4 High-Value and Transferable Academic Skills

There’s an academy-wide conversation going on about transferable academic skills. In fact, the university is becoming more aware of the skills a PhD provides and starting to brag about that.

Gaining transferable skills should DEFINITELY NOT be a reason to do a PhD. But if you’re already in the boat you should know that you do have some high-value skills to offer outside of academia. (See this post on how to develop transferable skills.)

Here are four academic skills that are highly valued in the marketplace.

1. Writing

Okay, I can see you rolling your eyes.  You didn’t come all the way to this blog to hear that writing is a PhD transferable academic skill. Duh.

But hear me out.

Most of the people I’ve worked with and for had master’s degrees, or even bachelor’s. You’ve marked papers from such students, yes? And how was their writing? Of course, a few shine, but there’s a lot of bad writing out there. You’ll find out that you are likely able to write and edit at a level that most people can’t touch, and that’s an advantage. (I’m feeling weirdly self-conscious about my writing as I type this.)

I should mention, though, that PhDs have a reputation for writing that’s occasionally stuffy and verbose. You can fix this by trying to write for lots of different venues and mediums and learning how to break the rules.

You can, of course, put “writing” on your resume—and you should. But one of the best ways to showcase your writing is to get it in front of people. Start getting it published in non-academic venues. Do some blogging, pitch opinion pieces, and try to write some policy-type papers and reports in some capacity (most publications are open to pitch to).

2. Grant and Proposal Writing

Not unrelated to point one, but you are probably also a fantastic grant and proposal writer. This is an academic skill that’s super valuable in the marketplace.

Who needs these types of writing skills?

The better question is: Who doesn’t? You’ll find grant and proposal writing everywhere across the modern workplace.

Research companies respond to Calls for Proposals (abbreviated as CFPs—also called RFPs, CFTs, AND RFTs. I know, it’s crazy).  Responding to CFPs is the bread and butter for a lot of organizations. (By the way, if you want to get into consulting you can start applying for CFPs and RFPs too. I’ll say more about this in a later blog.)

When I worked for the think tank I wrote a lot of grant proposals. We were a non-profit and could therefore apply for money from granting foundations. Also, government and businesses often write proposals for individual programs and projects they want to run that need to be approved by people higher up the management ladder.

So you should have line on your resume that says something like:

-Grant writing won $350k in funding

And be ready with a few examples of grant and proposal writing. You could even try your hand at writing one specific to non-academic work and put it on your LinkedIn or website.

3. Project Management

Okay, WTF is project management? And how is it an academic skill? When I was still in my PhD I heard about project management all the time. People talked about what a great PhD transferable skill it is. But a lot of PhDs are confused about what this skill actually is and how they come to have it.

Let me explain.

Every PhD is a research project. Most start with a proposal and end with a final report (a thesis). Along the way, you work with a budget to make sure that the research gets done, perhaps presenting it at conferences around the world. You have to have a timeline for this project, adjusting as you hit setbacks. In some PhDs (not mine) you have to either supervise people or work with a team to do the research, pulling all the strings together to make it happen.

Voila. That’s project management.

In addition to your PhD you might have, say, edited a book or journal. This involves this same type of process. You might have run a conference that meant coordinating the schedules of professors who thought they were busy and much too important. That’s project management.

These skills will take you far.

Example: One of my first post-PhD tasks was to run a research project that worked with an Indigenous group in Canada to develop strategies to achieve reconciliation through economic development—worth around $100K. I wrote documents like proposals and the final report, but not alone. I had research assistants who worked with me on it—I had to direct their work too and use them effectively. I ran a conference for the project—that meant working with event coordinators to make the logistics happen, doing invitations, and even doing some in person appeals to get people to show up.  I managed the budget throughout working with finance people.

In short, project management is not outside of the realm of possibility for any PhD student. And you did hear the word “management” in there, right? Project management builds the skill set that sets you up for actual management positions.

4. Data Analysis/Quantitative Research

Oh my God, you do data? You’re golden. It’s a high-value transferable academic skill.

Companies love people who can work with data. Even if you just compiled a relational database of Elizabethan military records—as I did once in my MA—you’ve got a bit of data experience.

It goes up from there. Do you know languages like SPSS?  Are you good at stats? Everybody under the sun is riding the data wave in some way, and if you can wrangle it you’ve got a really high-value skill.

Even if you can’t—yet—why not try to build a bit of data work into your PhD? It’s experience that the “real world” will love.

Conclusion

There are plenty more transferable academic skills that your degree gave you. But I’ll save the rest for another post. As you go about doing your non-academic networking and job exploration, remember that these are high-value skills you bring to the table.

For more extensive lists of PhD transferable skills, check out this one from Jobs on Toast, or this one from MSU.

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