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The 3 most valuable transferrable skills

Strik3's Top 3 Transferrable Skills for Scientists: How to find them, refine, and communicate to recruiters to land your dream job.

As STEM PhDs, we all have non-technical skills that we've used in the lab or at the bench that can be transferred to future jobs. Most people don't realize that they can leverage these skills to advance their careers. Let's discuss.

  1. Communication. This is a biggie - that's why its #1. How can the recruiter you've never met and doesn't know you, know of all the achievements you've accomplished, if you can't effectively communicate them?

How you communicate both vocally and electronically - your style, the words you choose, the tone of your voice, the pace and the volume - says a lot about you.

  • How to find this skill within yourself: You already have it. Even if you haven't published a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, you've presented something before. From scientific conferences, lab meetings, TA sessions and lectures, to departmental research days. As a STEM PhD, you know how to take a bunch of information, compile it, and synthesize conclusions in a presentable manner.

  • Make it better. How to refine: Ask for feedback. It's a given that when submitting scientific abstracts, you ask co-authors for feedback. This applies to your resume/cover letter and interview prep as well. Ask your roommate, significant other, family members, or mentor to read your resume and cover letter. Does it make sense to them or is there too much technical jargon? Can they read the text, or is the font size too tiny, is the line spacing too close? Does this resume and cover letter accurately represent you and your accomplishments, or is it too broad and generic? Ask a friend or colleague to prepare interview questions for you. While you practice with them, have them take note of your posture, your confidence, your tone of voice and pace of your speaking.

  • You're awesome, show it off: Treat your recruiter with respect. Ask about their day, the weather, sports teams where they are. Have your "elevator pitch" about yourself practiced and memorized. When meeting with the hiring manager, bring examples of your ability to communicate, both scientifically and interpersonally. These can be physical examples of a journal article or even your blog or podcast. For interpersonal communications, think of scenarios when you changed the game because of how you communicated a project, result, or situation and saw positive results.

2. Project management. You don't need to have a certificate in Project Management to have experience with this very important transferrable skill. You've likely already dealt with several aspects of project management while managing your PhD projects - from initiating, planning, executing, controlling, and closing them.

  • How to find this skill within yourself: You already have it. The times you've had to negotiate with vendors on lab equipment, budget your funding (however small or large), scheduling your work and your trainee's works to align with important deadlines and experiments, scheduling your committee meetings (a seemingly impossible feat), coordinating PI's, students, and fellows from multiple departments - all count as project management experience!

  • Make it better: Begin to think about your daily activities in project management terms. Coordinating = Integrating. Purchasing = Procurement. Lab members and advisors = stakeholders.

  • You're awesome, show it off: Keep track of your activities in a journal, reflect, and compile into resume bullet points and anecdotes to share during your interviews.

3. Ability to ask questions. During my time as an executive search consultant in biotechnology, I had a case for a Chief Operating Officer at a medical device company. This role traditionally does not require a PhD, but my client did. When asked why, they told me something that has always stuck with me, "Because PhDs know how to ask questions."

  • How to find this skill within yourself: Access your critical thinking skills, your ability to define experimental controls and variables.

  • Make it better: Attend departmental seminars/webinars and scientific conferences. Notice the types of questions being asked during the talks and ask your own questions. Write them down during the talk and, if your questions haven't been answered by the end, ask away! If you're intimidated at first, try to approach and ask the presenter one-on-one right after the talk.

  • You're awesome, show it off: It's important to remember that your interviews are two-way streets. For a job to work for you, you'll need to be happy. Use your interview time wisely and ask questions! What will your day to day be like? What are the measures of success (and failure) of the role? How often will you be able to meet/talk with your manager/mentors? What are the company's expectations for you in the first 3-6-12 months? Is there room for growth within the company, if so, what would that look like?

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