Postdocs typically have a broad and finely-honed skillset that includes project management, teamwork and facilitation skills. Yet, in the words of one, “we carry it round like a big sack, without looking closely at what’s inside or considering its value”.
A number of factors play into this scenario; a prevailing notion within university communities that the attributes needed for (academic) career progression are so obvious that they don’t need articulating, a focused dedication to the current research project that puts everything else on the back-burner, plus, perhaps, personal uncertainties about “whether I have what it takes”. For the latter, see our page on Responding to Change or Setbacks.
Audit your skills
Use Vitae’s Researcher Development Framework (RDF) to see the spectrum of skills developed during a PhD or postdoc that are above and beyond your subject-related intellectual abilities.
If your sights are on academia, download the full RDF to benchmark your skill levels against those expected for the next stage of progression.
The ‘Career Weaver‘ web-based app developed by the Careers Service is another good tool for identifying not only your skillset but also the values and motivations that shape your working life.
Whatever your intended direction, use a broad skills list to review, and perhaps cluster, your skills. This is best done instinctively, so set yourself a time limit to ring those you use or have demonstrated. And remember that you, and others in academia, may not be in the habit of identifying certain skills – treat this as an opportunity to name your skills in a new way.
We are often too modest or simply do not recognise the skills we possess. Ask a colleague here at Oxford, or in a recent role elsewhere, to list your competencies – both technical and ‘soft’ – with examples of where you have demonstrated these. You can then combine these lists in order to review how you match the criteria listed on job vacancies more accurately, and build an evidence base for future applications.
Expand your skills
Apprenticeships for Research Staff
Sometimes the broad range of transferrable skills that research staff develop in their roles can be tricky to capture on CVs and in applications due to their informal on their informal acquisition 'on the job'. At other times, you may feel more confident in claiming skills when they can be evidenced with a qualification. In both cases, undertaking an apprenticeship could be the solution.
Did you know that research staff may be eligible to enrol for an apprenticeship through the university, and that the range of skills covered by the apprenticeships scheme includes leadership, project management and more? For more information see the People and Organisational Development page on apprenticeships.
Communicate your skills effectively
Employers will only be able to understand what you have to offer if you break down what you do in your day-to-day research into specific activities, and use words that are familiar to them.
See our guidance on Writing Applications for examples.
Try writing a skills-based CV as an exercise in identifying the full range of your transferable skills and choosing appropriate language to describe them.
Identify the fit with roles outside academia
Project management, drive and problem-solving are just some of the skills researchers bring that are highly attractive to recruiters across sectors.
For more on how employers see a doctorate, or postdoc experience, browse our pages on Boosting your Employability.
You will be better positioned to know what a potential employer wants to see in your application if you have understood what ‘research’, ‘analysis’ or any other function means in that organisation, as well as the pace of work and their definitions of success. Talking to people is the best strategy. Ask about typical time-lines for projects, how many are run at the same time, what the benchmarks for quality are and how the organisation uses the results.
Dip your toes in to try things out
Once you have identified a field of work or organisation that attracts you, look for ways to gain some ‘in-house’ experience. Visiting, work-shadowing, assisting with a project on a voluntary basis or offering your time as a consultant are all excellent ways to test the fit of a new environment and working culture.
Postdocs are usually very busy people, and you may be wondering how you might find time to do some of this testing. The good news is that there are things you can be doing now that will both boost your skills and give you insights into different spheres of work. This blog post by an Oxford researcher is a great example of profiting from an opportunity to enter a different world of work with a limited demand on your time; Oxford Hub have a range of projects which offer ways to experience work setting beyond academia and gain critical professional skills.
As you spend time in a different work setting, you can expect to feel discomfort because you are living within, and in some respects between, this newer world and that of academia – which you are more familiar with. We can reassure you that this discomfort is quite normal and will ease as you become more comfortable with a slightly different professional identity. The Harvard Business Review article ‘How to Stay Stuck in the Wrong Career’ by Herminia Ibarra can be a quick but insightful read if you’re trying to make sense of the process of adaptation to a different work environment.