Day 2: What are you good at? Post-PhD employment

Research Management

As we start to find more ways of naming the skills learnt during a research degree this week, the range of ‘management’ skills begins to appear (column 2 on the ANU framework you looked at yesterday). PhD graduates transitioning out of academia often go into roles that involve management—of projects, of people, of budgets, of logistics, of data. Today we unpack some of this to see what terms you can use to describe your skills in this area.

Lots of what you learn in relation to research project management translates very well into other contexts. As the website reminds us, management skills are likely to become an increasingly large part of your role in all sorts of jobs outside the university, in consulting, human resources, public relations, facilities management, sales and procurement. The design of projects, sequencing of tasks and decisions about timelines will fall to you. Risk management—foreseeing potential problems, heading them off and/or preparing contingency plans if they are unavoidable—will also be part of your responsibilities. So too will line management (hiring, developing, motivating and assessing performance of staff on your team), financial and resource management, and marketing at different stages of the project (for drumming up interest in the project, for recruiting staff, for disseminating outcomes).

Chris Humphries: home page of Jobs on Toast

Chris Humphries of Jobs on Toast lists project management as just one part of a broader category of “Project skills” that include:

  • Project management
  • Managing budgets
  • Organising meetings and events
  • Problem solving
  • Managing data and information
  • Team working—collaboration and conflict resolution

ACTIVITY: Use the Comments function at the bottom of the post to tell us about your management experience in 3 different aspects of your life.

  1. Something you managed/organised related to your research project.
  2. Something you managed/organised for an event within the university. (I’m thinking about a reading group, or volunteering for a conference committee—it doesn’t have to be formal or paid work.)
  3. Something you managed/organised outside the university as a paid or volunteer worker.

Remember, these experiences are all evidence of your management skills. To translate this into useful material when applying for jobs, use the STAR framework to describe the situation.

  • S = Specific situation
  • T = Task that needed to be accomplished
  • A = Action you took to solve the situation
  • R = Results or outcome that was achieved

ACTIVITY: Take one of your examples from the 3 you listed for the previous activity and STAR it—write us a few sentences that include the 4 pieces of information. This allows you to demonstrate you do actually have management skills. This is much more convincing than simply saying, ‘Of course I’m a fabulous at project management—how else could I get a PhD?!’.

Research projects are usually much less predictable than many other kinds of projects—because they are designed to create new knowledge in the field, the outcomes are uncertain. Being able to manage this uncertainty is a big challenge, but also a major strength that you bring to other projects. While uncertainty can lead to ‘scope creep’ (Kogon, Blakemore & Wood, 2015), actually completing a PhD indicates that you have put in place processes to control the project, allowing changes that improve the final outcomes but not being distracted by side tracks. Your ability to monitor and control projects by meeting your milestones is part of your success in managing project uncertainty.

Project management is also the area in which your interpersonal skills kick in. The Cheeky Scientist points out: “As you move up in the hierarchy along with managing your own projects you will also need to learn managing members of your team, manage budget of projects and ensure its timely completion. As your responsibilities grow it will become impossible to do everything on your own so two other attributes that add value to the transferable skill of project management are ability to motivate others and delegation of tasks. To achieve this you must develop a rapport with your colleagues and team members and identify their individual strengths and weaknesses.” lists the interpersonal skills you are likely to use during a research degree:

  • Influencing and negotiating skills (from writing funding bids, securing resources from within your department, etc)
  • Creating and presenting ideas (in your teaching, or to draw in external funding)
  • Teamworking
  • Mentoring and coaching (of young lecturers and PhDs/post docs)

Are there any other situations in which you’ve been able to demonstrate these kinds of interpersonal skills? Please respond through the Comment function to tell us more.

The focus of project management outside the university sector will be somewhat different from what you’ve experienced in the university. The Cheeky Scientist explains: “Unlike academia, where the main purpose of your projects was to generate publishable data, industry decisions should be made taking into account the bigger picture and business goals of the organization. Industry projects tend to be more time sensitive relative to academia and there is little room for exploratory research that deviates from the primary objectives of a project.” This applies to all researchers, not just scientists, of course.

Tomorrow we will look at Communication Skills – a big part of your work in writing and talking about your research. See you for coffee and conversation on Wednesday too!

PS Don’t forget to keep a record of your tasks today, just like you did yesterday. On Friday we’ll review that list to see where your skill strengths lie.


  1. My three activities were:
    1) organised a discount for an order for reagents needed for my PhD and our research group; 2) organised an undergraduate research conference; 3) organised several social events at my residential hall

    I organised a discount for a large order during a period where our group did not have much funding. To do this, I produced a list of all the reagents and consumables that we use from the company. I then liaised with my supervisor and other group members to determine whether any other items needed to be added. I wrote to the regional sales representative of the company to determine whether they could provide us with a quote for a bulk purchase. He provided us with a significant discount (~40% on most items). We were, therefore, able to make our funding go further over this period.

    1. What a great example, Sash! Every workplace needs a person like you on their team 🙂 You could use this example to demonstrate not only skills in budgeting/procurement/financial management, but also in areas of negotiation, collaboration, team work, etc. I think your example will also help others see how they too have built all sorts of skills along the way – thank you for sharing!

  2. Three activities are: 1. I presented a paper at a conference in Melbourne. 2. I coordinated and facilitated a reading group for postgraduate students. 3. I have home educated my children for seventeen years.

    I coordinated and facilitated a reading group for postgraduate students. To achieve this, I needed to recruit students to participate and find a time and place to conduct the meetings. I liaised with the postgraduate coordinator about the format for the meetings, room bookings and funding for snacks. I wrote an email to postgraduate students to gauge their interest and created a list of participants. For each meeting, I would circulate a session plan outlining the proposed topic and the format for discussion. I would facilitate the conversation by presenting ideas to launch the discussion and encourage others to contribute. I would use my negotiation skills to stay on topic and move the conversation forward in the time-limited discussion. As a result, the discussion was an enthusiastic exchange of ideas and a team-building exercise between fellow students.

    1. This example covers such a huge range of skills, Jenni! (And it sounds like a wonderful initiative to enrich the research culture in your area.) Sometimes people overlook activities like this as just something they did on the side, but it can provide a really clear demonstration that you are the kind of person who can make things happen. Sounds like you could run all sorts of committees (keeping people informed and on track); organise events; succeed in funding bids; negotiate with stakeholders; build community, etc, etc, etc!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *