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10 Emotional Intelligence And Team Building Skills Needed For PhD-Level Industry Careers

importance of teamwork in the workplace | Cheeky Scientist | emotional intelligence in the workplace
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

I had no idea how to get a job my last year of graduate school.

No idea.

The entire process was like a black box to me.

I remember asking my advisor for suggestions and getting turned down cold.

He told me he didn’t have any business contacts.

Which was true.

He’d worked in academia his whole life.

But then he told me that leaving academia meant I was a failure.

This was NOT true.

Still, it made me feel even more lost.

It also made me feel insecure.

As a result, I shrunk back and never asked for his help again.

Instead of resolving the conflict, I hid from it.

Looking back, I can see my biggest problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted.

In my mind, there were only two career options—academia or industry.

These options were too broad and cumbersome for me to really understand.

Since I didn’t understand my options, I didn’t understand where I would be a good fit.

This made me feel like I didn’t have anything to offer.

So, of course, I acted like the one-dimensional scientist I was and just researched career options obsessively online.

I didn’t build a network.

I didn’t follow up with my connections.

I stopped at every single “no” I heard.

I thought that my technical skills were all I needed to get a job.

I also thought that my technical skills were all hiring managers and recruiters cared about.

The truth was my technical skills didn’t matter at all.

Sure, it was important for me to have a PhD.

But after that box was checked, all employers wanted to see was whether or not I was a good fit for their company.

They wanted to see if I would work well with others and hit the ground running, or if I would be the awkward guy that nobody talked to.

Did I know how to solve problems?

Did I know how to resolve conflicts?

Did I have emotional intelligence?

This is what the hiring managers wanted to know.

NOT—“Do you know how to run a Western blot.”

Once I understood what industry employers were really looking for in PhD job candidates, things got easier and I quickly got the job I wanted.

Why Socially Awkward PhDs Do NOT Get Industry Jobs

Industry employers do NOT want to hire job candidates who are going to make everyone feel uncomfortable.

They don’t want to hire people who have no emotional intelligence or team building skills.

A survey conducted by the publishing organization Chegg analyzed the readiness of STEM graduates for industry.

Among the hiring managers surveyed, only 32% believed any of the recent STEM graduates they interviewed over a two-year period were prepared for industry.

The majority of these hiring managers preferred to hire graduates who demonstrated strong emotional intelligence and team building skills over graduates with strong technical skills alone.

You will not get hired into an industry role if you fail to develop your transferable skills.

It doesn’t matter how many impressive publications you have or who your academic advisor is or how glowing your letters of recommendation are.

The one thing that matters more than anything else is how easily you can fit into the company’s culture and how quickly you can integrate into your new position.

team building skills tips | Cheeky Scientist | emotional intelligence skills development

10 Emotional Intelligence Strategies For Getting An Industry Job

The most important thing you can do to get a top-level industry job is to know what you want, who you are, and where you fit.

You must realize that clarity brings opportunity.

More than anything else, biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies want to hire confident PhDs who understand themselves, understand others, and understand the industrial system.

The problem is that the industrial system is very different than the academic system that most graduate students and postdocs are used to.

But the industrial system, like any other system, can be mastered.

The key is to start developing the emotional intelligence and team building skills that this system relies on.

Here are 10 strategies for developing these and other transferable skills that will get you hired in industry…

1. Don’t overestimate (or underestimate) yourself.

Too many PhDs believe in themselves too much.

They think that they can do everything well and are entitled to a great job in industry just because they have a PhD.

Others don’t believe in themselves at all.

These PhDs have no confidence and don’t feel like they can do anything well.

As a result, they act awkward.

They make other people feel awkward too.

If you want a job in industry, you have to judge yourself correctly.

You have to be a self-aware job candidate.

The truth is, no matter who you are, there are some things you can do really well, and other things you can’t do so well.

They key to getting an industry job is knowing both your strengths and your weaknesses.

Once you know the difference, focus on your strengths.

Leveraging your strengths will get you an industry job quicker than trying to repair all your weaknesses.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you ignore crucial shortcomings like refusing to go to any networking events.

It means leveraging your current personality strengths to become an even better job candidate.

2. Decide on what you want and fully commit to it.

In research, you’re supposed to keep an open mind.

You’re supposed to guard yourself against jumping to conclusions or wanting an outcome so bad that you miss opposite trends in the data.

This perspective is valuable in science, but useless when it comes to getting the job you want.

In order to transition into industry, you have to know exactly what you want and you have to do whatever it takes to get it.

You can’t just “kind of” want an industry job.

You have to really want it.

You have to be dedicated.

Let’s face it—getting a great job in today’s economy is not easy.

This is especially true when you’ve spent your entire life in academia.

The only way to get what you want career-wise is to fully commit to it.

Don’t hedge your bets.

Don’t play it safe.

Don’t pretend that you didn’t really want the job just so it won’t hurt that much if you don’t get it.

Instead, be bold.

Decide firmly on a position and go after it with 100% effort.

3. Find the right role for you, not the other way around.

Being honest with yourself, your strengths, and your weaknesses is only the first step.

The second step is forgetting your weaknesses and focusing on where your strengths can be leveraged.

Do you like to work alone at the bench? Then consider R&D positions in industry.

Are you a great communicator and presenter? Then consider Application Scientist, Technical Sales, or MSL positions in industry.

Are you good at managing people and projects? Then consider product manager or project manager positions.

Do you want to try out a lot of different roles? Then consider working for a smaller company over a larger one. 

Don’t go against your strengths and pretend to be someone you’re not.

Don’t fool yourself.

Industry employers work very hard to avoid hiring PhDs into roles that are a bad fit.

These people want to hire PhDs who fit well into their established system.

They don’t want to hire PhDs that are going to derail the system.

This isn’t a bad thing.

You just need to prepare for it.

Most importantly, you need to ask yourself what positions are a good fit for you.

Don’t try to fit yourself into a position.

Fit the position to YOU.

Determine the professional lifestyle you want and then work to find a position that will fit that lifestyle.

4. Learn how to work with others on a team without losing your individuality.

Teamwork is a skill, and most PhDs don’t have it.

More than anything else, industry employers want to know if you have team building skills.

Unfortunately, because of your degree, most employers are going to doubt you have these skills until you prove otherwise.

From the beginning to the end of your job search, you must do whatever it takes to show employers that you can work well on a team.

This doesn’t just mean using the word “we” in your industry resume.

It means talking about specific examples of when you solved problems and resolved conflict in a group setting.

It means citing when, where, and how you collaborated with others to hit a deadline.

The key is to show off your team building skills without losing your identity.

Remember, you want to display yourself as a leader as well as a team player.

The best way to do this is to provide instances of when you worked with others to solve a problem while also mentioning how you set a positive example for the team.

5. Practice your problem solving and conflict resolution skills.

Industry employers list problem solving as one of the most important skills for both interviewees and current employees to have.

These employers are not interested in your personal problems or highly technical problems you solved on your own.

They want to know if you can solve large problems using other people’s help.

What’s a big problem that you and others confronted in the past?

How did you work together as a team to solve it?

How did you lead by example and coach others during the problem-solving process?

Problems are stressful.

Working with other people is stressful.

This means conflicts will happen.

Industry employers want to know you aren’t afraid of conflict and that you can resolve conflict when it comes up.

All professionals play office politics and passive-aggressive games at one time or another.

The question is, can you handle the game and still get your job done without creating even more drama?

6. Get in the habit of NEVER missing a deadline.

Industry employers do not want to hire PhDs who stretch out projects for years and years and go way over budget because they’re seeking perfection.

They don’t want to hire PhDs who have no concept of simple business concepts like budgeting, timelines, and profits.

Instead, they want to hire PhDs who understand how the non-academic career system works.

If you want to get a job outside of academia, you need to show you understand the importance of hitting hard deadlines.

In academia, knowledge (as in, publishing data) is the goal.

But in industry, selling products is the goal.

The only way to sell, is to ship.

In other words, selling requires you to go-to-market, or to get the company’s products into the hands of customers.

Missing go-to-market deadlines in industry is like getting scooped in academia—it’s death.

7. Understand the relationship between connection and communication.

Industrial systems thrive on connection.

This is because connection leads to communication, which leads to more customers.

Without high levels of connection and communication, even the smallest company would fall apart, let alone corporations with thousands of people.

If you want to separate yourself from other PhDs, grow your network.

The best time to do this is while you’re still working in academia.

When you’re still in academia, no one sees you as a threat.

You’re technically not in the industry job market yet so other professionals are more likely to connect with you openly instead of keeping their walls up.

They’re more likely to tell you about open positions rather than safeguard those positions for themselves.

If you forgot to network in graduate school—it’s not too late.

By spending just a few hours a week on networking aggressively, you can drastically increase the size of your network and thus, the number of opportunities in front of you.

8. Be confident in yourself and patient with others.

In industry, confidence is an equalizer.

As a PhD, you’ve likely read several job postings that listed “industry experience” as a requirement.

But how can you get industry experience before getting into industry?

Good question.

When most PhDs see “industry experience” listed on a job posting, they give up.

They don’t even apply.

Game over.

Confident PhDs, on the other hand, still apply.

PhDs who know their own value, who believe in their ability to quickly learn new information, are NOT held back by a single item listed on a job posting.

The truth is, most job listings are nothing more than hiring manager wish lists.

No single candidate is going to meet every requirement.

Be confident in your ability to learn new skills and don’t let some stock “industry experience” requirement keep you from going after the job you want.

Be bold in your job search.

At the same time, be patient with other people during your job search.

Most industry job selections require the approval of several different people.

For most positions, you’ll have to go through phone screenings, phone and video interviews, and then a series of in-person interviews.

This is all part of the process.

The average job search takes 6 months.

You can shorten this timeline by getting access to high-level information and networks, but you’ll still have to be patient.

It’s very unlikely that your first referral will lead to an interview, but highly likely that one of your first 10 referrals will.

Likewise, it’s very unlikely that your first interview will lead to a job offer, but highly likely that your first 10 interviews will lead to an offer.

The faster you fail, the faster you’ll succeed.

The key is to be patient and maintain your poise during the failures.

You have to be patient but you also have to be relentless.

9. Practice the art of making others feel important.

You’re not the only ego in the room.

This is great advice for every PhD.

Remember that feeling you had every waking hour in graduate school (or every waking minute as a postdoc)—the feeling that no one appreciated you?

Everyone feels this way.

Everything feels unappreciated.

This is especially true in giant corporations where big, personal wins are few and far between.

A lot of PhDs funnel their frustrations into complaining about academia.

Likewise, a lot of employees complain about the company they work for.

Try to see this as an opportunity during your job search.

How can you make the hiring manager feel appreciated during your interview?

How can you make the other professionals in your network feel appreciated when you follow up with them?

How can you add value?

By adding value and making others feel important, you’ll elevate yourself above other job candidates who are focused inwardly.

10. Understand how the industrial system works.

Most labs operate as small independent units.

They’re independently funded, they buy their own equipment, they hire their own team, and as a result, they function under the power of a few loose systems.

For example, every lab has a little system for making Luria-Bertani broth, scheduling time in the hood, and ordering new reagents.

These systems are always changing because new principal investigators, new postdocs, new students, and new money are always flowing through the lab.

In industry, the systems are often much bigger and much more tightly controlled.

Creating larger and better systems is a key operation in industry.

In fact, most companies have entire departments dedicated to improving company systems.

If you want to work for a large corporation in industry, start studying systems.

Learn how they work.

Learn how they can be improved.

Most importantly, learn where you fit into them.

The more you master the system you’re in, the faster you can navigate your way to the top of it.

The number one reason some academics fail to get hired in industry is because they lack basic leadership skills related to emotional intelligence and teamwork. If you want a job in industry, you have to understand that industry employers don’t want PhDs who go to interviews and sit awkwardly while the hiring manager struggles to have a normal conversation. They don’t want PhDs who sit in the back of every meeting and hide, or PhDs who sit in front and annoy everyone with their look-at-me questions. Instead, industry employers want to hire PhDs who are self-aware and know how to communicate and lead when called upon. By developing your emotional intelligence and team building skills you can get the industry job you want and thrive throughout your industry career.

To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Andrea Robinson

    I often find myself taking notes when I’m reading your posts. It’s not just that you have some awesome one-liners, like “You have to be patient but you also have to be relentless.” but also that you put so much thought into processes that I always just breezed through on auto-pilot. I could say that I come from a generally scientific background in which correct information pretty much trumps everything else in terms of importance. Unfortunately, I tend towards perfectionism as a result, putting perfection above speed on the priority list. I always have a lot of insights when reading your stuff. Just wanted to let you know. 🙂

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Andrea. It’s difficult to overcome perfectionism, just keep reminding yourself not to let it hold you back.

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    At last! A great description of the kind of skills we need for industry positions, why, and how to go about developing them. I’ve definitely found sharp distinctions between the industry culture and the scientific one, and having been involved in industry for over a year now, I can attest to all these concerns. It’s a good thing to prep PhD’s before they get out of school, but that’s obviously not the priority. I know that nobody helped me see any of the differences.

  • Marvin D’Esprit

    I never knew just how different things were, but this makes
    a lot of sense. I won’t be caught unawares on graduation day. Thanks.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      That’s great to hear, Marvin. Better you know now than later.

  • Kathy Azalea

    I really appreciate this exhaustive study of the main differences between industry and academia. For example, I think half the students I know don’t even go to job fairs or network in any way. And I think everyone’s always stressing on their final grade, but why, when it won’t make any difference whatsoever once you graduate? Instead, they could be developing their teambuilding skills and EI quotient. I know I’ll be more focused on that from now on.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      That’s fantastic, Kathy. You are very right about many students not taking advantage of networking opportunities. It’s unfortunate, really.

  • Winona Petit

    I think it’s incredibly hard to know what skills you need to prepare for a job in industry, especially when your PhD is in the hard sciences, which don’t really place as much of a value on communication as some of the other majors. I can see how shocking it must have been to try to change your direction a few times and persist in finding a good fit for yourself despite the lack of support from faculty and counselors. In the social sciences, the emphasis was still on academia but I think it was easier to transition to industry-based jobs.

    I have to congratulate you on being willing to stand out from the crowd and offer this kind of support to other PhD’s trying to make a difference and achieve a successful lifestyle while choosing a niche that best represents their own skills and fortes. I think this is beneficial to a lot of young PhD’s who are facing big decisions (as well as some older ones too, most likely)!

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      It is indeed shocking for many PhDs, and consequently depressing and demoralizing as well. Thanks for your response, Winona!

  • Julian Holst

    Hey! This is great! I think a lot of us are faced with big decisions coming up, and this article is really helpful.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    A very thoughtful and comprehensive article. It’s true that many of us weren’t trained to have Emotional Intelligence (far from it) or teambuilding skills (unnecessary in a lab situation where we were never wanted to assume any leadership). I think that seeing the realities of industry, such as acquiring these skills and also appreciating the concrete realities of deadlines, sales, and cash flow can only help candidates in their quest to find an industry job. There is something else you keep talking about which I think is so overlooked in most job-coaching sites: the importance of making others feel important, and not in a manipulating way, but in a way of sincerely trying to help your teammates and internal customers get their needs and desires met. This is highly beneficial to team morale and corporate culture.

  • Harvey Delano

    This is really concrete advice on getting a job, and thank you for pointing out how long it could take! Most of us weren’t thinking anywhere near six months.

    I’m seeing 10 very important questions that I need to ask myself in the process of searching and networking. I think that clarity is power, and you’re definitely bringing clarity to the mix for us.

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      Glad we could shed some light on the subject, Harvey. Thanks for reading.

  • Madeline Rosemary

    I think I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but this guide gives me enough to ponder and work on that if I nailed all these points, I’d be a lot more confident when it comes time to start networking and applying.

    Actually, it’s probably not too early to start networking, is it?

    • Dr. Isaiah Hankel

      It’s never too early, Madeline 🙂

  • Sissy MacDougall

    I think you’re bringing out some points that affect all graduate students, not just PhDs. Most students work so hard to get accepted for undergrad, and later for graduate, work that I think it’s natural for a little brain fatigue to kick in at some point. Probably people are exhausted after so many years of schooling and I think they just long for escape, and in that place of exhaustion just settle for the most logical step, which is to stay in academia and follow along the way that the masses go.

    It’s kind of sad, really, but understandable. I’m just glad for those in school these days that someone’s reaching out and letting them know they have choices. And even after being in a position for a few decades, I can attest to the fact that you still have choices and it’s never too late to find the person you really are.