Boosting your employability

They relate to our ability to interpret the world around us, relate to people effectively and to set, then meet, organisational goals. 

We have explained the eight core employability skills that typically recognised across all job sectors, and listed under essential and desired qualities in job descriptions. Recruiters have different priorities in the balance of skills according to the role and organisation. We suggest finding out as much as possible about what is wanted as you explore potential roles, and do more careful research before applying.

Under each skill is a list of ways to prove or improve this skill, all of which are achievable while studying or working at Oxford and include remote-working opportunities.


Covid-19 has brought worry about career development for many people, and for others it has cast a new light on related professional plans.

For reassurance and practical tips, listen to Herminia Ibarra's webinar Taking advantage of the coronavirus disruption to rethink (and possibly reinvent) your career' (recorded on Tuesday 14 April at the London Business School)

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Core employability skills are increasingly relevant for academia, even if not made explicit in the job description.

For example, commercial awareness is vital to understanding the position of an academic department and its development opportunities amidst economic and political change affecting funding streams.

Leadership, management and strategic thinking skills are critical to departments preparing submissions for the Research or Teaching Excellence Frameworks (REF and TEF), the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research and teaching respectively, and of allocating funds accordingly.

For further insight, see our section on Pursuing Academia in What’s next for you?

Developing skills for an academic career

The organisation Vitae exists to support the development of researchers across all sectors. You have access to their resources through Oxford's membership. Vitae’s ‘Researcher development Framework’ (RDF) sets out in detail the skills required for and gained through research (and broader academic) endeavours; it can be used as a tool for bench-marking your current level in each of the 63 identified skills and familiarising yourself with what will be expected in more senior academic roles.

Perhaps more usefully, you can assess your skill development using a specific lens on the RDF that focuses on leadership, knowledge exchange, public engagement, teaching, intrapreneurship, researcher mobility or employability beyond academia.

Talking to current postdocs and visiting other research groups or labs will help you gain insights into relevant skill-sets for your area and those relating to institutional priorities.  Ask your supervisor and others in your department for suggestions as to who to talk to. Consider showing them a draft CV and ask them to comment on how effectively you are demonstrating your skills.

Recruitment is similar to match-making in that the fit has got to work both ways. Unfortunately, we tend to dwell on trying to understand which work settings may suit us best, rarely considering how a research background is understood in working worlds outside academia.

Our research amongst employers shows that some have out-dated, stereotypical views of academic research, for example that it comprises one core activity e.g. staring down a microscope or at ancient manuscripts. Others see it as involving very long time horizons such as thesis submission after three or four years, not realising that there are multiple project deadlines within this. Another common perception is that researchers always prefer to work independently and have little or no experience of teamwork.

One could laugh at these stereotypes or dismiss them because they do not reflect personal experience. Yet the reason to pay attention is that they will to some extent shape the way your application is seen.

Read more on employer perspectives and careers beyond academia in our Early Career Researchers blog.

Meeting people is the best way to understand what every day working life is like in any given sector, and to hear what organisations are looking for in new recruits.

Every year we run a one day a large number of Careers Fairs catering to all interests, plus a one day Careers Conference for Researchers.

  • Use the above links to can our online booklets for full details of the varied organisations and individuals who have participated, many of them with doctorates now working beyond academia.
  • Listen to podcasts from employees (some of whom have doctorates) found in 'our resources' of our relevant sector pages.
  • Remember; participating organisations want to recruit from Oxford and have paid to have their contact details remain available in the booklet. They will be happy to hear from you and respond to your questions by email or phone.

Conversations are ideal when exploring your options. Our Careers Fairs will go virtual from September 2020, giving you new ways to learn about - and connect to - different organisations across the world.

Keep updated on timings for each fair and pre-event orientation sessions via the Careers Fairs page.

Your skills will broaden and deepen as you progress through your research degree and related job.

Check that you understand the broad core employability skills listed on our page and if you're pressed for time, use these for a quick audit of what you can demonstrate.

To do this well, use our Career Weaver, a web-based application to help you identify, take ownership of and clearly articulate:

  • what you love
  • what you are good at (your skills!)
  • why you do it.

Inkpath is an excellent tool for tracking the training and other activities you engage in to boost certain skills, which can then be used in your applications. You can sign up for free as an Oxford student or staff member and retain your personal profile for use anywhere in the world. There's an excellent demo on their site.

We recommend talking about the skills you would like to boost with your supervisor (if you are a DPhil student) for example in your annual Training Needs Analysis, and with your PI or another senior colleague (if you are a research staff member), including  in your annual Professional/Career Development Review.  Remember that you can also do this with a Careers Adviser (by booking an appointment).

If you are very busy, take a moment to reassess your priorities: What matters most in the long term, your PI’s project or your ability to contribute to the world?

In the NatureJobs blog, David Bogle, Professor of Chemical Engineering at UCL and chair of the LERU (League of European Research universities) Doctoral Studies Policy Group emphasises the importance of investing time and resources in effective skill-development opportunities for careers in all sectors:

Lots of the research might not be going anywhere, (but) the newly trained postdoc will. Every postdoc must eventually move on to a new position and will make a difference there. We need them all to be given skills and confidence to do this for the benefit of us all, whether in business, industry, academia and society in general.

 

Be bold in your decision to set time aside for investigating and pursuing activities suited to your needs and interests: all research staff are eligible for professional development time within contracted hours (see leveraging your postdoc), and students are actively encouraged to take up offers of training focusing on personal and professional development as well as the technicalities of the PhD.

Being job-ready also relies on knowing and using the terminology of particular careers sectors in your application and even those early, exploratory conversations. Our top tips are to

  • Look carefully at organisational websites and recent job descriptions for vacancies, then try crafting a skills-based CV for roles beyond academia.
  • Talk to people who work at the interfaces of your academic work and relevant policy or business areas, and develop skills and pleasure in 'networking' that is genuinely rewarding (then use these insights to re-work your CV and inform your cover letter or speculative approach).

For evidence on why and how you can network effectively for all concerned, read Sarah Blackford's article. Her conclusions hold for early career researchers in the sciences and beyond.

We provide suggestions for developing your employability skills in and around Oxford that require short or longer term commitments. Raising these options in your annual Training Needs Assessment or Professional/Career Development Review (PDR or CDR) will help your supervisor or line manager support you in making wise, timely choices.

If you want to combine core skill-building with professional networking in a sector you care about, think about joining the team of Oxford postdocs and DPhils running www.research-careers.org.

Being on this friendly and productive team allows me to reach out to former postdocs in organisations of particular interest to me, and is honing my communication and editorial skills. I find the light and flexible work flow easy to manage alongside my job. (Oxford postdoc, 2018)

To find out more about joining, write to contact@research-careers.org

Consider the value of, and best timing for activities needing a bit more time, including those hands-on opportunities run by the Careers Service for DPhils to grow core skills, specifically leadership, communication, creativity and commercial awareness:

In these programmes,you will work in a team on a genuine strategic question posed by a local client organisation which could be a business, branch of local government, charity or NGO. Some projects have a commercial focus and others a policy focus. Participants rate these very high in comparison to classroom-based training, enjoy making a practical contributions to a local organisation, and are pleased to include these in their CV.

  • Summer and termly Micro-Internships via the Careers Service are open to all students.
  • Oxford's internships (for students) and external opportunities (many for students and research staff) are advertised on CareerConnect.
  • Follow our advice on how to approach an organisation to negotiate some work experience or a bespoke internship.

Check out relevant training offered by your Divisional training teams and others. Many of these opportunities are now open to all research students and staff, regardless of your subject area:

Cast your eyes a bit wider to identify emerging opportunities in various work sectors where quantitative or qualitative research skills are being sought in ways you never imagined…

Keep tabs on the UK government's priority research areas by browsing Innovate UK's current open competitions, many of which ask for research organisations, small business and/or wider collaboration. You can subscribe to their regular summary via innovateuk@info.innovateuk.org

If your focus is international, look for these themes on similar sites hosted by relevant national governments or research councils and/or in the UK's Global Challenges Research Fund.

Being in Oxford gives you access to many opportunities for ‘light-touch’ engagement with people engaged in or connected to areas of work that intersect with your research interests or skills. The choice of options can be overwhelming, so...

  • Start by browsing on the list of Oxford's wide-ranging student clubs and societies then attend a meeting to find out more.
  • Attend one of Enterprising Oxford's regular events to connect members of the University with local social, environmental and business-related entrepreneurship and browse their site for upcoming training or skill-sharing.
  • And if you are keen to get practical experience in these areas, consider volunteering or becoming a trustee via OxfordHub who offer opportunities to all residents of Oxford and are particularly keen on DPhil students and research staff for many roles.

Some University societies have a core interest in the use and application of technologies; others are more cause-driven in their call for practical innovations.  Oxford Entrepreneurs runs a major conference, a pitching competition, treks to visit starts ups and in November runs the annual Oxfordhack, a student hackathon hosted by the Institute of Mathematics. There is a large, active University Artificial Intelligence Society  which collaborates with other groups in the University and the Said Business School to explore this emerging field and its applications for people from all disciplines.

Look out for Hackathons that are are open to all and require no previous coding experience.

'Bootcamps' can be an effective way to explore and equip yourself for using your skills in another sector. Some are quite costly, so do your research before committing yourself. Seek to understand what outcomes previous attendees have achieved, whether participants are introduced to recruiting companies during the course, and how quickly they enter work on course completion.  To start you research, take a look at Switchup.org's research and reviews online.

Looking for more?


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