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How to sell your PhD outside academia

By Vivienne C Watson, on 1 November 2014

If you’re pursuing a career beyond academia, how can you ensure that employers really understand the value of your PhD? This is an important question, particularly if you’re thinking about moving into a field where your specific technical or specialist knowledge isn’t a requirement for the role.

Let’s start by thinking about how employers outside academia tend to view PhD applicants.

According to a CIHE (now NUCB) study , many employers feel that recruiting postgraduates can add significant value to an organisation.   However, PhDs were also seen as “too unworldly” and “too narrow and over-focussed”. Other concerns involved team-working, cultural fit and the ability to adapt to a non-academic environment.

Although they might seem negative, these comments are really useful because they give you a clue as to what you’ll need to do to sell your PhD to employers who might be thinking along these lines.

Firstly, be mindful their concerns and understand what they don’t want. Secondly, find out what they do want. The best way to sell something is to find out what the other party is buying! When you know what they’re looking for, you can provide plenty of evidence that you’ve got it.

Research is critical here.   Your PhD is only useful to them if is in some way relevant to the role they are recruiting for, so gather as much information as possible about what’s required to do the job. If the links between your academic research and the role aren’t obvious then it’s up to you to make the match.

The best way to do this is by understanding the transferable skills required for the job, which will be listed in the person specification. Pay particular attention to key soft skills such as communication and teamwork, and use your research activities to demonstrate that you’ve got these skills. Shift your focus away from the minutiae of your research and on to providing evidence for the skills the employer is looking for. This will help to reassure recruiters that you’re aware of their requirements and adaptable enough to make the shift into a new industry.

Employers often mention their concern that PhDs lack commercial awareness, and it’s worth thinking about how you might prove this through your research. For example, you might have had some input into the way your budget is spent, or made contacts with industry, or you might have a better understanding of the links between academic research and commerce.

Thinking about using your PhD to provide evidence for skills will help you to think about how you can describe the value of your PhD to a ‘lay’ audience, a question that sometimes comes up at interview. It’s best to prepare a concise (2 minute) summary. If specialist knowledge isn’t required for the role, abandon technical language and keep it simple. Focus on the skills you’ve gained from your PhD and demonstrating their relevance to the role you’re applying to.

Above all, be proud of your achievements. Doing a PhD requires enormous commitment, resilience and determination. Don’t be afraid to spell this out to a prospective employer, emphasising that you’ll bring all the same qualities to their organisation!

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

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