Counselling Centre Universities of Bern

Starting your career and key skills

Outside the university working environment, HR managers often do not have a clear idea of the kind of special skills academics offer after completing a PhD. An awareness of your personal resources and specific key skills is therefore essential for helping you to make career decisions and present yourself in the best light during job interviews.

Key skills after completing a dissertationn

Ask yourself what skills, strategies and knowledge you will have gained after completing your dissertation. Think about all the things you can do and "translate" these key skills in your job applications in a way that enables people outside the university to understand what resources you could bring to the role in question. In job interviews, it is also an advantage if you can substantiate your skills with concrete examples.

There are various definitions of the term "key skills." One of the most well-known concepts splits these abilities into four categories: technical, personal, methodological and social skills. Although this model is relevant in terms of content, it does not seem differentiated enough to describe the resources offered by PhD graduates. There are also skills that cannot be presented using this model because they cover several categories: "Team skills," for example, would fall under both personal and social skills and could also involve the other two categories depending on the content being discussed.

Key skills are not specifically a measure of employability, or how effectively a person can be deployed in a specific role. They are also not qualifications in the narrower sense of "having specific skills." They are defined more as generalized competences that give people flexible control over the way they deal with different work situations. They are personal strategies that enable people to handle complex professional challenges – i.e. knowledge, abilities and skills that are not related to specific activities either directly or in a limited way.

During the course of writing your dissertation, you will have developed your professional and personal identity and thus gained the ability to take action in complex and unclear situations. You will also have learned how to make independent decisions and make use of resources, be they your own or those available within your environment. These key skills could be described as follows (Source: Chur, D. (2002):

  • Active orientation: You are capable of grasping a professional situation to an adequate extent and know what personal resources you have. For example: You are attending your first meeting as part of a new working team. You ask yourself the following questions: What is my role in this meeting? What is expected of me? What am I personally looking to achieve or gain? You are faced with a similarly complex situation when you take part in an assessment as part of a job application process. Where other people are involved, grasping the situation includes assessing social factors. If it is a professional situation you are faced with, it may also involve technical aspects. Active orientation therefore provides a starting point for complex professional activity.
  • Target-oriented action: In a professional environment that is constantly changing, it is no longer possible to pursue a linear path toward a specified goal. Target-oriented action requires a high degree of flexibility and the ability to constantly reorientate yourself, respond and continuously acquire new skills and expertise so that you do not lose sight of your own goals. For example: There is a change in the management of your project at work. New requirements are being placed on you. For example, you have to incorporate a new statistical procedure into your data analysis, while also sticking to the schedule for your project.
  • Self-regulated learning: This is not just a matter of expanding and enhancing your technical knowledge; you also have to develop your learning abilities themselves. This development process takes place largely independently and is expected from those involved in challenging professional situations. For example: When writing work reports, you know the best method of gaining a general overview of the relevant specialist literature. You have an idea of how to go about drawing up a draft concept, and you are aware that the writing process itself will not be straightforward. You are also capable of dealing with writer's block and have creative techniques, for example, at your disposal to help kick-start the writing process again.
  • Communication and cooperation: This involves the ability to get involved in work processes, understand content from other peoples' points of view, tolerate objective differences and discuss them properly, organize your activities within a working group, and accept and assume individual responsibility. You can apply these skills during presentations and technical discussions.
  • Specific skills: e.g. time management, leading discussions, project management, etc. as well as coping with stress and pressure.

When preparing an application, make sure that your particular key skills are discernible. Use examples from work situations in practice to describe these skills in job interviews. You may find it easier to define your own key skills by talking about them to other people, perhaps a person from your personal environment or a professional coach.

If you yourself have a clear idea of your specific abilities, this will help you to present them in a convincing way when applying for jobs.

You can also gain a picture of your personal resources by visualizing them, for example in the form of a cluster diagram or mind map. The Counseling Service of the Universities of Bern also offers guidelines on how to draw up a personal skills profile, which may help you to examine and analyze your skills.