The Broad Transferable Skillset of the Science PhD or Why You Are Much More Than Your Research
by Lauren Tanabe
When I first started thinking about leaving the lab, I wondered what I was besides my knowledge of obscure signaling pathways and cell biology. I had been groomed to believe that my “good hands” and capacity for punishing hours were what made me competitive. In research, talking about technical skills becomes second nature – we constantly discuss our methods when conducting lab meetings or seminars and look for ways to improve upon techniques. However, I don’t recall a time as a grad student or a postdoc when anyone ever inquired about my ability to work with difficult personality types or how I figured out the best way to marry the experimental questions I had with those of my advisor. Behavior was only ever discussed in terms of mice! We have spent so many years fine-tuning our technical skills that changing our mindset to focus on the “other” transferable skills may seem difficult at first. I’ve used the term “transferable skills” a number of times on this blog, but in this post I will broaden the scope of these proficiencies and discuss how you can market them.
What is the range of your “transferable skills”?
You possess skills you’ve been quietly evolving in the background of your life while focusing primarily on your science training while conducting your research – those abilities that have helped you to mentor others, resolve conflict in the lab, set realistic goals so you can graduate, write a paper, grant, and so on. These are the competencies you cultivated on the days when your hypothesis fell apart, when the experiments didn’t work and you needed to figure out a new tack, what enabled you to pick yourself back up and keep going even when you questioned your ability to do so. These are the aptitudes that allow you to be a jack of all trades without even realizing you are, and which will help you to adroitly exit academia and begin a new career.
These abilities are sometimes referred to as “soft skills,” but this is an unfortunate way of describing something so vital to success. In fact, emotional intelligence is so important to potential employers that an interviewing technique was built around assessing this aspect of the candidate. The behavioral interview technique is designed to determine patterns of predictive behaviors from one’s past to help determine if a candidate will fit in well with the culture of the company or when faced with the demands of particular tasks. The behavioral interview is a topic deserving of its own post, but briefly, this process is much more probing than that seen in traditional interviews. Questions, or really requests for stories, often begin with “Tell me about a time when …,” or “Describe a situation …” As you discuss how you reacted to facing a particular obstacle, you may be asked to lead the interviewer through your thought process at the time. For example, you may be asked to discuss a situation in which you were able to successfully persuade someone at work to see things your way (something many of us have experience with – consider your committee meetings or thesis defense). A comprehensive list of behavioral interview questions can be found here.
My description of this common type of interviewing tactic is not meant to instill more fear, but rather to underscore the importance of identifying and understanding what the range of your skill set may look like, how it developed over time, and what might make you unique compared to someone else in a similar position. You should also consider what examples best showcase this know-how.
There are a lot of PhDs out there who have the education, publications, and grants to rival your own. What will set you apart is how effectively you are able to demonstrate your emotional intelligence and “soft skills.” The recruitment company Futurestep performed a survey of 500 industry executives and asked them what they looked for in a candidate when trying to fill open roles in an organization. The most important factor was the candidate’s motivations, with problem-solving and interpersonal skills coming in right behind that.
STEM PhDs are critical thinkers and problem solvers; they are adept at data analysis and have acute powers of observation. However, it is those “soft skills” that scientists often find most elusive in assessing their strengths and weaknesses.
There are lists upon lists of these types of skills. In my view, the general areas that are the most useful, especially when transitioning, include communication and tenacity.
In many ways, this is considered one of the most important. Why? Think about all the ways we use this in our day-to-day, especially in the lab. It is at the core of resolving conflicts; it is how we teach and mentor others; it is central to discussing our findings and their relevance in lab meetings and seminars, with potential collaborators; it is how we propel our data into the scientific stratosphere in the form of manuscripts and grants. It is critical to being successful inside and outside of the laboratory and academia. Under this heading lies myriad other soft skills, including collaboration (teamwork) and presentational acumen.
Collaboration. When I was a graduate student, my advisor wanted me to develop a new model system for manipulating a particular phenotype of neurons that occurred during neurodevelopment for a genetic form of the disease, dystonia. I knew of another lab that differentiated mouse embryonic stem cells into neurons in vitro. Adapting this system to our lab would allow us to observe our phenotype of interest at all stages during neuronal differentiation and maturation. So I started a collaboration with them, working closely with others in that lab to learn the rationale and techniques. When I started doing this on my own in our lab, I visited the collaborating lab regularly to discuss trouble-shooting. Eventually, the head of the other lab became a member of my thesis committee and I regularly discussed experiments with him, both formally and informally. The lab members became not only collaborators, but friends.
Collaboration comes in many shapes. From developing relationships with those outside the lab, to finding a way to align the objectives of your own project with those of the more expansive vision of the lab and field, you’ve figured out ways of finding common ground with others. You’ve teamed up with your advisor and other lab members (and possibly other labs) to publish papers and resolve issues that arise during the review process. There are many examples of the ways you’ve contributed to a team to help secure funding and publish data, ways you’ve helped to support and mentor others in their research, ways you’ve learned to cultivate and develop the most valuable currency of the job search – relationships.
Presenting your research. Every single time you prepare and give a talk, write a paper, abstract, or grant, you are tailoring your writing/presentation to a specific audience with a particular interest, knowledge-level, and objective of their own. Perhaps, without even being aware, you’ve figured out how to anticipate what will be expected of you and what language you should be using. Why is this important? Because there has never been more information available to us. As Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes, “more and more information without the proper context and interpretation only muddles our understanding of the world rather than enriching it.” This is particularly pertinent to science writing and presentation where information abounds, but is often enshrouded in the lingo of the field making it esoteric and impenetrable to most. Knowing how to effectively communicate information in both technical and layperson’s terms is invaluable.
When I received a grant from the American Cancer Society, I was invited to give several talks about our lab’s research on Inflammatory Breast Cancer to a non-scientific audience comprising staff, volunteers, survivors, and patients. These audiences were some of the most captivating and eager to learn. I spent far more time preparing for these talks because I needed to translate terms I often took for granted – “western blot,” “cell culture,” and so on – when in front of academic audiences. But the effort paid off: Often people would come up to me afterwards, so grateful that the information was presented in a way that was accessible and left them wanting to know more and ready to go out into the world to tell others of what they have learned. This had become the most rewarding aspect of my work – inspiring others to also become storytellers of science, to remove the stigma that science is dry and only for a few select “scientific minds.”
There were days when all my cells died, when the mice did the exact opposite of what my hypothesis predicted, when my project seemed stalled, and when I was exhausted. This coupled with long, lonely hours spent in the lab on weekends and holidays, or endless days of dissertation writing where it seemed I only interacted with the barista at the local coffee shop made for some despairing times. But those were the days that helped me to hone some of the most highly sought traits in a job candidate: tenacity.
You have likely had days like these, too, when your self-direction, self-discipline, self-motivation, and resilience took a beating but kept on persevering. On top of that, you know how to prioritize and multitask. You planned experiments within reasonable time constraints and to meet deadlines for grants and committee meetings. You delegated work. You ran experiments while simultaneously teaching others, writing papers, or working on talks. You clearly handle stress with aplomb which speaks volumes about your emotional intelligence, which is what job recruiters are quite interested in hearing about. Consider all of the specific times when these competencies helped you to accomplish particular tasks or override obstacles. What were the circumstances of the situation? What was your thought process at the time? Coming up with examples, in advance, will help you immensely during a behavioral interview.
You have a multitude of abilities that draw from your intelligence and perseverance, but sometimes, especially when you’re overwhelmed, you may not to be able to clearly see what they are. If you need some help figuring out what strengths you have (and what may need some work), check out Science Career’s Individual Development Plan, myIDP, for taking inventory. This is a great place to start, since upon completion you can compare your skill sets with those considered relevant to various scientific career paths.