Discover the Transferable Ph.D. Skills that Make You Employable

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By Jennifer Casiano-Matos

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It is very common in the Ph.D. and post-doc community to call ourselves specialists. Moving beyond the “specialist” or “graduate student” label is something that we ought to do if we are interested in a job outside academia. We often commit the mistake of not realizing the qualifications and skills that can make us stand out from others. Looking for non-academic jobs can be stressful and overwhelming due to the requirements that these kinds of jobs might have. The most important part of your CV/resume for a job outside academia is not your research project or your publications, it is your skillset. We usually think that we only had one job during these years (researcher, graduate student, or teaching assistant) and we think that this conveys a critical lack of experience to hiring managers. What is important is not the job itself but the skills that you develop through performing that job.

Skills are transferable; you get better with time and exposure, and quantifying these skills demonstrates how good you are at them. We need to think beyond teaching experience or solving a problem deeply because we have abundant skills that many companies are looking for. I am going to mention some of the skills that employers often look for that I know you have or you can easily acquire during your graduate years. The expertise that you have beyond the bench is valuable and is what makes you an attractive asset to a company. My goal in this post is to show you what skills you can acquire or you already have and motivate you to update your CV/resume with those skills you have to offer.

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Project management skills

The first skillset I am going to discuss is project management skills.  For those who had the opportunity of writing a grant, they can add the skills of managing and creating budgets, keeping records and meeting deadlines. We often serve as mentors and work in teams in a daily basis. We can add the team working skill, especially if we have research projects with other laboratories or peers. As scientists, conducting our research effectively guarantees that we will gain the skills of project management and problem solving. These skills can be polished and expanded outside of the laboratory environment too! I recommend that you join an organization, club or association. Being involved in any group of your choice can give you the skills mentioned above in addition to skills such as organizing meetings and events. If your goal is to attain a management position in a company, the best way to demonstrate that you are good at mentoring, networking and show that others can follow you, is by demonstrating that you have developed your project management skills while a PhD student or post-doc.

Communication Skills

The second skill set we can add to our astounding CV/resume (which you are going to update after this post) is Communication Skills. Presenting your research in several symposiums and events (posters or talks) will polish your oral communication skill. The ability to communicate your ideas and results is something that employers will always look in future employees. Being part of a blog, journal club, discussion panel or volunteer for editing grants or proposals are examples of how you can acquire communication skills outside the bench. I will give you my example: I am part of this blog. Being a blogger is a great asset for my CV. During the years that I will be doing this, I will develop and polish several skills that I know I need to improve. Those skills include writing, editing, public speaking, meeting deadlines, web and social media management and even networking.

Research and Information Skills

Research and Information skills are tied with the previous one, but are more related to how successful you are during your graduate years. Being a teaching assistant, giving training to a group, sharing your knowledge with others are ways to demonstrate that you can broadcast scientific information. Your publications and contributions are other ways to demonstrate that you are good at gathering, understanding and summarizing complex information rapidly and in a coherent way. These are qualities that are inherent with completing a research project or dissertation. To this list we can add other obvious skills like working under pressure, being focused and following a task until completion. If you think this is not enough, you can always volunteer to teach a topic in a school or in several communities.

Interpersonal skills

Surviving graduate school requires more interpersonal skills than you usually think. As PhDs and post-docs we have diplomacy, we accept criticism (sometimes easily and sometimes not so easy), we manage and share with people with different personalities, we negotiate (with our mentor or department), we practice consensus-building (in your committee meetings) and even handling complaints (with difficult undergraduate students about grading).

How I can achieve those skills that are difficult to get in the academia?

Volunteer!!! If some of the skills that you are looking to acquire are difficult to achieve in the laboratory, you can always volunteer. Don’t give the excuse that you don’t have time; take a break and look for positions and opportunities outside your comfort zone. Do you want to improve your writing and editing skills? Start your own blog or offer yourself to an existing one as a writer and editor. Do you want to demonstrate your leadership? You should lead a club or association. If you have a hobby like running for example, you can organize an event for a good cause.  This can demonstrate how good you are organizing, your leadership, and tenacity.

Thinking about everything that you have done during your graduate school years will make you discover the great portfolio of skills that you have. If you are early in your graduate studies, you can start creating a list of the skills and complete them over your graduate years. The goal is get as many as possible before your last year. Setting a skill goal timeline can help you track the progress and work on those that you are not getting on a daily basis. Another helpful exercise is looking for job positions and paying attention to the qualifications and the job description. Write them down and try to determine how you can fulfill them in time. In addition, you can book informal interviews with recruiters or identify a mentor in industry. During informal interviews and with mentors, you can ask about what they like about their current job or what they are looking in a prospective employee. Starting to network on time will give you the exposure to people from different areas and you can learn from their experience.

If you are ahead and this blog helped you identify the skills that you already have, add them to your CV/resume. The next step for you can be hard but is the most important. Start practicing how to sell yourself. Having the ability to show and quantify those skills and being able to confidently present everything you have can be very difficult in the beginning. However, as soon as you get the ability to present yourself as the best candidate, I am sure that you will get the job that you desire very soon. Always take time to identify your passion away from the bench. Identify what you like and what you don’t. Embrace those skills that you are good at and enjoy, and build the experience to demonstrate that you have the skills and are the best candidate for that position.

This blog was inspired by the iJOBS career panel: Transferable PhD Skills and How to Move Beyond Academia by Dr. Kenneth Maynard and Dr. Diane Klotz. They were two former academics who have worked at Takeda Pharmaceuticals, NIH, National Postdoc Association, and Sanford Burnham Presbys Medical Discovery Institute respectively. A podcast of the career panel can be found here.

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