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How can you convince employers that you’re commercially aware?

By uczjvwa, on 1 October 2014

From business and finance to charities and academia, organisations want candidates who are commercially aware, so you’re likely to be put to the test in applications and interviews.

This message is particularly relevant for PhDs. Research into employer attitudes has revealed that the majority of employers consider PhDs to lack commercial awareness and that “the ‘step-over’ from an academic environment to a commercial one is a tough one.”  So the pressure’s on to find ways to demonstrate your commercial nous – especially if you’re concerned that you’re weak in this area.

What is commercial awareness?   If you’ve read enough job descriptions you’ll realise that each organisation has a slightly different take on this subject.   Broadly speaking, it describes a collection of skills (such as analysis, problem-solving, creativity and innovation) that enable a person to a) understand how an organisation works and b) help to make it successful.

This includes understanding the organisation’s strengths and weaknesses, along with its values, stakeholders, competitors and challenges. Beyond the individual organisation, context is important: understanding the industry trends, for example, and considering the broader impact of local, national and international events.

So what can you do to convince an employer that you’re got a commercial head on your shoulders?

  1. Start with your research. Did you win funding? Did you have any say about how to use a budget, and if so, how? Did you contribute to the larger success of the department?   Did you make links with industry to collect data, and if so, how did you build these relationships? Do you understand the way in which research can be commercialised?   Reflecting on these questions could produce some interesting examples of your ability to think commercially.
  1. Reflect on additional experience. Beyond your PhD, what further work experience have you had?   Part-time and voluntary jobs provide useful evidence here. What did you learn about a previous employer? Were you in a position to solve a problem for the organisation, and if so, what was the result? What did you learn about how businesses are run, and about business success (or failure) as a result of this experience? If you’re concerned that you lack additional work experience, this could be a good time to get involved with clubs or societies that will enable you play organisational roles and beef up those commercial skills.
  1. Stay up-to-date. Keeping on top of the news, along with developments in your sector, is critical. An interviewer may ask you about a news item you’re currently following, so try to develop an informed opinion.
  1. Do your research.   At interviews, you’ll feel more confident if you go in prepared to talk about the organisation from a strategic perspective.   There are a couple of tools you can use to help you here. A SWOT analysis looks at an organisation’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. A PEST analysis, takes a broader perspective, considering the political, economic, socio-cultural and technological factors at play.

And remember: if you feel a bit sheepish about your commercial skills, you’re not alone. PhDs often lack confidence in this area, but hopefully a little reflection along these lines may help you to realise that you’re more commercially aware that you thought.

– Hilary Moor, Careers Consultant, Careers Group University of London

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