Boost your job prospects by attending campus careers events for PhDs

Since 2009 I’ve had the pleasure of getting out on the road, sharing the story of my own career change with audiences of researchers and academics. I’ve made a successful transition from a PhD in Medieval Studies, into a career in business, project management and consultancy. I love telling my story and helping PhDs with their own career thinking.

Let’s face it, it’s easy to get closeted away just doing your research, and not put parallel effort into your career planning during your PhD. But sometimes you need to get out of the library or the lab and take advantage of ‘hire education’ events on campus. What are some of the benefits of attending? To my mind they’re invaluable for:

  • Raising your awareness of careers paths outside of higher education
  • Showing you how it was done – bringing career change to life
  • Picking up tips on the individual steps of the career change process
  • Helping you discuss non-academic career options with your peers and supervisors

Remember, once you’ve graduated, you’ll have to pay for any further career support you need. So look out for speakers appearing on campus, and make the time to attend while they’re still accessible to you.

If you haven’t attended a live careers event before, read the 3 case studies below to learn more about what goes on. These examples are all taken from events I’ve spoken at this year (can you believe it, I’m wearing the same blue shirt in every picture?!). Please do drop me a note if you’re interested in booking me to speak to researchers at your university.

 1. A careers workshop organised by your graduate school

On 8 February I was the guest of the Graduate School at Brunel University London, running a morning careers workshop for a mixed audience of PhDs and post-docs. In this workshop on ‘Opportunities and tools for researchers wishing to work outside of academia’, I covered the following topics in depth:

  • Identifying your transferable skills
  • Having a clear focus for your career change
  • How to communicate your value to employers outside academia
  • Tools and resources for career changers

I got a lovely email the next day from the organiser, who said that she’d bumped into some of the attendees that morning and they were still talking about the workshop! So look out for careers events organised by your university careers service or graduate school.

2. A careers talk organised by your professional association

On 3 February I was the guest of the Irish Association of Professional Historians at the National Library in Dublin, speaking to an audience of historians about career paths outside of academia. Afterwards I held a careers clinic where I helped 12 of the attendees improve their CVs. I was so impressed by the calibre of these folks, many of whom were pursuing PhDs as well as having full time jobs elsewhere. If you belong to a professional association, why not ask them to put on a live careers event for members?

3. A careers conference organised by researchers

On 16 March I was a guest speaker at the Researching our Futures conference, which was organised by a group of researchers at the University of Newcastle. The organisers deserve huge credit for their initiative and the excellent line up of speakers they assembled. My talk was on ‘Promoting your skills as a researcher’, covering identifying the transferable skills you’re acquired as a researcher, and translating these skills into language employers can understand. We did some practical exercises based on these themes during my session.

If you’d like to get hold of the slides for my talk on ‘How to translate your skills into language employers can understand’, you can sign up for my email newsletter and I’ll send you a link to download the slide deck.

Discover the 20+ transferable skills that make PhDs totally employable

Discover the 20+ transferable skills that make PhDs totally employable

As a PhD or post-doc you get very used to thinking about yourself as a specialist within a specialism – for instance I studied within the Arts and Humanities Faculty, but focused on the Literature and Drama of Medieval England.

What many doctoral graduates don’t appreciate is that they’ve also acquired valuable transferable skills and knowledge which are highly sought after by today’s employers. In fact by undertaking a broad range of activities during your PhD, you develop over 20 transferable skills, making you a very attractive employee!

Let’s take a look at the four main skill areas that a well-rounded PhD student will have:

Project skills:
Project management
Managing budgets
Team working
Problem solving
Organising meetings and events

Thought leadership
Bidding for funding
International experience

Communication skills:
Public speaking
Stakeholder management
Web, email, content creation and social media

Knowledge and information skills:
Teaching and training
Managing data and information
IT applications and programming languages
Writing reports

Capturing the transferable skills you have is a different way of thinking about your capabilities compared with say how many academic papers you’ve published. Yet as you start to think about yourself in this way, it can be surprisingly liberating and empowering!

In my experience of working with groups of PhD students, there is often a ‘light-bulb moment’ as they appreciate the fantastic portfolio of transferable skills they possess. It helps them to make a connection with the mainstream world of work and understand how they can market themselves to employers – as a capable generalist or as a professional ‘________’ (fill in the blank), rather than as an academic specialist. Of course, if your subject is relevant to the jobs you’re interested in, so much the better, but for many jobs your subject is less important than your transferable skills.

Further reading – transferable skills

Many thanks to Dr Ioanna Iordanou for her helpful feedback on this post! Check out Ioanna’s own blog post on PhD skills for more information and analysis.

This page was updated in January 2017 with improved further reading links.

Sorry to turn you down, but you’re overqualified

Sorry to turn you down, you're overqualified article, by Chris Humphrey

I recently answered a question over on my Facebook page, about what to do when your job application is rejected because you’re ‘overqualified’. This is a frustrating response for applicants to receive, and researchers may encounter it more than most. In my experience being ‘overqualified’ can be a lazy shorthand for a number of scenarios on the employer’s side:

  • We only want to hire at the very bottom of the scale, but we didn’t want to say so in our advert.
  • We want to hire someone who’ll stay put and not wish to develop/progress in the role (and you seem like a very capable person who would want to progress in the role/organisation).
  • You seem very intellectual and we’re worried you won’t fit in/you’ll get bored/your head is in the clouds!

So how can you avoid getting this response to your applications? Here are some suggestions to help:

1. Do some digging before you apply
Call the Human Resources (HR) department and ask them exactly what they’re looking for, in terms of salary and experience. This will help you to rule out vacancies where they’re just looking for an entry-level candidate. It can be a very difficult thing to detect from the job advert alone – a salary range can give a false impression.

2. Speak the employer’s language
Are you using the language of a ‘fellow professional’ in your application (see my article on this topic)? Being able to speak the employer’s language is very important, and if you don’t use terms they’d expect to see, it’s easy for them to think you don’t know their industry, business or profession. Remember, you’re a professional ‘X’ first and foremost, where the ‘X’ is a job title or role that the employer recognises from their industry, with a complementary PhD.

3. Reduce the degree of distance
For some jobs, it’s important to reduce the perceived intellectual gradient between you and the interviewing manager or HR department. You should come across as an approachable colleague with relevant experience and expertise, rather than as a remote know-it-all who’s fresh out of college with lots of degrees.

So give your cover letter and résumé to non-academic friends and family, and get them to give you some honest feedback! Avoid obviously academic language in your application, like your ability to ‘challenge orthodoxies’ for instance (which was the case with one researcher who wrote to me for advice about rejection). It’s not dumbing down, rather, it’s adjusting your communication style to connect on a more personal level with the hiring manager.

Do you have any further questions or comments about dealing with the ‘overqualified’ response to applications? What tips can you share? Feel free to leave a comment below or drop me a line via my get in touch page.

More resources

In my presentation on ‘How to translate your skills into language employers can understand’ I show you how to analyse a job advert and really get to grips with the challenge of speaking an employer’s language. Just subscribe to my monthly newsletter and I’ll send you the slide deck by return.

In this video from, some helpful careers experts (including me) do their best to answer the question of ‘How do you convince non-academic employers that you are not overqualified?’. How do you like my nerdy headset (I have ear buds these days)?!