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As a PhD what type of work can I do outside the universities?

Today, PhD graduates take up many different posts outside research communities – in both the public and private sectors. According to the Danish Research and Innovation Policy Council, in future, PhD graduates must be prepared to find employment outside the universities. In DM, we think that this is a positive development because, when you learn to carry out research through a three- or four-year PhD programme, you also learn a number of other things that are good preparation for a career outside academia.

From researcher to … what?

PhD students who decide to pursue a career outside the universities often find that their profiles are focused very keenly on university research. This means that the first step towards a position outside the universities is to keep your professionalism at arm’s length and consider what your skills really are. This provides you with the opportunity to imagine how to use your research skills in different contexts.

Consider, for example

  • What do you think is most enjoyable about research?
  • How do different professional skills combine in your profile?
  • What parts of your research expertise may be seen as strength outside the universities?
  • Outside the research community, who may have an interest in your research?

Three dimensions of the research profession

There are many ways to assess what a PhD graduate can do. Each field has its own strengths and weaknesses and may lead to different career paths.

As a clarification exercise, you can distinguish between methodological skills, a thorough knowledge of a subject area and also general competences.

1. Methodological and technical skills

If, in the course of your research, you have gained considerable experience in quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis, you may see this as one of your clear strengths when looking for a job.

Perhaps, through your PhD programme, you have learned to collect and process large data sets. You may also have learned how to use programs such as STATA or STSS to analyse your empirical data. Maybe you have coded to produce models and used programs such as Python and MATLAB. Many PhD students learn laboratory techniques and become very skilled at setting up experiments and are therefore able to naturally form part of the production chain of knowledge-intensive companies.

Members of DM who, through their PhD-training, have developed a special strength in quantitative methods work for e.g. public institutions such as SKAT/the Danish Customs and Tax Administration or private companies such as Novo Nordisk.

As a human or social sciences graduate, you have often gained experience in conducting interviews, in forming focus groups or in participant observation - just as you have often learned to systematise and analyse complex empirical data. Members who are particularly strong in qualitative methods work with management development in consultancy houses or at UCs with  public sector research institutions or elsewhere where there is a need for qualifying development projects through practice-based analyses.

2. Thorough knowledge of a subject area

In order to gain PhD degree, you must obtain a highly focused specialised knowledge of a subject and contribute new knowledge to a scientific field. For many DM PhD graduates precisely their research topic makes them interesting to employers in e.g. public administrations, think tanks and market research companies, consulting houses or companies working with product development.

By employing a subject-matter expert, you may ensure that the latest knowledge is included when appropriate. Furthermore, as a PhD graduate and a strong communicator, you can help ensure that other employees are well-equipped to solve the tasks relating to that subject area.

At the same time and in many cases, as a PhD student, you network with many of the other strong professionals in the field. In other words, you have access to expert knowledge in your network and can often help establish a good relationship with some of the research communities where the latest developments in a subject are taking place.

3. General competences

PhD graduates often bring a number of skills into play in their positions which are not directly linked to their field of research or methodological techniques. One of the most central is the ability to systematically map and review a large and complex area of ​​knowledge as well as decoding the quality of research results, how they are structured and what new knowledge they bring into play.

For many PhD graduates, the ability to enter into professional discussions is also important. As a university researcher, you are often taught to present your results in a way that allows others to criticise and provide input. Therefore, you often develop into a sharp communicator - both in speaking and writing.

While completing a PhD programme, you are also trained to keep many processes moving forward at the same time and to ensure that they fit together. In many cases, you need to make sure that your experiments are going according to plan and that you have the right laboratory access. You may need to coordinate a group of co-authors who are located on the other side of the globe, run complicated laboratory tests on a tight schedule, or arrange to have 50 interviews completed before you can begin your analysis. Therefore, PhD graduates in many different positions mention that their ability to structure a project is extremely valuable.

DM also offers courses in the Clarification of Competences - both for academics in general and for PhD students specifically who would like to pursue a career outside the universities.

Career consultation

Are you interested in a consultation on how to bring your PhD into play in the best possible way, you should log on to dm.dk and book a career consultation under the heading ”PhD”.

Book here

Good advice from PhD graduates

As a PhD student, you can position yourself sensibly during your studies in relation to getting a job once you have defended your thesis.

During our work with researchers, we have interviewed PhD graduates in posts outside the universities. In the quotes below, they summarise some of the experiences they made on leaving their university.

Make the difficult career choices early on
Make contacts "outside the walls"
As a PhD student, you have a lot of flexibility! Utilise it to learn things you may also use outside the university
Learn the basics! Excel is not sexy, but it is practical
Think in practical terms as a supplement to the theoretical thinking
The most important part is the skills, not the degree
It is the guarantee of the method used that sets you apart from the candidates