Leveraging your Job Seeking Position by Highlighting your Academic Skills

Eva Lantsoght
23 jan ’14

After 3 or 4 years of hard work and study, you have received your PhD degree, and you wonder: "What is next in life?".

Very few PhD graduates remain in academia after obtaining their doctoral degree. Most of us will go to the industry.

And every so often, especially in the Netherlands, the following remark comes up during the hiring process:

"Why did you spend your time on doing research, while you now want to come and work in the industry? Shouldn't you have gone to work straight after your Master's degree and used these years to get real-life experience?."

When this question, or a similar remark comes up, don't feel offended or misunderstood. Instead, highlight your academic skills as a function of your job search. Needless to say, think thoroughly about this subject before you walk into the interview room...

While a number of years of experience in practice are certainly very valuable, these years in academia, especially while working towards a PhD degree, provide you with skills that might make you a more attractive candidate for the open position.

Let me restate that clearly: your doctoral training has made you an independent researcher, with an array of unique skills that are highly valuable in industry.

Depending on your field, you can think of the following skills that put you ahead of other applicants:

1. Analytical skills

Whether your PhD research relies on qualitative or quantitative data analysis, there is almost always a large chunk of analytical work involved in PhD research. Being able to handle large amounts of data is a skill needed by consultancy offices, private labs as well as many large technical companies.

2. Autonomy

Getting a PhD is all about becoming an independent researcher. No third or fourth year doctoral candidate has his/her adviser watching over his/her shoulder while working. You might be working weeks on end on something, trying out different paths, iterating, and making your own decisions. This large level of autonomy gives you the ability to work on larger projects, all by yourself, while being able to communicate your decisions and the reasons for these decisions to your superiors later on.

3. Ability to learn new topics and skills

A very typical situation during your PhD studies is one in which you run into a subject that you don't know much about, or one in which you seem to be needing a different computer program or programming language to continue your research work. Instead of lifting up your shoulders and thinking: "Well, too bad, I don't know that...", you head out to the library to pick up a book on the subject, read a couple of papers on the subject, follow an online tutorial or start getting involved in a programmer's forum. This ability to learn by yourself new topics and skills, combined with your autonomy, gives you the ability to advance quickly in your career in almost any given field.

4. Deep understanding of your field

Since a doctoral degree is the highest level of education you can achieve, you can pride yourself in the fact that you know more about a certain topic than most other people. In fact, when it comes down to your sub-topic of research, you can claim that you are the expert in your field on that topic - you simply are the only person who knows all the ins and outs of the topic you chose for your PhD studies.

5. Teamwork skills

A PhD degree is always the result of cooperation: with your supervisors, with funding institutions, with other researchers, and with laboratory technicians. Nobody ever graduated by brooding in his/her room in complete isolation for a couple of years and then spitting out 1000 pages of innovative research material. Being able to work in teams is one of the great skills you learn during your doctoral studies.

6. Writing skills

Those papers and that thesis didn't write themselves, and they certainly did not get written without developing sound academic writing skills. With all the writing practice you get during your doctoral years, you will be able to whisk together reports and briefings faster and in a clearer style than your peers who did not go into a PhD program.

7. Presentation skills

Just like you got a good training in (academic) writing during your PhD, you also got a good training at giving presentations. Remember your very first presentation in graduate school? Remember how nervous you were, and how afterwards you learned how to better structure your talks until it almost became second nature? You need to realize that this communication skill is again very valuable to prospective employers.

8. Extra skills you learned during your PhD

During your PhD years, you certainly picked up a few extra, general skills besides your analytical and communication skills. You might have taught yourself a programming language, you might have learned how to speed-read, or you might have taken a number of courses to sharpen your soft skills. Think about all these extra skills, and use them to your advantage to show the benefit of your years of doctoral study.

As I said earlier, make sure that you go well-prepared to your interview, by thinking about the additional benefit you can bring to a company through the skills and topics you mastered during your PhD research. Highlight the value of yourself and your skills as a function of the company where you are applying for a position: show them clearly what unique characteristics you are bringing into the company, and how the company will benefit from this.

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