Diversifying your skills post-PhD for employment

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You are sweating buckets. Salt is crystallised on your face as you waver in and out of consciousness. Somehow the numbed legs bound forward in a pace as steady as the beat of a metronome. You cross the finish line and collapse in a heap of euphoric exhaustion, unaware of quite what got you there. Have you ever finished a race with no awareness of what got you there? The body and mind become quickly adjusted to repetitive behaviour patterns according to psychological and neurological research.[1] The same can be said of the predicament of the newly conferred PhD holder. Skills we acquire throughout the doctoral process are forgotten as we reach the final thesis completion and viva stages. Instead, there is preoccupation with perfecting the ‘end product.’  It is only understandable since, like the road race, this output becomes so physically a part of us and is so rushed, that we become inseparable from its minutiae. However, in so doing or, rather, in so thinking, we lack the awareness that what is outside of the box, skills-wise, can in fact help us get inside the job market.

What are these skills?

Think back to your postgraduate research training. If yours was anything like mine, PhD students of different disciplines were receiving generic training over a few lazy Friday afternoon sessions. The coffee was strong and I took notes but got very little kick from anything else I learned there, considering it a tedious academic box-ticking exercise. Later, I realised there was much more than coffee on the table. These sessions enlightened PhD students with skills that can be used in future employment. Amongst these are research skills; interviewing skills; utilising research technology; teaching; academic honesty and integrity; ethics; public speaking and interpersonal skills i.e. the deft art of getting along well with other colleagues and students. Throughout the PhD process itself, presenting at a conference or presenting work for publication will provide further boons of editing and proofreading skills, the art of accepting and giving feedback and working to deadlines. If you are fortunate enough to be a graduate teaching assistant, you will quickly acquire communication skills, lesson planning, classroom management as well as patience and perseverance with new learners. As you reflect on and list these skills, you realise that there is much that the newly conferred doctor can bring to the table with their coffee.

How can we diversify them?

When we add value rather than margins to business, there is innovation and differentiation in the economy. Similarly, by diversifying our skills post-PhD, we become entrepreneurial in what we can do in the job market rather than businessperson-like with the singular PhD focus for researching or teaching within the confines of one discipline. In this manner, for example, what we learned in a research-oriented training can be applied as we approach a company project, in-house training or gather information for a new initiative outwith our doctoral studies. Over the past six years since completing my PhD in the field of Literature, I have found myself editing, proofreading, giving workshops, seminars and presentations and engaging in business in international situations. I must say that I have also lost opportunities being deemed not specialised enough and took these rejections as opportunities to enhance blind areas.  All of these opportunities involved putting soft skills and acumen to use that I gratefully acquired throughout the doctoral process. At the time, I was not prescribed the nature of these skills future focus explicitly. Practically, what does this mean? Well, utilising the skills we have to support venturing into new fields or training is a start.  In the job search stage, apply for jobs which you are theoretically eligible for but may not have all of the matching non-essential criteria. A small step would be to apply to present at a comparative studies conference or to engage in employing your research or teaching skills in another sector or country. Later, you may engage in a start up company, which supports the skills your original skills set. It is useful to endeavour to assist in voluntary or community events of an educative nature too.

Why should we diversify them?

Nowadays, entry-level posts in the higher education job market are rather short-lived or only offered on a temporary basis. As we look outside of the academic field, we can see that this is also the case for other sectors. Risk is the nature of employment as it is everyday life. Security is an illusion. Even posts which offer the reassurance of a lengthy contract, can and, if need be, will, be terminated at any point with little notice given. Probation and an unofficial testing period form one bookend of a career in which we have approximately a two-year window to prove ourselves. In my experience, it bodes well to prove oneself not as a cookie-cutter employee, researcher or analyst but, culture permitting, an employee of diverse skills and adaptability.  Ensconced in this is an ability to contribute to the evolving needs of the sector. In this window, we can also realise that the more we do to become jacks and masters of all trades, we will have the peace of mind to adapt and find pleasure in a market rife with instability and short term thinking. We also develop the autonomy to find a career and lifestyle path most amendable to us from the standpoint of our own security.

 

[1] There are countless studies in the areas of PTSD, addiction and autism which have stressed this point. See for instance R.M. Ridley’s “The psychology of perseverative and stereotyped behavior”, Progress in Neurobiology, Volume 44, Issue 2, October 1994, Pages 221-23

 

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