A small graduation cap sits on top of a blue pencil inside a jar beside another pencil against an out-of-focus background of greenery. It symbolises doctoral graduates.
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What skills will doctoral graduates need in their careers?

11 Oct 2021

Irish Universities Association’s Donal Leech talks about the specific challenges that face doctoral graduates as they embark on their careers.

For the past few weeks, we’ve been profiling STEM graduates to get a little more insight into what it’s like to take your first career steps via a graduate programme.

We’ve also heard from professionals within the science and tech industries about what skills graduates need in this ever-changing working world.

Click here to check out the top sci-tech employers hiring right now.

But aside from bachelor’s and master’s students, another cohort that may be heading into various industries after education are doctoral graduates.

These are graduates who are, first and foremost, independent researchers and leading experts in their chosen areas. These graduates will face specific challenges and require specific skills as they look to take the next steps in their career.

Donal Leech, the dean of graduate studies at NUI Galway and chair for deans of graduate studies at the Irish Universities Association (IUA), said that while employment and earning prospects for PhD graduates remain strong, the biggest challenge they face is deciding the pathway to achieving their career expectations.

“Doctoral education opens many opportunities for a graduate and navigating the many pathways forward can sometimes seem the most challenging task,” he told Siliconrepublic.com.

“For this reason, it is important for universities and all those that support the provision of doctoral training to ensure that appropriate career guidance is in place. This will ensure that not only does the graduate fully benefit, but society as a whole benefits with research talent working in areas where they have the maximum impact.”

He added that as well as the challenges that come with designing, planning and executing a research project, doctoral researchers can also face the challenge of understanding the impact of their research in a broader societal context.

Helping doctoral graduates become ‘career ready’

In order to prepare doctoral graduates for their future, the IUA has updated its Irish Universities Doctoral Graduate Skills Statement, which describes the desired learning outcomes and skills that PhD students will have developed during their doctoral education and training.

“We know that there is consistent demand from employers for graduates with a broad set of research skills, which can be applied across a variety of settings,” said Leech.

“Doctoral programmes therefore must also ensure that graduates are equipped with the range of skills necessary to develop and manage their careers and to contribute to Irish economic and societal development across a broad range of employment sectors, within and beyond academia.”

The skills statement was updated in July of this year and is the third edition of the document. Leech said the latest edition aims to spread greater awareness of the skills delivered to and acquired by doctoral researchers.

“Greater awareness of the skills portfolio will help communicate the value of doctoral graduates and the range of transferable and employment-relevant skills they possess – skills which can benefit the full range of employment sectors. It will also help to stimulate a dialogue among doctoral researchers, their research supervisors, employer representatives, funding agencies and research policymakers,” he said.

“The statement highlights the requirement on the universities, both individually and collectively, to develop a solid training and supervisory framework, so as to support PhD candidates towards qualification in research excellence, but within a framework of professional development and career planning.”

Leech added that the updated skills statement places greater emphasis on transferrable skills and their applicability to both academic and non-academic positions. This, along with opportunities at Irish universities, will help doctoral graduates become “career ready” for a position in their chosen sector.

“It is essential to have personal and social skills such as communication, personal effectiveness/development, ethics and social understanding, teamwork and leadership, and entrepreneurship and innovation in this highly competitive context.

“Additionally, there is greater awareness of research integrity and ethics.”

In terms of offering advice for doctoral graduates as they embark on the career journey, Leech had two reminders. “The principles and practice you have learned on how to design, plan and effect research with integrity are a blueprint for how to develop and grow as an independent but collaborative member of society.

“Finally, have fun in and with what you do as best you can.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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