An interview with Vibeke Broe, the PhD career consultant of Aarhus University (https://www.linkedin.com/in/vibeke-broe-2b70b24)
Last Thursday afternoon was an unremarkable December afternoon in Denmark with light drizzle accompanied by piercing wind. While enjoying a cup of coffee with butter cookies, Beyond Academia chatted with Vibeke Broe, one of the PhD career consultants at Aarhus University.
Vibeke studied English at Aalborg University and communication studies at the University of York. She has been working as a career counselor for PhDs for over three years. During this time she has counseled PhDs from diverse backgrounds, organized successful career fairs, and built networks between the university and international companies like Arla and Novo Nordisk. She has provided help to many PhDs to find and land their dream job.
BA: What is one of the most important skills for PhDs to pick up when looking beyond the tenure track?
Vibeke: In my experience companies are really looking for teamwork experience and teamwork skills, because employees, in most cases, will enter interdisciplinary working environments. If you are a chemist, you may be working with molecular biologists, you might even be working with business developers. There may be collaborations across the team, and teams may be really big, engaging people with very different skill sets. So, teamwork skills are essential.
Many PhDs feel a bit challenged because they work very much on their own. In the social sciences and arts, for example, people tend to work in isolation. In the ‘wet areas,’ you may be part of a lab, but actually not cooperate with others. So looking from outside, you are part of a group, but in your everyday you may still just be working on your own. I would say that the vast majority of PhDs are working pretty much on their own. So, how can you say that you are good at teamwork, if you haven’t got anything to prove it?
BA: What are the specific elements of teamwork skills companies are looking for?
Vibeke: Having teamwork skills first of all means knowing how to behave in a group and knowing what role you take in a group. This is sort of a step one: to know what is your function and how others perceive your function.
Another important teamwork skill is a commitment to shared goals. So you have to have a sense of collaboration and you have to show that you actually want to collaborate on a project. You have to recognize that you are not competitors, but cooperators: you might have different approaches to your work, you might have different functions, but you all have the same purpose.
It is also important to see the strength of all your team members. It does not matter if it’s someone on the same level as you are, or if it’s someone with a non-academic background: you must be able to see everyone’s importance and skills.
Companies also want employees to seek out collaborative opportunities. Ask questions: how can we collaborate on this, are there other areas where we can work better by working together? Essentially, you should seek out collaborative partners who help you expand your skills and develop new knowledge. [save this part for later]
BA: How can grad students gain teamwork experience?
Vibeke: They can create research networks with external partners from other departments or universities. Of course this will not be corporate teamwork in the strictest sense, but it will still include sharing information, sparring, and getting feedback and support from others. So, you get experience dialoguing, acknowledging other people’s contributions, and helping others.
Doctoral students could also use extracurricular activities to gain teamwork experience. Join a PhD association or another extracurricular group. You’ll gain exactly the same collaborative skills, even if the work is not necessarily related to your research.
BA: If you are already working in a lab or have established a network, how can you improve your teamwork skills further?
Vibeke: You can improve your skills by taking more and more responsibility in a group. It is one thing to just be in a group; it is another to take responsibility for it.
I actually think the most important thing you can do is reflect on how you’re working with others. Pay more attention to your collaborators, show your appreciation, and credit their work. Also, help other members of the team develop their skills.
BA: How can these skills be communicated to companies? What should PhDs emphasize when we look for professional opportunities?
Vibeke: It’s tricky to communicating teamwork skills, because it often appears cliché. Nobody is going to write that they are bad at teamwork. So, “teamwork” has become one of those standard phrases that all companies request and all people write they have.
You need to show examples of your teamwork experience to employers. Find your success stories. Show how you made these experiences your own, elaborate on your specific strengths, and construct these skills into a unique selling point. And, you have to show how it can benefit the organization wherever you are applying to.
To read Part 2 of the interview, click here!