Guest blog by Shuxiu Zhang (LSE PhD, 2013) who talks about her experience of learning to present her PhD experience to employers. She began her career in international organisations and government before securing a post in the UK Civil Service:
It was July 2013. I walked out of my PhD Viva feeling victorious. I’m now an expert on a slither of the social world. But my sense of accomplishment was short-lasting. Soon I began to experience short-breathing, and panic (like all my other PhD peers), as I scrolled through job adverts that seemed only interested in human skills (rather than intellectual depth). I felt the dizziness of spinning vertigo, and my PhD thesis could not connect me to society. Was this a mistake? Had I focused too long on too narrow an area that made me futile in all other respects? Would they find me naïve?
I decided the best way to overcome my doubts is to give everything a go. And throughout copious attempts at opportunities across government, international organisations, private firms, and think tanks, I realised that I had completed underestimated my PhD experience. I found three points were particularly convincing.
What a PhD gives you
First, the PhD builds resilience. There is no other project that is more challenging than completing a PhD. You’ve endured psychological stamina and determination to complete the research marathon.
You’ve picked yourself up from missteps and failures in your experiments, data, and methods. You’ve steered your research forward with day-to-day discipline (and against a context of ambiguity). You’ve cold-called targeted onshore and offshore interviewees and institutions for data mining. You’ve worked flexibly to manage changing circumstances, and adapt to new environments. And you’ve managed the guilt in your conscious for not working more each time you head out for another pint of beer. The culmination of your PhD journey reflects points of resilience that you should sell shamelessly. And guess what? Recruiters across the industries without a doubt cherish individuals with tested resilience.
Second, the PhD builds people skills. The reality about the world today is that people remain the centre of everything. Any organisation you pursue will want to know ‘are you a relationship builder?’ It is natural that students often doubt their interpersonal experiences. Yet, think about the diversity of friendships you’ve established at LSE. Think how you quickly adapted to individuals of diverse backgrounds. Think about the academic networks you’ve developed at conferences, fieldwork, and on campus. Your ability to identify the right set of contacts and maintain them with trust and honesty are directly transferable to the needs of employers.
Finally, the PhD makes you a better problem-solver. If there’s anything that a PhD student is strong in, that’s problem solving on intellectual and pragmatic levels. Remember when you had to look at an intellectual puzzle from all angles and dimensions? Remember when you engaged in copious constructive debates in research workshops? Remember when you overcame obstacles in organising your fieldwork? Your competence to thoroughly assess a problem and germinate solutions will make you very attractive to employers. Remember when you enlisted research participants to conduct your PhD project? Being able to tell recruiters that you have convinced x number of people to engage with you will convince them of your problem solving and people skills.
So, do not believe your PhD experience was irrelevant, especially to non-academic employers. Do not undersell yourself, and put yourself forward with confidence that your value-add goes beyond the face-value of your expertise.