Your PhD – Lasers and Pocket Knives (Geoffrey Guilfoyle)

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I was recently talking with a new graduate researcher who was worried whether their intended research topic would get them a job.

I reflected on the number of research candidates I’ve met who focused on asking ‘What have I got by the end of my degree?’.

It’s reasonable enough to focus on the core of your research, and to wonder how many employers will be interested in the deep and narrow laser-beam of knowledge you’ve uncovered. It might feel a bit like having only one string to your bow.

In my experience as a careers counsellor, graduate researchers often expend a lot of energy worrying about only one side of the equation.

From the perspective of the PhD candidate, for example, their topic is the thing that motivates them, and they'll get to know more about the topic than just about anyone else, whether it’s “Calorie restriction and its impact upon the behavioural, physiological, molecular, and metabolic indicators of illness”, or “Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of language items”. But while this topic is the central driving force that keeps the graduate researcher going, it’s actually only one aspect of their PhD and, in many cases, is almost a by-product of the total package of the skills and expertise they'll be gaining and bringing to workplaces.

I try to encourage research students (especially those engaged in the long-distance events like the PhD where progress is measured over several years) to think about the other side of the equation: understand the whole picture of why employers value PhDs.

First, reflect on the mechanics of the entire research degree endeavour. Break it down into its component parts and view the whole period as an extended exercise in planning and organising a whole series of highly complex tasks. Basically, doctoral researchers are in charge of a research project with a time-frame of somewhere between four to eight years.

And what about all the different stages in the process? Graduate researchers have had to define (and often redefine) the project’s goals; form and reshape research questions until they’re specific and achievable; choose a particular theoretical approach; design and apply a research methodology; survey what’s already known through a review of existing knowledge; undertake the qualitative or quantitative research that is applicable; obtain and analyse the data collected; discuss the results, draw some conclusions, and identify the next steps for future research.

Oh, and by the way, it’s got to add to existing knowledge. The graduate researcher must create something new.

There’s a lot going on there! Just about all of these steps can apply to projects and programs across all disciplines.

So, from an employer’s point of view, PhDs have got all these amazing skills that they can use in projects across many different contexts and environments.

While, in some cases, specific discipline knowledge is a directly relevant factor, for many PhDs, they'll find themselves being involved in activities far removed from their original topic. Employers perceive that time as a doctoral candidate as a combination of:

  • an extended exploration into a highly specialised topic;
  • an example of a particular research methodology, or combination of methodologies;
  • a project involving a complex chain of events that requires highly advanced planning and
  • coordination skills;
  • an example of creative problem-solving, leading to a piece of extended professional
  • communication.

This is why doing a PhD can be so valuable!

For graduate researchers: Start thinking about all the separate experiences that comprise your PhD, and all the different identities that you’ve uncovered during the journey – you are:

The topic specialist, who is an acknowledged, published expert on “tomography for liquid gas-imaging” or “coastal dolphins and noisy environments”.  You’re also…

The project manager, who loves setting goals, managing your time, creating a work program signposting the key tasks, deadlines, and reporting requirements needed along the way. You’re pretty good at structuring and scheduling the tasks involved, assembling progress charts full of beautifully arranged, colour-coded Post-it notes. You’re also….

The researcher, who can identify sources of relevant data, choose appropriate research methodologies, select and apply quantitative and/or qualitative tools in order to obtain relevant data that you can then collate, transcribe, analyse and interpret in order to generate conclusions. You’re also…

The writer, who's adept at writing up astute critical analyses of the existing literature, annotating bibliographic information about the different types of data assembled, thrives on the process of drafting and redrafting, and has discovered an unexpected flair for structural editing. You’re also…

The creator, who can express new ideas, adapt your thinking as a project evolves, try out new ideas and analyse the results, and apply an innovative and entrepreneurial approach.

Once you start thinking in these terms, it should be easy to grasp the idea that, because of the learning experiences through the journey, your PhD enables you to deal with complex problems – you’ve become an expert problem solver, whether within your own specialisation or in a broader sense, across different sectors and work environments.  It’s this flexibility that employers value so much.

So, instead of worrying about whether your highly specialised research topic will get you a job, reflect on all the things you bring to the labour market.

Far from only having one extremely narrow string to your bow, your PhD can provide you with a huge (and very mobile) career Swiss Army knife, a collection of tools that can solve a thousand problems, be applied to countless opportunities, and unlock doors forever.


Geoffrey Guilfoyle is a Careers & Employability Adviser at La Trobe University.  He has a Master of Career Education & Development, and over 20 years’ experience within the careers field.

Over the past nine years, he has worked as a Careers Consultant in five Victorian universities, providing career counselling, and the design and delivery of careers workshops across many disciplines, including Honours and PhD students. 

He has created curriculum and lectured for careers subjects developed by La Trobe Careers, as well as working closely with College academics to embed careers content into their subjects.


Allison USQ said…
What a brilliant piece Geoffrey Guilfoyle! Adding it to my virtual post it notes wall (I.e. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) for the benefit and inspiration of many others. What a confidence boost and superb use of metaphor. Thank you, Dr Allison Creed, ACCELL Research Fellow, University of Southern Queensland.