Day 4: What are you good at? Post-PhD employment

Professional Practice

The final column of the ANU Research Skills framework is labelled “Professional Practice”. This covers the skills and competencies that facilitate your work as a professional researcher – a leader in your area, rather than a student still learning from the professors. But this is not as daunting as it may sound when you first start to think about yourself in these terms. The list of skills includes:

  • Ability to navigate and make best use of the (university/workplace) environment
  • Ability to take on leadership roles and exert influence
  • Networking and collaborating with academic and non-academic communities
  • Ability to teach and mentor others
  • Ability to take a strategic approach to career management
  • Ability to identify commercial opportunities and take entrepreneurial approaches to leveraging them

You can see how networking, collaborating, teaching and mentoring all rely on the interpersonal skills we’ve already seen in relation to communication yesterday. This includes the ability to interact appropriately with team mates and clients; to maintain professionalism even under pressure; and to network and build relationships. There is a lot of overlap between the skills you bring from research into the workplace – harness this when you are looking for positions outside the academy.

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

A “strategic approach to career management” is what you are doing by undertaking this Pomodoro Break – making an effort to think laterally about where you can find satisfying employment that uses your broad range of skills. It’s also about realistically assessing your strengths and filling gaps in your skillset. Careers advisors rarely talk about “career planning” these days, as they recognise that the 20th-century idea of working your way up the ladder in (mostly) one institution, or at least in one industry, is rarely possible today. Instead, being open to change, seeing opportunities when they arise, and adapting to current work practices are valuable mindsets. Sometimes this means actually creating the job yourself.

I think it’s the last item in the Professional Practice list that can feel a long way from your own capabilities as a researcher, the “ability to identify commercial opportunities and take entrepreneurial approaches to leveraging them”. This depends to some extent on your discipline, of course, but many of us working in the university system are unfamiliar (and perhaps a little uncomfortable) with a concept of ourselves as entrepreneurs. However, Cheeky Scientist has some useful ways into this concept, explaining that entrepreneurship is about being able to:

  • work independently and take responsibility for your work
  • respond in a mature way when confronted with unexpected challenges with creative problem solving
  • act decisively and taking responsibility for your own duties
  • take action on your own and strive to achieve goals beyond your regular duties

Cheeky Scientist speaks to all HDRs and PhD graduates: “you have had to function independently, take important decisions with limited supervision and find unique solutions to novel problems. So, perhaps without noticing, you have already gained some of these entrepreneurial qualities that are appreciated in industry.” (pp.34-35)

Another way of describing aspects of Entrepreneurship comes from Jobs on Toast:

  • thought leadership
  • innovation
  • bidding for funding
  • networking
  • international experience

Broken down like this, it’s easier to see how doctoral research very frequently requires these entrepreneurial skills. Then it’s a matter of framing your experience and achievements as skills that will be used as you transition into your new work.

Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Dana Landis explains that when it comes to translating knowledge into skills, it’s mostly a matter of reframing the way you talk about your academic experience. By this she means that you explain what you did, rather than what you learned. The example she gives goes along these lines.

I’m sure you are all getting the idea that translating research skills for potential employers is all about identifying what you are good at, and then being able to tell a story about how those skills are valuable in a new workplace.

Claire Hewitson developed the following table to help researchers make the link between transferable skills and storytelling – present the information as a challenge, what you did to overcome it, and the outcome (rather like the STAR framework we looked at for Management Skills on Tuesday).

ACTIVITY: Use Hewitson’s grid to tell a story about your competency in one of the professional practice skills listed at the top of this post. Please share your responses via the Comments box.

Required competency What CHALLENGE (situation/task, opportunity of challenge) were you faced with? What ACTION did you take? Demonstrate your skills/competencies/strengths. What were your RESULTS in quantifiable terms? What did you deliver to the business/bottom line?

“Professionalism” is traditionally associated with “trust, specialized knowledge and discretion”, as well as the ability to exercise critical reflection and make “immediate moral [ethical] and responsible decisions” (Fenwick 2016). Tara Fenwick offers some interesting insights into how ideas about professionalism interact with social media use – check it out here.

Tomorrow we’ll wrap up this Pomodoro Break mini-course. Remember to keep a list of the tasks you’ve been doing all week so that you can report on the range of skills learnt as a research student. In the meantime, keep reading, thinking and commenting so I know you are out there!


  1. Ability to teach and mentor others

    Challenge: To teach and mentor a student during their Honours project and the start of a PhD.

    Actions: I identified research problems and designed experiments to investigate hypotheses in the project. I wrote a summary document to assist the student with understanding the project and provided literature for additional guidance. I also provided her with additional web-based resources to assist her in finding provided her with several web-based tools to assist her in finding both technical and project specific literature. In collaboration with my supervisor, I assisted in the day-to-day supervision of the student’s experiments and data analyses and trained the student in some new techniques. As part of the student’s broader training, I taught the student how to write chemical risk assessments and how to negotiate with sales representatives for discounts on products that were required for the project. While working in the team environment in our group, the student identified that they were having difficulties communicating with some members of the team; we discussed those difficulties and developed some strategies for navigating the issues. More recently, I have also helped the student identify seminars that are run by ANU Researcher Development that may help the student build the skills that they feel they lack – such as communication and resilience.

    Results: The student performed well in their Honours year and was able to independently perform several tasks confidently. The student now feels more empowered in a team environment and has now started mentoring and supervising an undergraduate student.

    1. How fortunate this student was to have you on her side 🙂 And this account shows how you can really deliver on the results. These kinds of details can seem small at the time, but a record of all the steps indicates very clearly that a whole set of diverse skills are being mobilised – and mobilised very effectively at that!

  2. Required competency: Ability to navigate and make best use of the (university/workplace) environment

    Challenge: During my bachelor and honours degrees I studied part-time online. For my PhD I moved to fulltime on-campus research. I did not know how to navigate the university environment.

    Action: I attended many lectures, seminars, workshops and student groups to familiarise myself with the university environment and to meet people relevant to my discipline as well as others outside my discipline. I attended courses provided by my school, my college, the ANU library, ANU Academic Skills and ANU Researcher Development to hone my skills and to give myself every opportunity to succeed. I attended the ‘Performance Skills for Academic Presentations’ workshop to improve my public speaking skills. I applied for opportunities such as #SoMe Social Media for Researchers and the Book Writing Boot Camp to promote my research.

    Results: I am confident in the university environment and able to navigate it easily. I know where to access help when required and assist others when they need help. I have built a good network of peers and colleagues. I am an active member of my school, college and the wider ANU community

    1. I like this example, Jenni – you show how proactive you are in dealing with a new physical and social space. Sounds like you’ve made the most of the opportunities to work out how things operate on campus and also created a connected community for yourself. All skills that are incredibly useful when going into a new workplace too!

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