Robots Ate Your Precious Technical Skills. Focus On These Transferable Skills Instead

I haven’t even graduated yet and my career is already being phased out by AI.

Am I going to need a separate degree in machine learning to stand out from the competition? 

How can I compete in a data-focused industry when software can do most of my job faster and for far less?

Messages like these come to me every day.

ChatGPT sent shockwaves through every industry when developer OpenAI unveiled the software to the general public in 2022. Within 5 days of launch, it had already seen 1 million users.

I work closely with PhDs on a daily basis. They’ve kept me in the loop about major strides being made in artificial intelligence for the past 10 years. Even so, I was impressed at how far the technology has come when I tried out ChatGPT for myself.

For non-PhDs – and businesses in particular – this tech represents an expansion of resources. AI can automate tasks that used to take a person far longer to complete – and for a fraction of the cost.

But it can feel like a major blow for recent grads and PhDs trying to transition into industry. For them, and for so many occupations that AI can serve, it feels like an imminent threat.

The scarcity (or prevalence) of resources like AI has always been heralded as a major disrupter in the job market. But is it a change for good? 

That depends on who you ask. A 2023 study by Goldman Sachs estimates that AI will replace approximately 300 million full-time jobs in the US alone. That same report from Sachs, however, predicts that AI will lead to a 7% growth in gross domestic product. 

When PhDs write or email or call me with questions about how they can compete against software that’s making jobs obsolete, the answer usually surprises them:


Don’t Get Trapped With Only Obsolete Skills On Your Resume

As a PhD, you are an expert in your field. You have all of the skills it takes to not only master that discipline, but also to add to the collective knowledge of it with your research. 

But what they don’t tell you in graduate school about your technical skills is that they have a shelf life. The techniques, the tools, and the best practices in your field are always changing. It’s only a matter of time before everything you were taught becomes obsolete. 

Technical skills – also sometimes called niche skills – are also not very transferable. By that I mean that there’s not much overlap between the tech skills you need for one career and the technical skills you’d use in another. You may know flow cytometry inside-out and backwards – but all that knowledge is useless if you decide to switch careers.

Transferable skills, on the other hand, are not specific to any particular job or market – and they are invaluable to you as you transition into an industry career. Their broad and flexible nature means that these skills are more likely to be in demand in the future. 

There is so much that AI can do, and it has entered a post-exponential rate of growth. As I write this, there is generative AI on the market that can train itself. Growth in artificial intelligence is inevitable, and you will lose against it if you compete. 

So don’t. 

You don’t need to. You have many skills that a machine simply cannot replicate. And it’s a good thing, too, because these skills are the ones that are in the highest demand in industry.

10 Transferable Skills Every PhD Has That Robots Can’t Replicate

Artificial intelligence can enhance virtually every industry, and its adoption is definitely on the rise. Experts predict a compound growth rate of 37% in the AI market by 2030, and companies in every market are eagerly exploring the ways it can help their businesses grow. 

So why are 3 out of 4 employers reporting a shortage of talent – the highest rate recorded in the last 16 years? While AI can – and will – replace employees with a strictly technical skill set. But, according to recent surveys, employers cannot find enough people with the right blend of technical skills and human strengths.

The skills required for success in academia are also highly transferable to the world of industry. It’s easy to underrate how important these talents are because their impact can be difficult to measure. How can you quantify something as abstract as creativity or as commonplace as communication skills?

But, especially in today’s rapidly changing job market, transferable skills are becoming increasingly important. Not only are your transferable skills important, they are more important than your technical skills. This is true no matter what type of industry position you are interested in.

As technology changes the way we work, businesses are looking for employees who can adapt to new technologies and work in new ways. Technical skills can become outdated quickly, but transferable skills are more durable and can be applied to a variety of different jobs.

There are many, many transferable skills that any PhD can demonstrate without any additional industry experience. Here are 10 that you developed while earning your degree that employers are clamouring for:

1. Research Skills

In academia, researchers must design, conduct, and analyze research in order to develop new knowledge and understanding. PhDs learn to recognize the signs of a quality study, and they can analyze results to determine which conclusions are not supported by evidence. 

In industry, this is also a useful skill. Companies drive progress by conducting research, using the results to innovate and develop new products. They need employees who can not just repeat information, but also interpret it and advise on it. This is important because a company will always be looking for the surest investments.

It’s true that AI can be used to search for information, identify relevant sources, and summarize information. However, AI is not yet able to understand the nuances of human language and the context of research questions. This can lead to AI making mistakes, such as misinterpreting the meaning of a source or overlooking important information. AI will always need human oversight, no matter how sophisticated it becomes.

2. Critical Thinking

PhDs are trained to think critically and solve complex problems, which is a valuable skill in any setting. But it’s essential in industry, where it is important to be able to make informed decisions based on data.

In business, critical thinking skills can often have a significant impact on the company’s bottom line. For example, a PhD in finance might use critical thinking to analyze financial data and make recommendations about where to invest the company’s money.

According to Indeed, critical thinking adds value to the workplace in many different ways. It can bolster a company’s knowledge economy and improve decision making processes. It leads to improved outcomes, also, as workplace problems are identified, analyzed, and solved quickly.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming critical thinking is a trivial skill. There aren’t many employees suited to analyze and make decisions as quickly and decisively as you can.

By contrast, AI is also unable to prioritize high-stakes decisions or problem solve with real efficacy. AI can be trained to follow rules and procedures, but it cannot process nuanced or subjective data to evaluate information and make decisions. This could lead to mistakes, and most mistakes in industry effect the bottom line.

3. Time Management

PhD students learn to manage their time effectively to meet deadlines and complete projects. This skill is extremely valuable in nearly any industry career. Surely you’ve heard that old adage that time is money.

Many PhDs fail to mention their ability to manage time and prioritize tasks because they think it’s too trivial. But don’t be fooled. Listing this skill might feel like a bit of a reach, but the truth is that effective time management is a major priority for employers. 

The ability to keep track of several tasks and stay within deadlines is critical to productivity in industry. AI software has a distinct advantage over humanity when it comes to staying on task. However, even software can slip up.

Remember the infamous Procrastiating Pathfinder on Mars in the 1990s? The Mars rover encountered an issue with its scheduling algorithms. These algorithms were designed to manage the rover’s tasks. 

For whatever reason, its algorithms became overwhelmed as it roamed around the Red Planet. Without any kind of hierarchical input, it was losing the ability to manage its tasks efficiently. The rover was, in effect, doing what humans do when they’re faced with a litany of tasks: procrastinating.

As a PhD, prioritizing tasks is built into your research methodology. This kind of organization and self-regulation is a prized commodity for industry employers.

4. Communication Skills

PhD students are required to communicate their research findings in a variety of formats (such as presentations and papers) and for a variety of audiences (like funding committees and peers). Their communication skills are highly developed and diverse.

While working in industry you will have to get your message across to different stakeholders on a regular basis. As an industry professional you might be responsible for delivering presentations to explain findings to decision makers, or you might be expected to create training materials and introduce them to new recruits. Your penchant for being fact-focused and concise will be major assets in all your industry communication.

The research element of pursuing a PhD can cultivate a stereotype about PhDs and the way they communicate. And by that I mean that people may, subconsciously, be expecting you to be stiff and socially awkward.

You can buck this image in your cover letter and resume by highlighting your sterling communications skills. For example, you can mention academic activities, such as interacting with undergraduates through teaching, and delivering poster presentations or PowerPoint presentations for conferences or graduate level courses.

You may think that surely AI must have the advantage over humans when it comes to communicating. After all, ChatGPT is a large language learning model, and “chat” is literally right there in the name. But you’d be mistaken.

There are a few reasons that AI can’t provide the level of communication required to be successful in industry, but the one that matters in this context is that AI isn’t sentient. It can generate messaging that resembles language its digested, and it can even mimic different tones or attempt to target specific audiences. But the nuance of human language and the context of conversation escapes it. 

5. Collaboration

Industry is a collaborative environment. They are looking for people who can work well with others as well as independently.

You can go above and beyond and use the term “cross-functional collaborations,” which means you can get things done with people you have no authority over.

However, don’t use the term “teamwork.” It can actually hurt your chances of getting hired by giving the impression that you rely on others to get things done.

Relationship building is related to collaboration, but it goes beyond as it focuses on creating professional relationships.

If you helped establish collaborations with other labs, or mentored students during your time in academia, these are examples of relationship building. 

Talking about this is very important because it shows that you can fit into a structure or a hierarchy and most companies are run by some kind of hierarchy.

You might think AI is at an obvious disadvantage when it comes to collaboration. But consider, for a moment, the software systems you use to message colleagues or friends. Or the innovative ways AI is helping detect illness and disease.  This tech has improved the quality of your experience, not taken away from it. If you’re able to approach AI in that spirit, employers will value this attitude too.

6. Adaptability

PhDs are nothing if not resilient. The entire process of earning your degree is one that pushes you to become a better person than you started out as. You become comfortable with making mistakes. You persist, long after the romance of becoming a PhD wears off. And you adapt to the stress and frustration of what feels like innumerable crises to function well under pressure.

Your ability to face unexpected challenges and bounce back is so valuable in industry. There are no givens in business, and that can sometimes mean realigning your goals or expectations on the fly.  

Employers value candidates who demonstrate flexibility. It assures them you’re able to shift between functional roles if necessary. Studies indicate that academics have a difficult time adjusting to the broader work environment in industry; that’s why facing this stereotype head-on is so important.

Be sure to highlight this transferable skill in your resume’s Summary and Experience section, as well as LinkedIn. This is one skill that artificial intelligence will never be able to perform on a level that you can. No program, code, or learning algorithm can recreate the willpower, perseverance, or strength of character that being adaptable requires.

7. Ability To Learn Quickly

There are very few people who can rival a PhD’s ability to learn quickly. This skill means you’re poised to keep up with fast-changing priorities and pivots of industry business.

This is easily demonstrated by your ability to read a new research paper, understand what the paper’s conclusions are and then, if relevant, implement those new findings into your own research.

That whole process can happen for a PhD in a matter of hours. To put that into perspective, most industry professionals learn new software or skills over a matter of weeks or months. You ability to learn quickly is a lucrative quality in industry because things move fast – much faster than in academia. 

If the industry project you are working on becomes unprofitable, for instance, it will be scrapped. This means you will likely have to switch to a completely new project, and quickly. You need to be able to learn about this new project, possibly develop operating procedures, roll it out, test it, collect data, and so on.  

As a PhD, your ability to learn quickly means that you will be able to keep up with the changing priorities of industry. AI, on the other hand, cannot learn more or less quickly than it is programmed to. It may be able to do more work in an hour than a single person can do in a week, but it can only do one kind of work. 

Industry is not static, and your responsibilities from day to day will likely change. Even adaptive AI is unable to complete highly complex tasks with ever-shifting priorities, but PhDs in industry can handle these with ease.

8. Leadership And Project Management

Postdocs and PhD students often think they did not have the opportunity to develop leadership or management skills in academia. But most are mistaken.

Did you lead research projects? If so, industry employers will value your ability to motivate and inspire team members, delegate tasks effectively, and manage your time and resources wisely.

What about teaching? PhDs who teach and mentor students have had opportunity to develop their leadership skills by modeling effective leadership behaviors and providing guidance and support to students.

Have you served on a committee or board? If so, you can show industry employers that you’ve used your leadership skills to make a positive impact on their community. PhDs in these roles help solve problems, make decisions, and lead others to achieve common goals.

But, wait – don’t many industry employers rely on software like Trello and Asana? Absolutely. So doesn’t that mean AI has a leg up in the competition? Not from a practical standpoint, no. Project management software may have adaptive features and AI plugins that improve its functionality, but no organization is going to lay off people and start trusting PMS to get things done. Any successful organization knows that it takes people to manage others effectively.

9. Interpersonal Skills And Networking

You know all that work you’ve been putting into creating a professional network? Or those connections you’ve made by attending conferences and events in your field of study? You may think that those are completely separate from you and the value you bring as a candidate. But you’re wrong. 

Building a network of connections is a great way to boost your job search or elevate your career. But it also adds value to you as a candidate.

It does this two ways. First, it demonstrates your interpersonal skills. Effective networking requires many soft skills working together in concert: active listening, positivity, empathy and relationship building to name a few. It also requires a certain degree of strategy and industry savvy.

When employers see the number of connections you have in common with them or can see that you engage regularly and constructively with other professionals, you show them that you align with industry values. 

It also gives them the opportunity to see who you know and what kind of influence you can bring to their team. Your connections aren’t just passive – they’re resources that are within reach. Employers know this. They understand that a person’s industry knowledge has potential that extends beyond their resume and into their network.

Can AI network? Absolutely not. But it’s worth mentioning that LinkedIn’s search algorithm is AI-driven. This is another example where AI, in and of itself, is a glorified phone book. But human connections can be made safely and professionally like never before thanks to AI collaboration. 

10. Perseverance

Completing a PhD degree requires perseverance and dedication – and employers in industry know this. But part of seeing the value of that resolved around understanding what it means not to give up.

It means continuing to work hard, even when you’re faced with challenges. PhD study and research is often difficult and frustrating. There were times when it felt like you were not making any progress – just standing still. However, you preserved in the face of frustration and impatience and exhaustion and competing deadlines.

Perseverance means handling your emotions and staying the course when something is not going as planned. However, it is important to remember why you started your PhD in the first place and to keep working towards your goals. It meant that you made mistakes, survived the disappointment, and learned from those mistakes. And then you tried again.

Perseverance is an essential quality for PhD students, and it is one of the most important factors that will determine your success in business too. If you can show that you are willing to work hard, to learn from your mistakes, and to be persistent, industry employers will hold these qualities in high regard.

AI can’t compete with the drive, ambition, or innovation a PhD offers industry employers. Let AI do the grunt work and the calculations and the coding of your industry job. There’s still plenty of real work to be done, and there’s plenty to go around for PhDs in industry. 

Concluding Remarks

Your technical skills are important, but they’re becoming less relevant with each passing day. But there are other skills, ones that you’ve earned as a PhD, that are exactly what employers in industry are looking for. If you want to transition into industry, you need to research what technologies professionals in your target careers use and what skills they use most; that’s the best way to ensure that you can shine a light on the qualities employers need and want the most. PhDs are natural, creative innovators who aren’t afraid of solving problems and are comfortable making decisions. These transferable skills offer immense value to industry employers. 

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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