|Photo by Agathe Marty on Unsplash|
With all of the uncertainty in the world right now, which has only become much more intense as 2020 has progressed, everyone has lots of questions about their future, including employment. For graduate researchers, these uncertainties are magnified: candidates have made a significant commitment in time, energy, and work to gain qualifications in their chosen field, even before being admitted into a research program. We then spend additional years studying with a keen passion something that contributes to the world’s collective knowledge, but worry about what we will be doing in our careers once we have graduated. I know I did!
It can be very easy to fall into a trap of thinking that if you are researching in one field, then that is where you will probably be working when you graduate. But this overlooks all of the skills that you are learning and cultivating as a part of your studies, that feel like ‘normal’ parts of doing a PhD to you, but are specialised and desirable skills outside of academia, that can be applied to multiple industries.
What your ‘normal’ but highly specialised skills will look like is going to vary widely depending on your field and your specific research. In my case, my PhD research was in environmental history, and the impact of the treatment of tuberculosis on the development of nature conservation reserves around Victoria. While it’s unlikely that my experiences will exactly match your circumstances, I hope gives you some concrete examples of how I have used my PhD skills outside of the university. I would also recommend reading Geoffrey Guilfoyle’s post on the RED Alert blog for a different viewpoint.
My research in history touched on areas like architecture, medicine, and urban planning. But I am working for Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria as a database officer. I transcribe labels from pressed plants that were collected outside of Australia, and today are housed in the National Herbarium of Victoria. Suddenly all those hours sitting in archives reading handwritten correspondence from the 19th and 20th centuries – something I had thought of as a fairly usual skill for a historian – is a skill that I can apply to deciphering labels of varying legibility, to improve our knowledge about these plants that were collected across the world.
Similarly, experience in curating your social media presence as a researcher, through attending sessions prepared by the RED team, networking with your peers, and participating in online conferences (like twitter conferences), might seem to be part and parcel of being a modern research candidate. But it also allows you to develop an eye for catchy and interesting things that you can share with your followers, and how to write about things you find interesting for a more general audience.
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to write about interesting plant specimens that I have databased in regular reports, where I need to be able to clearly articulate in a small space why a given plant is interesting, and hopefully enthuse our readers about the diversity of plants on offer. Where I found my PhD helped me develop the skills to form a coherent argument and persuade readers to consider the world in a new light, it has been the briefer posts on blogs and social media that gave me experiences in how to be persuasive in a limited number of words.
But that isn’t the only benefit of my PhD that I can now appreciate, because it also gives you skills in how to research! Sometimes I need to find additional information to understand what I am transcribing. Having experience in efficiently searching for digitised resources, and being able to find digitised maps or journals that mention places whose names have subsequently changed, has been a very satisfying part of my job.
I hope by briefly describing how I have applied my PhD-derived skills and experience to my current job, I have shown that you shouldn’t feel like your career path is set in stone, and bound to your field of research. You actually have a lot of skills that can be applied to multiple fields. Although nobody can predict the future you can, and will, always be cultivating skills that can be used outside of academia, sometimes in surprising ways.
Rebecca Le Get graduated with a PhD from La Trobe University in 2019. Rebecca’s research examined the environmental history of tuberculosis treatment in Victoria. Since February 2020 she has been a database officer at the National Herbarium of Victoria, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. She occasionally tweets at @rebecca_le_get and the publications derived from her PhD research can be seen at ResearchGate