Day 1: What are you good at? Post-PhD employment


Are you starting to think about what you’ve learnt during your research degree and what skills you have developed along the way? Are you getting ready to work out what you will do next? For some HDRs and ECRs, plans have changed considerably with the event of the pandemic.

If you are considering transitioning out of academia and into the world beyond, it’s useful to find ways of talking about what you have to offer on the job market. It isn’t always easy to see how your research skills can be used outside the university. This week we explore ways of identifying and articulating your skills and competences in ways that potential employers are likely to understand. While employers might be looking for someone with very similar skills and capabilities to yours, they don’t always use the same language to describe them.

ACTIVITY: Introductions

Where are you up to in your career? If you are an HDR, when do you expect to submit your thesis? ECRs, when did you graduate and what have you been doing since then? Have you made any forays into the job market yet? If so, what have you learnt from dipping your foot into those waters?

This week we will systematically work through the kinds of skills you will have developed during your candidature—through your research project and also through other life experiences you bring with you. One area that you will all feel confident about is your ability to conduct research—that’s what you do as a PhD candidate! But how can you list all the things you can do?

Today we’ll start by looking at 3 frameworks that can help you organise all that information: the Vitae framework, the RSD, and the ANU Research Skill Framework. I think these provide useful ways of getting your head around it all. They also give us some language to identify skills that can be used when talking to future employers.

You might already know the Vitae Researcher Development Framework, developed in the UK. Don’t be put off by all the detail! I’ll take you through it step by step…

To read this diagram, start in the centre to read the 4 Domains:

Domain A (top right) – knowledge, intellectual abilities

Domain B (bottom right) – personal effectiveness

Domain C (bottom left) – governance, organisation

Domain D (top left) – engagement, influence, impact

(Yes, it works clockwise.)

Then notice how each of these domains is divided into 3 sections in the middle ring. For example, “Knowledge and intellectual abilities” is divided into Knowledge base, Cognitive abilities, and Creativity.

Sound daunting? Don’t worry, the outer ring gives some examples of what is meant by these terms. For example, Cognitive abilities includes things like “Analysing, synthesising, critical thinking, evaluating, problem solving”. Have you done any of these things during your PhD? I expect you’ve done them every day!

Another way of organising information about research skills is the Researcher Skill Development Framework (RSD). The RSD identifies steps for research, and describes the different levels of autonomy in research, from beginner to world-leading projects (as a PhD candidate, you are expected to end up around Level 6, but might move back and forth a bit as you learn new skills and knowledge along the way).

Yes, it looks complicated when you see the whole framework, so let’s focus on just the first column that identifies 6 steps of conducting a research project.

Do these sound familiar? Do the steps reflect your own experiences? Is there anything left off this list that you would add?

ACTIVITY: Please use the Comments at the bottom of the blog post to let us know how these frameworks fit with your own experience. Do the elements resonate with you? What else could you add that isn’t covered?

Here at the ANU we have our own Research Skill Framework. This is organised around 4 areas: Research Technique; Research Management; Communication; Professional Practice.

ACTIVITY: Skills Matrix. Have a look at the Framework and think about what you could include in the column about your skills in research techniques. What have you done that you can use as evidence of these skills? Remember, when applying for jobs, everyone says they can do things exceptionally well—but what employers want is evidence that you really can do it. They need examples of when you have used those skills effectively. Please share some of your examples via Comments at the bottom of the blog page.

The point of all these frameworks is that they provide a systematic way of identifying and articulating all the skills learnt during a PhD. I’m also really interested in the way they give us a language for explaining to others what we can do well.

ACTIVITY: Skills Inventory. Keep a list of everything you do today, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Don’t ignore the small things—all those emails = communication skills; conflicting advice from your supervisors = negotiation skills. Download the template you find here (click on ‘File’ and then ‘Download as’). On Friday we’ll look back over the list and see just how extensive your employability skillset really is.

Tomorrow we’ll move onto the next column in the ANU framework to look at Research Management.


  1. I find the outer rings of the Vitae chart interesting, because on the one hand many of them sound quite generic and more like buzzwords rather than informative descriptions, but then on the other hand, I have found some of them helpful in recalling specific examples from my own research that would demonstrate my experience within the larger domains. It does make me wonder how careful the applicant/interviewee should be when using these terms to describe their experience, so as not to give off the impression that they are using superficial terms with little weight behind them?

    1. Hi Brad – firstly, thank you for being the first person to respond to the blog post 🙂
      The terms in the Vitae framework are very generic, partly because they are aimed at all researchers across all disciplines. So you are absolutely right – these are only a starting point and need to be filled out with specific examples to demonstrate what they mean in your own context. But perhaps it is the process of taking skills back to their generic form that helps us see how they can be used in different contexts? I think of this as a kind of ‘translation’ from specific (PhD) through generic to a new kind of specific (job) in a new context. And it can be quite encouraging to see just how many of those generic skills are already very highly developed in PhD graduates.

  2. I preferred the Vitae chart, it made more sense to me, whereas the RSD one feels overly complicated.

    In particular, I felt the Vitae one was really good for showing where I need to build skills, in order for others to see the skills I have. For example, in refining engagement and impact I will get better at talking up my own skills, and in getting better at identifying/securing funding I’ll also get better at highlighting my strengths – I will need to be able to point to examples to be able to secure funding (its a self-fulfilling cycle).

    1. Hi Mitzi – one reason I like to include a few of these frameworks is because they appeal differently to people. Lots of people actually use the Vitae framework as a guide to helping HDRs work out where their strengths and weaknesses are so that they can start to work the areas they feel need development. And, as you point out, these elements work together to build a strong foundation that gets better and better.

  3. For me, a blend across the frameworks apply better than any single one. The Vitae Research Development Framework is helpful in the ways it groups skills and attributes. I can see how they can be used in job applications and when speaking to potential employers outside academia. The Researcher Development Framework is more of a rubric style of the skills associated with researching in which you can self-assess the skills you have already developed but also identifies where you may need more work. I had a little play with the ANU Research Skills Framework which I see as a more practical format where you can record a range of examples to use in job applications and mix and match as appropriate. I like the way it focuses on evidence of ability. For example, under Project planning and time management (including risk management) I have written ‘In my Honours degree, I was responsible for the planning, management, and completion of oral history recordings which required Human Research Ethics Committee approval with associated risk management and participant wellbeing procedures’. Under Understanding of effective public engagement strategies, including writing and presenting to non-disciplinary audiences I have written ‘I am a participant in ANU’s Researcher Development #SoMe Social Media for Researchers program to develop skills and strategies to promote my research not only to fellow researchers but also to a wider non-disciplinary audience. This has increased the number of followers I have and enlarged my researcher profile’. Of course, these are just off the top of my head, but I have found this exercise is useful to get a good picture of my abilities.

    1. Hi Jenni – it’s really interesting to see how you are using the framework to provide evidence of your abilities. Your examples show the range of skills developed alongside individual projects – not just that you’ve done the project. And your comment on the ‘rubric’ style of the RSD is spot on, in that it has been adapted as an assessment tool for research projects 🙂

      Today’s post invites readers to apply the STAR approach, which shifts the focus from achievements to skills and abilities (what has been achieved already is important evidence that you can finish tasks, but employers are keen to know what you are able to do for them in future, hence the focus on skills). Your own comments here are ahead of the curve!

  4. I find both frameworks useful! I like the rubric style of the Researcher Development Framework as it is helpful for working out where I’ve developed certain skills but the Vitae Researcher Development Framework highlights skills that most supervisors don’t promote as useful skills to work on during the PhD, and so I often never see this skills valued as much! It is nice to be reminded that they are 🙂

    1. Hi Sash – yes, it can be really encouraging to realise that lots of what we can do is highly prized outside the academy. And the very process of undertaking a PhD is often necessarily developing these skills – it doesn’t always mean having to learn something extra on top of all the new challenges posed by doing this high-level research.

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