Day 3: What are you good at? Post-PhD employment

Communication

One of the key strengths PhD graduates bring to their next job is high-level verbal and written communication skills. As my colleague Dr Claire Aitchison says, “HDRs don’t always realise that when they enrol in a research degree, they are signing up to become writers”. This might sound a little shocking to some—especially those who don’t particularly enjoy writing! But when you stop and think about it, written and verbal communication are central to doctoral studies.

Have another look at the ANU Research Skills framework to see how you can identify the range of communication skills possessed by researchers. Jobs on Toast lists the following under “Communication skills”:

  • Writing
  • Public speaking
  • Languages
  • Stakeholder management
  • Web, email, content creation and social media

Writing can be broken down into more specific categories. For example, report writing, grant application writing, press releases, etc. Summarising large amounts of complex information and paraphrasing long documents are both second nature to HDRs by the end of their degrees.

One of your key writing skills is the ability to synthesise multiple sources of information. Your academic writing requires synthesising lots of data and finding meaningful patterns in the information, extracting the useful data, focusing on relevant key points, and then presenting the outcome in digestible nuggets (e.g., writing an abstract for a thesis). These are all aspects of communication that you use in research writing.

ACTIVITY: Make a list of all the different kinds of writing you have done during your PhD. What other work situations would require these kinds of written communication skills? Add your list to the Comments box at the bottom of this post.

For some reminders of what you write, have a look at these blogs from DoctoralWriting: Cally Guerin, “How do I write thee”; Sue Starfield, “A life in review”.

Oral communication appears in many forms during your research degree. It is most obvious when delivering lectures or presenting research at conferences and seminars. But it is also important in any form of teaching where you need to get your message across to others. This includes training staff and new recruits in new techniques or practices in your area as part of your formal role, or simply helping a new person find their way around. Teaching is also good for learning how to facilitate small groups such as committees or group meetings—yet another aspect of oral communication. You talk to individuals and groups frequently during a research degree, all the time building your oral communication skills.

“Communication” comes in so many different forms. When Jennifer Polk of Beyond the Professoriate asked on Twitter what skills PhD graduates had become good at during their research projects, the huge wave of responses included things like:

  • Accepting critical feedback and seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow.
  • Interacting with people I don’t know and/or people I am intimidated by.
  • How to write convincing emails.
  • Persuasion and negotiation! … you need to be able to make others care about your work using evidence and strong rationale.
  • Taking complex concepts and translating them for the general population.
  • Learning that done is better than perfect.
  • Knowing when something was good enough & being able to move on.

You can see how communication and interpersonal skills overlap—communication means communicating with other people. Understanding how your message will be received, how others will respond, is all part of the skillset you are developing.

(BTW, there were some other admirable skills reported in the tweets:

  • I got really really good at spotting glaring mistakes in things I’d submitted;
  • Ability to sense the presence of free food in the building I’m in;
  • The ~450m sprint from the bus stop to my eldest son’s child care before the late fine kicked in; 
  • Saying “I have no idea” but sounding like I’m still an authority on the topic.

These may well resonate with many of you too!)

So. how do we know that employers really are looking for the communication skills you have?

ACTIVITY

Log onto SEEK.com.au
Click on Job Search
Scroll down to Quick Search (grey band towards the bottom of the page)
In Classifications and choose any area you think you could work in
In the ‘What’ box, type ‘communication’
In the ‘Work types’ box, choose ‘Full time’
Click on the pink SEEK box to find a list of job openings
Choose one job and click on the job title
Look at the ‘Skills/Attributes and Experience’ section (or equivalent)
and identify the communication skills required

Let us know what you find. How could you adapt an account of your own written and verbal communication skills to meet the needs of this employer? How could you convince them that you have what they want? Please add your responses to the Comments box.

When I had a look this morning, one of the vacant positions under Community Services and Development was a Research Project Manager. The essential experience and skills required are:

  • Experience with ethics and research governance submissions, and liaising with ethics committees and external stakeholders.
  • Previous experience in project and data management including the collection, analysis and reporting of research data.
  • Proven ability to work independently and part of a team, adhering to tight deadlines, working on multiple projects simultaneously.
  • Experience engaging with stakeholders of varying levels.
  • Ability to develop and maintain good working relationships with internal and external parties.
  • Strong organisational skills, the capacity to successfully manage competing priorities, maintain attention to detail and meet deadlines.
  • Sound analytical skills with an ability to communicate complex information clearly both orally and in writing.
  • Demonstrated excellent oral and written communication skills, including punctuation, spelling, grammar and attention to detail.
  • Confident and competent user of technology including statistical software.
  • Proficient in the use of Microsoft Office Suite especially Word and Excel.

I think probably every PhD graduate could offer credible examples of their skills in all of these areas. And it would no doubt be a really interesting job!

While you might not have specific expertise in that particular industry, you will often have most of what is needed to do the job. Remember that your skills are not only applicable to the academic setting—lots of employers need people who can do what you are already good at. When you are browsing around the various job opportunities, pay attention to the language they use to describe the skills so that you can start adding those words to your own vocabulary when applying for jobs.

Bonus point: One of the skills/capabilities that Nichole Carelock raised in her webinar for Beyond the Professoriate (9 May 2019) included the ability to “Ring the alarm—stand up for what you believe even if it is not a popular view, speak up for users of a system”. She was referring to researchers whose investigations lead to policy recommendations. What broader area of skills would you see this belonging to? Is it communication or something else?

4 Comments

  1. I looked at a Field Account Manager job for a company that sells reagents to scientists in biology. The required skills and qualifications included two very specific criteria for communication – 1) selling, communication and negotiation skills with proven ability to build positive professional relationships with clients; and 2) have excellent listening, written and oral communication skills with the ability to create and deliver presentations tailored to the audience needs.

    The second criterion is easier to meet – I have evidence of participating in conference-style presentations and more public style forums and collaborating on a media release for a publication, and a couple of prizes for conference presentations. I’m not too sure how one would demonstrate listening skills in a written context (?) – the closest thing I can think of are examples where I have responded to feedback/criticism (ie reviewer responses) or communicated with our lab about various problems and tried to come up with group solutions. The first criterion is a little harder to meet given that I don’t have sales experience but have worked as a casual for a marketing division at a university where my job was to promote the benefits of studying at that uni. I have had to use my communication and negotiation skills in order to work as part of the team environment of the lab group that I am with. I have also had a positive professional relationship with a number of sales representatives from different companies who I have communicated with in order to get information about their products, try samples or to negotiate discounts on large orders.

    Bonus point: I’m thinking that the area that example might fall under is professional practice/conduct.

    1. Hi Sash – sorry for the delay in responding to your post (for some weird reason it appeared in a different part of the blog and I only just found it now!). Your examples sound like they would work really well for this position. The marketing division is a good example. Perhaps you could think of ‘clients’ in terms of stakeholders or students? This makes me think that we sometimes will need to look for synonyms and parallel relationships between concepts when making the translation between contexts.
      And thank you for the bonus points – yes! Professional practice is a good place to put these teamwork, negotiation skills.

  2. List of writing skills during the PhD:
    Abstracts
    Book reviews
    Emails
    Essays
    Feedback
    Forms
    Journal articles
    Note taking
    Presentations
    Proposals
    Responses
    Reports
    Social media posts
    Speeches
    Thesis chapters
    These skills are transferable to work situations in all sorts of jobs, even those that do not rely on written communication skills.

    Seek search:
    EL1 Government Writer & Communication Officer for a government department. Key responsibilities: Ministerial Correspondence, Presentations, Papers, proposals, Minutes for endorsement at governance committees or by the Executive, Guidelines, fact sheets, case studies, Advice and training material for employment service providers, Report, Website content, Corporate material, Editing/peer review as required, and ad hoc writing tasks. Need to demonstrate: Extensive experience in writing for government, including policy and programs, Ability to write clear, concise, logical and persuasive texts, Ability to understand operational and technical concepts quickly so that products are accurate, adapted to the audience and appropriately nuanced.

    I could adapt my account of written and verbal communication skills to convince them that I have the skills they want by comparing them with government processes. For instance, I could draw their attention to my knowledge of ANU policies and procedures, and the transferrable skills from my writing experience, such as forms and reports, to meet the requirement of policy writing experience.

    1. Absolutely, Jenni! I like seeing your extensive range of writing genres, and then how that matches against what the job requires. Even if you haven’t done writing that uses the same labels, you show us how that can be reframed to help an employer see that you’ve got experience that is completely relevant to their needs. 🙂

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