#133: Heading towards the non-profit sector? These are the skills needed from PhDs

Are you considering a career in the non-profit sector? Do you know which skills are the most sought after by employers? Building up the respective skills early in your career can be a huge strategic advantage in your job search after the PhD. We’ve invited two experts to give you advice: Alexandra Bitusikova and Kamila Borsekova investigated the skill set that the non-profit sector requires from PhD candidates in a Horizon 2020 project. Below you find their results and a ranked list of the most important skills. 

Guest post by Alexandra Bitusikova and Kamila Borsekova 

Identifying the skills set of PhD graduates for the non-profit sector

University research these days is increasingly driven by the needs and requirements of various stakeholders: governments, industries, and the non-profit sector. Traditional doctoral education with a focus almost exclusively on basic research does not always meet the needs of these stakeholders, which may have a significant impact on the careers of newly graduated PhDs. 

In the past decade, numerous European universities have introduced training in transferable skills for doctoral candidates with the aim to enhance their career opportunities. One EU-funded initiative, the DocEnhance H2020 project,  offers four skills-oriented workshops for external stakeholders from various sectors. Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia, held one such workshop to identify the expectations of non-profit/non-governmental organisations towards doctoral graduates: What kind of skills, knowledge and experience is required, and why should a non-profit organisation employ a PhD graduate? Participants came from a wide spectrum of non-profit organisations acting in Slovakia in the fields of ecology and environmental protection, security, arts and culture, health, community development, history, democracy, sports, and volunteering. The workshop aimed to discuss specificities of the non-profit sector and employability of doctoral candidates and graduates in the non-profit sector, and prepared a final list and ranking of transferable skills identified as crucial for working in the non-profit sector. Several interactive methods were used to facilitate a good exchange and discussion. 

Pros and cons of working for the non-profit sector

Participants of the workshop agreed that doctoral graduates are highly valued in the non-profit sector because of their analytical skills and critical thinking. Yet, concerns were raised about whether salaries in the non-profit sector are attractive enough for doctoral graduates when choosing their careers. 

A clear benefit of working as a PhD graduate in the non-profit sector is the opportunity to learn a new set of skills and habits. Young people today are accustomed to changing jobs and fields more often than previous generations. Experiences from the non-profit and other sectors are seen as an advantage when applying for a job or for higher management positions.

Skills needed for employment in the non-profit sector

Our workshop resulted in a ranked list of transferable traits and skills for PhD graduates that make them ideal candidates for working in the non-profit sector. Below  is the list of the most important traits and skills:

1. Personality traits and people skills: empathy, motivation, resilience, adaptability, tolerance, flexibility, ethics, morals and social responsibility;

2. Communication and presentation skills: oral, face-to-face, writing, listening;

3. Organisation and executive function: project management, financial management, creativity, out-of-box thinking;

4. Management and entrepreneurial skills: leadership, problem-solving, critical thinking;

5. Teamwork

6. Multiple language proficiencies

Overall, the non-profit sector requires a set of skills, traits, and values based on empathy. The motivation to work in the non-profit sector is often driven by a vision, passion, or desire to change the world for the better. Therefore, broad awareness and understanding of global challenges are essential characteristics of future employees. Ethically-correct and value-based behaviour and decision-making are highly appreciated and emphasised in the sector. In the current crisis of democracy, understanding democratic values including human rights and the importance of civic participation is also an important aspect of the transferable skills curriculum required. 

Other skills such as project management, problem-solving, financial skills and budgeting are not specific to the nonprofit sector, but are also highly valued. Good writing skills are very useful as they are needed in preparing project proposals and drafting different types of reports. The same applies to language skills, as non-profit organisations often apply for funding from international grant agencies which might need to be drafted in other languages than one’s own. 

Communication and presentation skills are essential for every type of organisation in the non-profit sector. Non-profit organisations need to communicate clearly and sell their ideas and plans to many societal actors. Teaching skills are particularly useful when working with marginalized groups or in educational organisations. Therefore, doctoral graduates with experience in teaching and lecturing have a competitive advantage compared with other applicants for a job in the non-profit sector. 


Transferable skills are needed in many sectors that could be interesting for PhD graduates, and the nonprofit sector is no different. If you are looking for a position in an organisation in the nonprofit sector, make sure to develop the abilities most needed here: empathy,  personal responsibility, and communication.

About the authors: 

Alexandra Bitušíková

Bitušíková is professor in social anthropology and Head of the University Centre for International Projects at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. She was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University, UK, University College London, UK, and Boston University, U.S. (Fulbright). From 2002 to 2008, she worked at the European University Association and was a co-founder of the EUA-Council for Doctoral Education in Brussels where she was responsible for numerous activities related to doctoral education reform in Europe. She has participated in several EU projects and is the author of more than 100 publications on urban change, social movements, diversity, identity, heritage, gender and doctoral education published with Routledge, Berghahn Books, Ashgate, Edward Elgar Publishing and Palgrave Macmillan.

Kamila Borsekova:

Kamila Borseková is the Coordinator of Research at UMB and the Head of the Research and Innovation Centre in the Faculty of Economics with a profound interest in urban and regional topics. She is an associate professor in the Faculty of Economics, with her main scientific research in the field of smart and creative cities, resilience, and sustainable urban and regional development. She has extensive research experience from dozens of national and international research projects related to smart, creative, and resilient cities, urban and regional development, strategic planning, and policy. She has authored and co-authored more than 100 scientific publications, including scientific articles, chapters, studies, and books.

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