HDR Career Conversations

Supporting research student career development and employability at UOW

Identifying the skills from your PhD that are relevant for your future career (whatever that may be)


Introduction: Identifying your skills may sound easy, but it takes time and often deep reflection.  Are you developing the ‘right’ skills for your future career?  Jo Khoo, a UOW PhD researcher at the Faculty of Business, has written a useful blog piece exploring research on which skills are most relevant to research intensive and other careers.    

Every PhD student is probably sick of hearing about, ‘transferable skills,’ those ill-defined skills that you have developed while conducting your research that you are meant to emphasise when applying for jobs. Even for someone like me, who spent almost 10 years working full-time before starting a PhD, it is difficult to clearly define and articulate the specific skills I have developed during my time as a PhD student that will transfer to a job after I finish my PhD.

As we all know, only a minority of us will end up in academic research positions and so it’s incumbent to think more broadly about our options, and have at least a Plan B option (not to mention, C, D and E)! I recently came across a paper reporting on the findings of a survey of more than 8,000 PhD graduates.Although the survey was conducted with science PhDs in the United States, the results gave me plenty to think about on the topic of transferable skills.

Just over half of the respondents (53%) were in research-intensive roles in academia, government and industry, while 47% were in non-research-intensive roles. The top three non-research-intensive roles were teaching (which may also include some research), administration and consulting.

The survey focussed on 15 specific transferable skills, identified from previous higher education research, in which respondents were asked to rate whether the doctoral program developed each skill and to what extent the skill was important for success in their current position.

The level of association between skill acquired during training and subsequent career choice was compared for research-intensive and non-research-intensive roles. While the vast amount of skills were transferable across both types of roles, certain skills were more closely associated with specific career categories. Respondents who rated themselves as proficient in the following three skills were more likely to be employed in research-intensive careers:

  1. creative/innovative thinking
  2. career planning and awareness skills
  3. ability to work with people outside the organisation.

Similarly, respondents who rated themselves as proficient in certain skills were more likely to be employed in non-research-intensive careers. The three skills were:

  1. time management
  2. ability to learn quickly
  3. ability to manage a project.

I think these top skills provide a snapshot of the differences that employers look for within and beyond the academic career track. Further analysis of the 15 transferable skills included in the survey is also a good reflective tool for higher degree research students considering what skills and knowledge they’d like to gain throughout their PhD, in the context of whether they want to pursue a research intensive or a non-research-intensive career.

The survey results presented in the article emphasise the high level of transferability of skills gained in a PhD and are encouraging for PhD students who are considering career options post-PhD and are worried they are not developing the ‘right’ skills. Of course, there are some differences between PhD programs in Australia and the United States but I found this article useful to provide a more high-level perspective outside of my narrow area of study. It is easy to get bogged down in the detailed skills or knowledge required in a specific research field and this research presents a list of skills relevant across the research spectrum, and in many alternative careers.

The full article reference that lists all 15 skills (open access) is: Sinche M, Layton RL, Brandt PD, O’Connell AB, Hall JD, Freeman AM, et al. (2017) An evidence-based evaluation of transferrable skills and job satisfaction for science PhDs. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0185023.

I first came across this article as it was discussed in a podcast that may also be of interest to readers of this blog: Hello PhD . This article was discussed in episode 88.

Jo Khoo is a third year PhD student at the Australian Health Services Research Institute, part of the Faculty of Business at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on health services use and financing, particularly related to service delivery for people living with chronic diseases and the role of health insurance.  Having worked in the health sector for ten years prior to commencing her PhD in 2016, she is interested in how the skills gained during a PhD will translate to a future career, both in academia and outside of it. She has also written about her experience transitioning from full-time work to a full-time PhD in the Thesis Whisperer blog here and she tweets @jokhooz1


Thank you Jo for sharing your learning from this research 

Which skills do you think are most useful to your future career?

 For further information and resources, check out the ‘Know yourself and your options’  section of the UOW HDR Careers website.

 Other related HDR Career Conversations blog articles:

The Useful PhD 

 Beyond Research: Essential skills you learn in the PhD

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