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By Cally Guerin

Researcher development workshops are increasingly focused on what is learnt during the doctorate that graduates take into their non-academic jobs on graduation.  Here at DoctoralWriting we usually concentrate on the kind of writing that is undertaken during the doctorate, but much of that is building a skillset that is invaluable outside the academy too. The writing skills developed during a PhD are right up there at the top of the list of desirable skills that employers are looking for.

PhD graduates are excellent at synthesising lots of information, extracting the useful details, and then presenting the results in a neat summary, as demonstrated in literature reviews and abstracts. Distilling knowledge on a topic into a ‘digestible nugget’ (as Beyond the Professoriate describes it) of communication that focuses on the most important elements for a particular audience is exactly what is required when summarising research findings – much like an executive summary for a report. PhD graduates are also very good at organising and categorising data, and then structuring persuasive arguments about what that data means.

Greta Solomon (2018) explains that writing is one area in which researchers might future-proof their careers: robots are unlikely any time soon to be able to demonstrate ‘empathy, critical thinking, creativity, strategy, imagination and vision’. Human writers can already do all this, and a PhD writer is educated to do it at a very high level.

Last week I wrote about the writing skills and varied genres that are required to write an ethics application. To build good writing skills, supervisors and writing teachers should encourage doctoral candidates to grab opportunities to write for a range of purposes, audiences and genres. It is useful to consider the full range of writing that is demanded by a doctoral project, and articulate the particular writing skills those writing tasks require. By focusing on the purpose of the writing task, candidates can then identify the kind of skills they take into other contexts as well. This list provides some examples.

  • The research proposal provides a succinct outline of a project, including the rationale for why it is worth doing, and precisely how it will be carried out. It persuades readers that the project is not only realistic, but is also do-able within a specific time frame.
  • Writing an abstract (or a Three Minute Thesis version of the study) concisely summarises the key points of large projects.
  • The writing of research articles and/or chapters for the thesis requires structuring complex material into coherent chunks that fit together into a linear argument.
  • The overall monograph/dissertation then demonstrates a sustained exploration of a large idea.
  • Funding applications provide evidence of the ability to create a persuasive case that argues for the value of research.
  • Reviewing activities require the combined skills of critique and constructive feedback (see Sue Starfield’s post on “A life in review” for more details on the skills developed across a raft of reviewing writing).
  • Email text provides evidence of the ability to use written communication for organising people and events, as well as for reporting on outcomes.
  • Social media used for the promotion of research activities (such as tweeting and blogging) demonstrates an ability to communicate concisely to a broad audience.
  • Content creation for research websites also reveals a capacity to present information about projects that focuses on what is relevant to different audiences. It also often requires working to a specific word limit.
  • Similarly, writing a press release also demonstrates the capacity to condense complex ideas into a succinct account that focuses on what is of interest to specific audiences.

Todd Maurer of The Versatile PhD reminds us that:

many professional and scientific writing and editing jobs are ‘PhD preferred,’ requiring not only superior editing and writing skills but also the ability to analyze and identify trends in a chosen field, produce scientific and other research grants, advance public policies, and edit and manage content within professional journals. Careers in the editing field cut across government, professional journals, NGOs and commercial entities.

It is well worth reminding doctoral writers about what they take from a PhD into their next job – whether that is within the academy or beyond the university system. Learning to identify the range of genres, audiences and purposes of all the writing they undertake is a useful starting point to showing graduates that what they have learnt during the doctorate resonates with all sorts of writing they are likely to do in future employment. Can you add further examples to the list above?