my interpersonal skills (Action). This preparation paid off, and I felt extremely confident in my first interview – and I did get the job (Result).

In conclusion, we mostly do PhDs out of love for knowledge, but along the way we also learn great skills.

Be confident in those skills. Your PhD is useful. You know it, now go out and convince the selection panel.

Colin is a strong believer that higher education can change lives – it certainly changed his. A scientist by training and inclination, Colin is currently leading the Transitions and Engagement Team at UOW helping students from low-SES backgrounds complete their university degrees.  He completed a PhD in lipid biochemisty and under the supervision Professor Paul Else.  Connect with Colin on Linkedin


Thank you Colin for sharing your experience of reflecting on your PhD and the valuable skills it gave you, and also how you approached addressing selection criteria by emphasising those skills.  

Colin mentions the CAR (Challenge, Action and Result) framework for addressing selection criteria.  You may have heard of it before, or other versions including CARL (L for learning you gained) and STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result where the situation and task relate to Colin’s ‘Challenge’).  They all serve a similar purpose – so it doesn’t matter which one you use! 

At UOW, attend a workshop on addressing selection criteria for HDR students, or get your application reviewed through our online system/or by an Employability Officer.  You can also book in for a practice interview through Careerhub

The ‘years spent towards doing your PhD’ absolutely count towards your career.  I reiterate Colin’s advice: Be confident.

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