Transferable skills help you secure roles in a variety of industries. Alan Dolhasz, Research Fellow, explains how a research degree will provide you with a broad range of attributes.
Research degrees – not just for academia
There is an assumption that studying a PhD means you will only be able to progress into an academic position, whether that be a lecturer or a researcher.
While this can be true, you will also come out with a range of transferable skills, from problem solving to idea generation. These are often highly sought after in any skilled profession.
In my opinion, you should consider your research direction with respect to the job market. If you want to work in your area of study, you should understand the current demand for specialists in your field.
Some PhD topics will end up being relevant only in academia and therefore the number of career opportunities may be considerably lower.
Ultimately, if you aren’t sure whether you want to stay in academia or move to industry, consider a PhD in areas where such transferable skills are gained.
Currently, STEM-based subjects offer a wide array of transferable skills, such as software development, data analysis or applied artificial intelligence.
Examples of transferable skills you can learn
When you embark upon a research degree, there isn’t anyone or anything forcing you to do work. Yes, that means you have a lot of freedom, but you may start procrastinating.
Staying physically and mentally disciplined is definitely a key lesson learned throughout the process of a PhD.
Analytic and critical thinking
This is developed largely by making mistakes, such as not analysing something deeply enough in the first place, omitting some detail or not considering problems down the line.
The same applies to published research. When you start reading research papers they all sound perfect, but, when you try to replicate their results, you realise how many unanswered questions and issues there are, compared to your initial impression.
Communication and efficiency skills
At the start of my research degree, I would flood my supervisor with unnecessary information – I soon learned that people don’t really care how you are going to solve a problem, as long as you can show that you understand and have a general strategy in mind to tackle it.
Learning about many fundamental tools of science makes you realise that, for example, detection of a specific illness from an MRI scan of a patient can be seen as a binary classification problem on image data, while predicting next week’s price of Tesla stocks may just be a multivariate time-series prediction problem.
A PhD enables you to take on complex problems faced in the real world and reduce them to smaller, easier-to-solve elements, which you can then tackle one at a time.
Ready for career opportunities
I am pleasantly surprised at how many transferable skills I have learned during my PhD. One thing I would say, though, is that you get out what you put in.
Studying my PhD part-time, for example, enabled me to nudge my research into the directions I saw the related industries moving towards.
For example, while I was doing my PhD, the area which I was researching suddenly underwent a revolution through the development of novel machine learning techniques (the deep learning revolution of the 2010s).
In order to keep my research relevant and to keep my job prospects broad, I had to learn a completely new area of research and adapt my own research to be more in line with that.
While it was a lot of work at the time, it has since provided me with great benefits, such as well-payed work, and lots of examples of transferable skills.
Seek out new opportunities
I would also advise new PhD students not to restrict themselves.
I am still unsure where my career will take me, so I’ve been cultivating a range of skills which are useful for both my research, but also in the technology markets.
I have taught myself multiple programming languages, even though my PhD work only required one.
I have kept up to date with related industries and learned to use relevant software tools, even if they weren’t directly relevant to my PhD. I have engaged in side-projects which gave me an opportunity to learn new and interesting things.
You will pick up transferable skills naturally throughout the PhD process, but taking time to seek them out will only widen your career opportunities further.