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5 Skills Employers Look For When Interviewing Humanities PhDs

For the longest time, I thought my only career option was to be a professor.

This was the only reason to do a PhD, in my mind.

Although I attended alternative career workshops, the choices for non-STEM PhDs seemed limited — and the opportunities, few and far between.

Everything and everyone seemed to reinforce the idea that industry was the lesser choice, compared to academia.

How wrong I was, (and so were they).

But then, to make matters worse, I felt underqualified for the industry positions I did manage to find for Humanities PhDs.

Every job application asked for previous industry experience, and I had none.

For so long, I had been taught that having multiple publications was the only thing that mattered.

It wasn’t until I found an alternative career mentor that I realized I needed transferrable skills.

At the time, I had no idea what transferrable skills were, or how to showcase them.

One night, I overheard my roommate complaining about one of their colleagues.

“They cannot adapt to the new changes, so everyone else ends up picking up the slack. I would rather work with someone who is adaptable than someone with technical know-how.”

This was a light bulb moment for me.

Technical skills can be taught, but having these essential transferable skills would make me a better employee.

As a PhD student, I had to adapt to things all the time.

There were countless times when my supervisor had come to me saying he wanted this or that data, AND he needed it by yesterday.

I finally understood that I needed to think of my academic experience like running a business.

I brainstormed the transferable skills that I had learned, and that would be advantageous to a company, and added them to my resume and LinkedIn profile.

By doing this, I was able to show I was ready to become an industry professional.

I landed a job interview and ultimately received a job offer.

Smiling Indian female employee using laptop at workplace, looking at screen, focused businesswoman preparing economic report, working online project, cheerful intern doing computer work, typing

Why Humanities PhDs Must Highlight Their Transferable Skills During A Job Interview

PhDs and postdocs are in high demand in industry, but not just for their technical know-how.

Transferable skills are essential to obtaining these positions.

They are the ‘soft skills’ that you can only learn and develop over time.

Transferable skills show how you can make a valuable contribution to a company and will set you apart from other applicants.

Although PhDs have many valuable skills, they often struggle to demonstrate their transferable skills.

Seeming to lack these essential transferable skills, PhDs continue to miss out on lucrative positions.

According to Business Insider, Humanities students already have many of the transferable skills that employers are looking for.

Humanities PhDs have many transferable skills, but they just don’t realize it.

More so, most Humanities PhDs don’t know what transferable skills employees are looking for.

A survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, as reported by Forbes, found that employers are looking for candidates with teamwork, problem-solving, organization, and communication skills.

On average, over 70% of managers are looking for teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving skills to be highlighted on your resume.

As a successful PhD student or postdoc, you have those desired skills in abundance.

5 Transferable Skills Recruiters And Employers Look For In Humanities PhDs

PhDs are suited for high-level industry positions.


Stop whining that none of the job postings are 100% matched to your profile.

They will never be.

The key is to show employers that your previous experience as a PhD can be directly related to the job at hand.

Get creative.

This can only be done by highlighting the transferable skills that you developed and how they led to business-relevant results.

Here are the top 5 transferable skills that recruiters and employers look for in candidates…

1. Teamwork.

The ability to work well with others in order to meet a common goal is a transferable skill sought after by any industry.

While there are industry positions where teamwork is limited, undoubtedly at some point you will be required to work with other people.

You must be able to work alongside people from a wide range of demographics and with differing personality types.

Beyond having the technical skills required for a position, recruiters and employers want to know how you will fit into the company culture.

You need to be personable and demonstrate that you will be able to work well with the current employees.

However, getting along with people is not sufficient.

Being a teammate means helping others so that goals are met, even if the task or project isn’t directly part of your role.

Employers want to know that they can depend on you in times of need.

Good team members know how to listen to and incorporate other people’s ideas and suggestions, and are open to feedback and criticism.

Finally, you should be supportive of your colleagues, offering encouragement and giving compliments on a job well done.

Academia can drive students to compete against each other, rather than support each other, leading to highly dysfunctional workplaces.

Don’t let this characteristic of academia define you.

On your resume, and during interviews, describe instances when you stepped up to help someone else or when you worked on a large project with multiple people.

Demonstrate that you are a team player.

2. Analytical thinking and problem-solving.

Analytical thinking and the ability to solve problems can be applied to any industry position.

These are skills that all PhDs possess, particularly Humanities PhDs.

To successfully transition into industry, you need to be able to demonstrate that you can identify problems and develop creative solutions.

PhDs are able to identify problems and come up with solutions before the problem arises.

In industry, this type of forward thinking can save companies time, and therefore money.

Describe instances where thinking ahead benefited your PhD or postdoc, and show that you will make a valuable contribution to the company.

PhDs also know how to analyze large amounts of data and information.

Experience analyzing large amounts of data and information gives Humanities PhDs a distinct edge over other job seekers.

As big data becomes increasingly common, it also becomes harder for companies to identify what is important and worthy of interest or attention.

Humanities PhDs possess the skills to help companies sift through big data effectively.

Highlighting your problem-solving and analytical skills, particularly if these involve large sets of data and information, will make you a highly sought after candidate.

Cropped shot of an attractive young businesswoman sitting in the boardroom during her job interview

3. Communication.

The ability to communicate effectively with people is critical to finding success in industry.

In most industries, you will be working with other people, either internally or externally, on a regular basis.

Poor communication can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes, which can be costly to companies.

PhDs need to demonstrate that they can communicate effectively to diverse audiences.

Having publications demonstrates that you can write for a scientific audience, but you need to show that you can write for a general audience as well.

Employers want you to be able to communicate clearly and concisely.

You need to be able to talk to people one-on-one and in large groups, and you need to be able to talk to people with varying education levels or knowledge of the topic.

Any experience you have presenting at cross-discipline conferences or volunteering with outreach programs are great examples of communicating to a diverse audience.

There is more to communicating than just speaking and writing clearly.

Communication skills also incorporate listening skills and nonverbal communication, such as eye-contact and body language.

Demonstrate to industry that you have great communication skills with a clear and concise resume and make eye-contact, listen carefully, and speak clearly during interviews.

Keep this focus on good communication in all your interactions.

For example, when speaking on the phone, try to sound happy and friendly — make the person want to help you or hire you because you are easy to talk to and actively listen.

Develop these transferable skills so you are a PhD that big companies want to hire.

4. Project management and organization.

In industry, time equals money.

This is why project management and organization skills are vital and highly sought after transferable skills.

PhDs already have an edge over other job seekers.

PhD students are required to develop a project and see that project through to completion.

That is project management.

You know how to manage all aspects of a project including initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, and finalizing the project.

In order to manage their project successfully, PhDs become expert organizers.

PhDs know how to identify goals and set realistic timelines for completion.

To meet a set deadline, PhDs know how to prioritize tasks and manage time and resources.

It is also important to anticipate potential problems that may arise during the project.

The nature of completing a PhD teaches you how to be flexible.

You must have the ability to adapt to the quickly changing priorities of your project and advisor.

In industry, situations can change quickly, and employers want to be confident that you can maintain flexibility in constantly changing situations.

Be sure to highlight how your PhD or postdoc has developed your project management skills and how you have had to prioritize tasks in a changing environment in order to meet deadlines.

5. Interpersonal and leadership skills.

Within industry, it is impossible to succeed without interacting with others.

Interpersonal skills are key to successful interactions in the workplace and are critical for PhDs to transition from academia into industry.

Interpersonal skills incorporate a broad range of abilities, such as building trust, empathizing with others, and seeing things from different perspectives.

Many Humanities PhDs have worked with people from diverse backgrounds throughout their studies and therefore can boast excellent interpersonal skills.

Use your resume and interviews as a place to show off the interpersonal skills you have developed as a successful PhD or postdoc.

In addition to liaising with people, as a senior PhD or postdoc you most likely were responsible for mentoring graduate and undergraduate students.

Leadership skills are vital to success in industry.

You need to know how to teach skills and concepts to people by mentoring and showing them how to do this, rather than simply delegating.

To be a good leader, you must set priorities and provide people with direction.

The experience gained as a PhD or postdoc sets you up to be a great leader in industry.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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Gemma has a PhD in Social Sciences specializing in sleep and circadian rhythms with a background in genetics and immunology. She is currently transitioning from academia into industry. She has experience in communicating science to lay audiences and believes in sharing scientific knowledge with the public. She is passionate about educating the public about the importance of sleep and the effects of sleep loss and disruption on general health and wellbeing to increase quality of life and work productivity. She is also committed to mentoring students across all demographics, helping them reach their full potential.

Gemma Paech, Ph.D.

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