Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Hidden Talents, Hungry Markets: Ph.D.s Have Many Skills to Offer Industry

Wondering whether you've got what it takes to find work in the real world? You may be better prepared than you realize.

Young scientists develop skills during their postgraduate education that employers outside academia value. The trouble is, these newly minted Ph.D.s don't always realise it. "It's ironic, really," says Charles Jackson, author of a report released this spring on the employability of and labour market for Ph.D. researchers in the United Kingdom. Although recent graduates lament the difficulty of finding a job, "we talk to employers and they talk about difficulties [in finding Ph.D.s to hire]. They want to recruit more."

For the report, Jackson surveyed Ph.D. researchers looking for work, employers who recruit them, and Ph.D. hires in industry to find trends in woes, victories, and advice. Overall, he found that Ph.D. researchers don't fully appreciate how attractive their nontechnical skills, acquired in the daily challenges of handling a major research project, actually make them. Companies find Ph.D. graduates "highly employable," and some are "very keen to employ Ph.D.s," says Jackson, a visiting professor at Kingston University Business School and a senior fellow of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling. Their main concern was simply finding ways to reach more potential applicants.

About 15,000 people earn doctoral degrees in the United Kingdom annually. Half of them take jobs outside academia, and most of those are engineers and scientists. Although the qualifications demanded by industry may seem daunting at first, a Ph.D. graduate's experience yields both technical and soft skills that are just what nonacademic employers are after.

Assessing the scene

Jonathan Moore

Aside from technical prowess, employers ranked communication, time management, adaptability, and teamwork high on the list of skills they're looking for.

Jonathan Moore, a coatings specialist at GKN Aerospace in Luton, says he regularly relies on the teaching and tutoring skills he acquired during his Ph.D. At his company, people from a variety of specialties have to pick up a functional knowledge of the latest project. "To make everyone understand, you've got to communicate with them," Moore says.

Mark Warne, a computational chemist at Tripos Discovery Research in Bude, says he routinely speaks at conferences and to audiences as diverse as bankers and biologists. In tailoring the science to have universal appeal, he keeps in mind that his listeners "don't want to get swamped with fine detail at the expense of having a clear understanding of the final product."

To sharpen your communications skills while you're still finishing your Ph.D., seek out poster competitions or other similar opportunities to speak to nonspecialist audiences, Jackson suggests. Talking to people about what you do, how you do it, and how your work helps science and society takes personal assertion, engaging arguments, and clear explanations--all skills that apply to industry work, he says.

Another quality industry looks for is flexibility. Whereas in Ph.D. research, "you look for perfection," Moore notes, "in industry you look for the best you can achieve" given the time and resource constraints. Also, the mix of specialties often drawn upon in commercial projects leads companies to value people who have changed disciplines between degrees or in their postdoctoral position.

Karsten Vandrup, senior research manager at Nokia in Copenhagen, Denmark, regularly interviews recent Ph.D. graduates for positions at the company. He likens Ph.D.s to "master's students with three years' experience" in acquiring and applying valuable skills. They offer creativity in problem solving, he explains, and they structure long-term projects effectively.

Opening new doors

Mark Warne

When it comes to finding jobs outside academia, "it's not that Ph.D.s are not prepared," says Janet Metcalfe, the director of the U.K. GRAD Programme, which commissioned the report. Instead, it's that "they don't appreciate the skills and competencies they develop during research"--which means they often don't know to mention them to employers.

A Ph.D. student has successfully managed a big project, working both independently and resourcefully. The challenge lies in extracting and highlighting those transferable skills, says Paul Wicks, editor-in-chief of GRADBritain , a magazine for postgraduate researchers. Amid the research, you've raised money; set goals; managed time, budgets, and other students; and spoken at conferences--all by age 27. By mentioning such skills at an interview, Wicks quips, "you've talked yourself into a management job from having collected shrimp in a net."

Perceptions of nonacademic life make some Ph.D.s wary of venturing down the industrial path. Jackson says Ph.D. researchers fear they'll have to work on a project dictated by others amid co-workers who are perhaps not described as intellectually stimulating, in a cutthroat corporate environment.

Mostly, such fears never materialize. "I expected to be heavily managed," says Warne. Instead, Tripos handed him "a lot of responsibility" because of his Ph.D. training--including representing his department at a project meeting on his first day. As for his co-workers, Warne says he's surrounded by clever, articulate people. If it weren't for them, he says, "I might have gone on and been an accountant."

In fact, Ph.D.s working in industry list many advantages to seeking a job outside academia, Jackson says. Among them are better job security and pay, interesting work colleagues, and more chances to be promoted. Some companies offer childcare. Some industry researchers still publish and even supervise Ph.D. students in a collaborating lab.

On the hunt

"In terms of promoting themselves in academia, it's all about knowledge and experiences," as demonstrated by publications and funding, says Metcalfe. "Outside academia, it's all about skills and competencies."

Metcalfe says employers favour a competency-based CV, in which a candidate doesn't just list the specified qualifications but also supplies evidence to demonstrate how those skills have been applied. Although grads have improved on this front, "there's a long way to go before Ph.D.s are selling themselves properly."

Graham Simpson

And candidates should expect to be quizzed on these qualifications during the interview. Organic chemist Graham Simpson was courted by five major pharmaceutical companies before accepting a position a year ago with GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage. "The interview process is pretty gruelling," he says, describing sessions assessing his technical and soft skills spliced with site tours and research presentations to employees. Each company's suite of interviews took up to 2 days.

Simpson, who also participates in hiring, adds that industry further appreciates workers who have "a bit of life" outside work. "We won't be quizzing you on how much sport you play a week," he says--but they don't want employees who "get stressed because they don't have a balanced life."

Companies value any previous experience with industry, whether it's spending a year working during your undergraduate years or shadowing a company employee for a day or two. Metcalfe acknowledges that it's difficult for Ph.D.s to take time from their research for a work placement--especially if the work is outside their area of expertise. If such a commitment isn't feasible, Simpson suggests an informational interview, in which a job seeker finds and interviews a peer working at a company of interest. The candidate gets a sense of work expectations, environment, and opportunities from peers, whom Jackson says researchers trust more than "recruitment managers obviously trying to sell their jobs." It also demonstrates confidence and initiative to the company.

Also, don't forget to look for jobs in companies that on the surface may seem outside your field; a major industry requires a core of employees from a dozen or more specializations. For example, a report from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry noted that the pharmaceutical industry needs highly qualified applicants in statistics and mechanical engineering.

Whatever the technical forte, employers observe that newly hired Ph.D.s adapt quickly to the rhythms and demands of work, Jackson says, whereas less-decorated graduates need training. Even at companies that hire Ph.D.s and people with bachelor's or master's degrees, the Ph.D.s often get promoted faster.

"Earning a Ph.D. is not a vocational qualification anymore," says Metcalfe. "It equips people to go into all sectors of society."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers