Ph.D. graduates now have a 0.5-16 percent chance of becoming a professor depending on where they live. This means that up to 99.5 percent of us either must be content with becoming a staff scientist or permanent postdoc or find a non-academic job. It can be very stressful looking for a job outside of academia if that is all you know. There can be a perception among industry professionals that academic scientists can be too analytical and may not be able to see the big picture or work within an industry environment. You can convince recruiters, HR and hiring managers otherwise by focusing on your transferable skills.
Here are 10 skills that every Ph.D. student learns that will serve you well in an industry position:
A Ph.D. student or postdoc is responsible for managing your own project (and often more than one project). You must design experiments to answer a question, manage your time and a budget and meet deadlines. All these skills are important in industry positions.
You may not realize, but as a Ph.D. student you have learned how to do competitive analysis. You know who your closest academic competitors are and you know their work. This skill is vital in companies whose livelihood depends on staying ahead of the competition.
It is almost impossible to get through a Ph.D. without working with other people. This ability to collaborate effectively not only improves your work output but also helps you build your network – two things very important in any job.
Dealing with conflict
Ph.D.s are hard. There will be conflict – maybe with your PI over experiments you do or don’t want to do or results that didn’t go as planned, maybe with your lab mates over use of equipment and reagents or ownership of projects. Being able to diffuse a difficult situation and resolve issues with co-workers is a very useful skill in any job.
Ph.D. training usually comes with the chance to work with research assistants or undergraduate or high school students. This teaches you leadership skills: how to motivate people; how to integrate someone else’s work with your own; how to share responsibility and credit for the work. You may also have the chance to join your institution’s grad student or postdoc association or to serve as a postdoc member on institutional committees. This will also help you to learn from other leaders and hone your leadership skills.
Training, teaching and mentoring
Most Ph.D. students will need to train and teach research assistants or other students in experimental techniques. If you have interns in your lab, you will also have the chance to mentor them. This is a valuable skill set to have whether you want to stay in academia or move into industry.
During a Ph.D., you need to learn how to communicate your ideas and your results in papers, posters and grant applications. This ability to distill complex ideas into language that can be understood by any intelligent person is a vital skill in any science-related job.
Ph.D. programs require students to present their work verbally to colleagues at their institute and at a conferences, both formally through presentations and posters and informally during lab meetings and meeting with visiting scientists. While it may seem painful at the time, this is one of the most important things you can learn during your Ph.D. as you need to be able to communicate your work to a wide range of people no matter what job you end up doing.
The Ph.D. journey is full of problems. Experiments often don’t work, reagents don’t work, you might want to do something no one else has done before. Finding solutions to these problems requires you to be resourceful and innovative – two traits prized by industry professionals, from biotech CEOs to big pharma managers.
Understanding the big picture
Yes, academic scientists get bogged down in the details. We have to. Details are what make experiments work. But we don’t lose sight of the big picture which is to understand how a particular disease process or cellular process works, or find new drug candidates to ultimately better diagnose and treat human diseases.