Skills you gain during a PhD that are transferable to industry roles

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Skills you gain during a PhD that are transferable to industry roles

By Nour Al-Muhtasib, PhD

Graduate school prepares you for a wide variety of jobs in both academia and industry. You are trained in an extensive set of skills that can be applied in a variety of situations and jobs. Often, as the assumption can be that students will go onto academia, skills are presented in an academic context. However, they are still applicable to a broad range of roles. It is essential for you to be aware of the transferable skills you have, emphasise them and provide examples of them during job applications and interviews. 

Over the past few weeks, I talked to various PhDs who have pursued jobs in industry about how skills they acquired during their graduate work transferred to their new line of work. 

Time management

As a PhD candidate or postdoc, you tend to focus your time on one project very intensely. In industry, you are often focusing on several subject matters and working on different projects, but not as intensely as you would on your PhD project in academia. Many PhD programs have a time-limit for completing the project, with smaller deadlines along the way, so time-management is an essential skill that you develop throughout your PhD, to be able to drive your project by planning ahead and setting goals. 

Additionally, in academia your priority is your research, but you are still required to balance research in the lab with seminars, reading and meetings. Similarly, in industry, you need to split your time between meetings and projects. Deadlines in some parts of industry are stricter and you must be able to manage your time to meet them. You will need to utilise the excellent time management skills required in graduate school in order to meet multiple deadlines and prioritise your work. 

Writing skills

The need to publish manuscripts and write grants is often not as important in industry as it is in academia, but writing skills are still important. The amount and level of writing required will depend on the company you join and the nature of your role; some roles may require you to write grants, whereas in other roles the majority of your writing skills will be used for internal communications. Both technical writing skills and non-scientific writing is important industry. You need to be able to clearly communicate via email, reports and documents. The writing skills you acquired when writing lab reports, meeting notes, presentations and your thesis will be extremely helpful in industry roles.

Communication and presentation skills

The communication skills you have honed during graduate school are essential. In industry, you will need to able to convey your information to your direct team, your manger, the broader work community, senior management and investors. Each of these interactions will require a different type of communication skill.

You will need to be able to convey information without jargon and be able to distil complex ideas. This is especially important when speaking to investors.

Although while in industry you might not go to conferences to present, you will be expected to present your work and/or ideas during internal and external meetings. This will vary in occurrence, from weekly, quarterly or bi-annually, to as and when required. Often you will be expected to present using PowerPoint so you can rely on the yearly graduate school seminar skills. This might seem like an elementary skill but is a very important one that you have sharpened, which will be valued by employers.

Decision-making, problem-solving and trouble-shooting

Graduate school is plagued with trouble shooting experiments and figuring out answers to your questions. You will need these skills in industry, but in a different sense. If a protocol is already established, you might not need to troubleshoot as much. However, if you are developing a protocol, you will be using these skills extensively at the beginning. In industry you will have a wide array of resources available to you and you should let them be part of the process. In industry, as in grad school, you will need to make decisions on the spot about the direction of a certain procedure.

In graduate school, your decisions are made based on the data and conversations with your PI. Towards the end it is usually purely your decision. In industry, your decisions are again guided by the data, but it is at a much faster pace. If a project does not go in the direction that was predicted, you might need abandon it and move on to the next the thing. In industry, things move rapidly and change at any moment, therefore one must be flexible and a quick-learner. Although typically during graduate school you have focused on a few sets of skills, you still have learned how to absorb new information quickly. Novel techniques are not as intimidating and you are able to pick up on things faster, this is an important skill to emphasise when applying and interviewing for industry positions.

Project management and leadership skills

Your thesis is a series of projects that you have managed throughout your graduate career. Similarly, in industry you may have several projects you may need oversee. You need to be able to plan out your time, manage multiple projects, and sometimes also budgets, simultaneously. As in graduate school, you will need to prioritise the various projects you are managing. If you are a group leader, you will need to supervise trainees, which many graduate students do. 

Data analysis

Where data is being generated, it needs to be analyzed. Indeed, there are many different programs out there, but there are basics such as GraphPad, MATLAB, Excel, etc. If you are able to work with the general framework, you can adapt to different programs.

I hope that I have convinced you that many of the skills that you have honed as a graduate student are transferable to industry. The next step is being able to show others this too. Which means using the correct language in your resume or CV. You have the skills, you just need to word it correctly. You can find a list of action verbs for resumes here. This document  lists a set of skills you may have developed throughout your graduate career and examples of how you might have obtained this experience.

I would like to thank Juliana Ansari, José Liquet y González, Shatanik Mukherjee, and Danielle Twum for their input on this article.

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