Two recent blogs, published in InsideHigherEd and Nature, got me thinking about how advantageous it can be to have a PhD when looking for a job – but you need to think beyond your qualification to be employable.
The two articles focus on the employability of PhD-qualified graduates and diversity of roles to which they can aspire. Career possibilities range from directly relevant roles within academia, for which a PhD is a requisite qualification, through to those where a PhD is not required at all, such as management, accountancy and finance. For all of these roles, associated experience, skills and personal qualities are the key to entering the profession – and I think this might be where many PhD graduates fall down: unlike applying for a PhD where educational success is the main factor required to secure the post (for example, in the UK you need at least a 2.i or 1st class degree and even a master’s to be considered), most employers look beyond qualifications when assessing candidates for particular roles within their organisations. Even for a first postdoctoral position you need to demonstrate your functional skills such as lab techniques, computing expertise, methodologies, as well as publishing and funding successes when making your application. However, as you progress in your career “employable you” needs to think more strategically.
Look at your professor/group leader and consider his/her responsibilities: Are they doing functional work in the lab? Very probably not. They are horizon scanning for new research ideas and avenues to investigate, writing research grants to test hypotheses, recruiting and mentoring postdocs and PhD students, contributing to departmental activities, teaching, writing papers, reviewing papers, handling rejections, setting up new collaborations, etc. So, for those aspiring to an academic career beyond the position of the functional postdoc, you can see that acquiring an independent fellowship or two will be advantageous, gaining an international reputation, publishing papers and connecting with other research groups, etc will be strategically important to enhance the likelihood of being employed as a permanent academic. If you think you’d like to move out of academia, you will need to enhance other experiences and skills to place yourself in an equally strong position to make a successful transition into your chosen career sector.
As pointed out in Polk and Wood’s blog, spending your time during your PhD or postdoc on extra-curricular activities such as taking relevant courses, doing voluntary work or networking will help you to re-direct your career into one where a PhD is not essential, and will provide evidence of your potential value as a new employee in the organisation. Many employers like PhD-qualified scientists who have much-needed technical skills, are not afraid of technology, are can-do problem solvers, numerate and who think objectively and creatively. For some posts, relevant experience may be needed, blocking your eligibility to apply. In these cases, it’s worth trying to secure an internship or network with someone in the profession to gain insights and access to their community. However, sometimes, transferable skills can be enough to demonstrate your suitability. For example, if you were involved in project managing or marketing events during your PhD, if you took part in other activities where your experiences related to your new non-academic role, these will provide evidence that you have the aptitude to use and develop them in your new non-academic role.
Finally, to show the employer just how employable you are, don’t forget to target the content of your CV and covering letter to the organisation and job specification!