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)?!

How to translate your skills into language employers can understand

How to translate your skills into language employers can understand

On Saturday 14th May I had the pleasure of giving a talk on ‘How to translate your skills into language employers can understand’, for the 2016 Beyond the Professoriate conference.

In my talk I introduced a technique that researchers can use to prepare persuasive content for their résumés and online profiles, which I call the ‘Skill Set Matrix’. The matrix helps you analyse a job advert and determine the skill set that the employer is looking for. Using the matrix, you can then create relevant statements about the suitability of your own skills for the position, for inclusion in your LinkedIn profile and CV (aka a résumé).

Just subscribe to my monthly newsletter and I’ll send you a link to my free guide, which explains how to identify your transferable skills, and how to use the Skill Set Matrix to create powerful and persuasive CV statements about your skills.