Lost in translation: The value of a PhD outside academia

Most PhD graduates won't find a job in academia. So how can people with an ultra-specialised area of expertise convey their value and skillset to non-researchers — including potential employers?

  The extreme speciality of PhD research can leave a new graduate feeling stuck on a set trajectory, but in reality there are many ways forward.   Juan Ramón Martos/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The extreme speciality of PhD research can leave a new graduate feeling stuck on a set trajectory, but in reality there are many ways forward. Juan Ramón Martos/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Whether it’s a high school certificate or a university degree, when you finally make it to the end of a qualification, there is always the question of what to do next. Completing a course usually opens up many career options: you could look for a job, get an internship, go on to do further study, or reassess your career direction and explore something completely different. Usually, the more qualifications you have, the more opportunities there are, but for new PhD graduates in science, who achieve the highest possible level of education, answering the question "What now?" can feel very limiting.

Research higher degrees are nothing like undergraduate courses with their set terms and holidays; they are more like academic apprenticeships, with the standard four weeks of annual leave and plenty of overtime. Over three to four years (if your project goes to plan), PhD students learn the skills required to become independent researchers, ready to take on the world of academia. However, it is not possible for every PhD graduate to progress into an academic career. Research from the UK indicates only 3.5% of PhD graduates will become permanent university research staff, while 80% eventually find jobs outside research altogether. This pattern is likely echoed among other developed countries, including Australia. In fact, the number of PhD graduates in Australia is increasing each year, with over 8,000 PhDs conferred in 2014. Furthermore, tighter funding for scientific research means the competition for jobs in the research sector will only increase in the future.

So all those years of research-intense training leaves most graduates searching for a job outside of research, whether by choice or lack of academic job opportunities. This can seem extremely daunting when you’ve spent years researching a very specific topic while being groomed for an academic career. In academia, your worth is measured by research output — publications, grant awards and conference participation. By focusing on progress in these areas, a PhD student can gain more recognition in the academic world, but these criteria do not hold the same value in non-academic spheres. When hiring managers are on the lookout for interviewees with experience in teamwork and project management, selling publication lists and conference presentations may not get a PhD graduate very far, despite the fact that they possess those very skills the job requires.

  With a warped perception of how to market yourself to future employers, how can new PhD graduates stand out from the rest of the forest?   Idler Baertschiger/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With a warped perception of how to market yourself to future employers, how can new PhD graduates stand out from the rest of the forest? Idler Baertschiger/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

“It’s a change of culture that’s required,” said Dr. Melina Georgousakis, founder of Franklin Women, an organisation that promotes career progression for women in health and medical research. “There is a one-track mentality in academia that a PhD only sets you up for one type of career in science and if you decide to use your science PhD in any other way you have failed. I think this is a ridiculous sentiment which really limits us and the contributions we could make! Since I started working outside of academia, I've realised that the skills we regularly call upon and take for granted in our PhD life are skills that are valuable in other roles."

PhD students are expected to manage multiple projects simultaneously, collaborate with other researchers, meet deadlines, produce progress reports, and promote their research to funding bodies and at conferences, with learning-by-doing more common than formal instruction in these soft skills. Depending on their project and research group, PhD students may also be involved with assisting in the training and supervision of honours students, summer scholarship students or volunteers. 

"PhD graduates are so up-skilled, but we don't sell it enough," Melina said. "It took me eight months of job hunting and a lot of rejection until I really learnt how to pitch myself for a non-academic health research job. It was just a matter of figuring out how to rebrand myself as a PhD graduate.”

Skills like communication, teamwork, project management, and problem solving are very highly sought after by employers. While these can be obtained through other qualifications (eg Bachelor’s and Master's degrees), PhD students cultivate years of experience through the day-to-day management of their own research projects. Job-seeking graduates may not advertise having these skills, because they aren’t aware that they possess them; with so much focus on the value of publications and academic advancement, these other more transferable skills are less emphasised throughout the course of earning a PhD. 

“We have to be confident of what we have to offer and sell our broad skill set,” said Melina, “and this needs to be discussed and celebrated from those who are in leadership positions in academia to help build that confidence among researchers who are looking for their next opportunity."

  Uptake of optional-extra short courses and seminars for formal training in soft skills may be better utilised with encouragement from supervisors to attend.   Julia Risi (primeiro)/Flickr  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Uptake of optional-extra short courses and seminars for formal training in soft skills may be better utilised with encouragement from supervisors to attend. Julia Risi (primeiro)/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Nowadays, many universities provide extra training for PhD students to develop skills in leadership and management. However, completing a PhD with a heavy emphasis on publishing as much as possible before funding ends is enough of a time pressure, let alone trying to attend 'optional-extras' courses offered by the university or open online learning centres. Perhaps, at the time, the courses may not seem as relevant to raising the all-important academic profile compared with publications. This is an area where supervisory teams can contribute to changing the culture by encouraging their students to think beyond academia-only career paths and attend these sessions to future-proof themselves.

Even without additional courses, what can really make a PhD graduate stand out from other potential employees is their ability to use critical thinking and innovation to solve problems. Jon Klaric spent two years studying for his PhD in physics before deciding to move to an industry job as a mathematician. 

"The most valuable lessons I learnt during my time as a PhD student was how to approach problems when they aren't posed in the standard 'question/answer' format we're all used to in undergraduate [courses]," Jon said. "In a PhD, you often care more about the approach to the problem, how it relates to the questions you're looking at, and how you can adapt other researchers’ approaches for the problem you are trying to solve."

In an undergraduate degree, knowledge is acquired from established sources, then retention and understanding is tested by providing answers to questions posed in exams and coursework. In a PhD, the goal is to advance knowledge in a particular field by finding out something that has yet to be discovered. This means you can’t find the answers in a textbook, because the answer doesn’t exist yet. To answer a research question, a PhD student needs to work out how to create a new piece of thoroughly verified knowledge – the thesis — building on literature and designing experimentation to provide the most accurate answer possible. 

The confidence to explore possibilities and find the best solution to a problem is a skill Dr Pip Milton honed in her stem-cell biology PhD. The quality of her results hinged on thinking outside the box to optimise lab experiment procedures. "In my field, you had to justify your methods,” Pip said. "You need to have the confidence to spend thousands of dollars on the right lab equipment, and when someone questions your results, you have to be able to answer."

These were valuable skills when she became a scientific officer in a state government department, as her first role was to improve and optimise lab processes. But moving into a non-academic environment wasn't a smooth experience.

  The journey leading to a PhD thesis requires many skills employers find desirable, including time management, critical thinking, teamwork and project management.   jeanbaptisteparis/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The journey leading to a PhD thesis requires many skills employers find desirable, including time management, critical thinking, teamwork and project management. jeanbaptisteparis/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

"I was hired because I had a PhD; because I could think and research,” said Pip, "but no one could relate to me. I was the only one in the company with a PhD qualification, so I was this weird anomaly and it created a barrier with the other employees. I had more of an affinity with visiting researchers."

The lack of exposure to "normal" people, as Pip described them, during her PhD left her without the science communication skills and management experience that would have more easily facilitated her move into a government role. When it came to improving lab processes, it became an uphill battle to get the support of the other employees. "That drive to explore, discover and optimise processes — they didn’t share that. There was a huge amount of resistance as they were satisfied with everything just being ‘ok’,” Pip said.

Now starting up a jewellery business, Pip is grateful for both her PhD and non-academic experiences: "The PhD taught me how to research and think critically, whilst working in a non-academic environment taught me the 'life-skills’ and business skills the PhD didn’t, so I’m now better prepared to embark on my self-employed venture."

A PhD prepares students to embark on an academic career, but most will end up working outside research altogether. Achievement in the academic world is measured by publications and citations, but the majority of the population, as non-PhD holders, are unfamiliar with the rigour and time required to publish original scientific research. The move towards including science communication, management and business skills as part of the PhD optional curriculum is a step in the right direction, and their uptake should be encouraged by academic supervisors with the aim of producing well-rounded, multi-skilled graduates. 

When you proudly say to a hiring manager you’ve published three papers as part of your PhD, the significance can be lost, along with the value of a PhD outside the academic circle. Instead, a hiring manager is more interested in all the teamwork, critical thinking, diligence, project management, communication, and months (possibly years) of work involved in producing a publication. While the individual skills of a PhD graduate depend upon their unique research experience, in general, a science PhD is valuable outside of research. Unfortunately, graduates may be missing out on jobs, and employers on very capable employees, because the skills of a PhD graduate are lost in translation.