4 Skills PhDs Have That Employers Are Desperately Seeking

The number of PhDs wanting to transition out of academia increases every year.

Initially, most of these PhDs were recent graduates and postdocs. 

But as the crisis in academia has gotten worse, we are seeing a lot of adjunct and even tenured professors wanting to leave.

They feel professionally unfulfilled in academic positions because they are overworked, work in uninspiring roles, and/or are paid marginal academic stipends, fellowships, and wages. 

Far too many PhDs are unable to find any meaning or joy in their academic careers, which negatively impacts both their professional and personal lives.

Unfortunately, many of these PhDs end up staying in academia for the wrong reasons.

They either believe the academic myth that you are a sell out if you leave, or get scared of the unknown and convince themselves that they are not valuable in industry.

Recently, a member of the Cheeky Scientist Association shared the following story after being hired in their dream position:


Grad-students: look beyond anything your advisor, committee members, or program chair tells you and find out what policies at the graduate college or institutional level might protect you if you need to change labs. You have leverage if you need to negotiate with your training program PI or grad-chair: you may be hard to fire outright and it looks bad for them if people leave the program. Post-docs: decent PIs exist, new investigators and people with new-funding have a hard time finding personnel on a short timeline: a few of them are willing to sponsor a visa and ignore a non-recommendation from your current boss. Coming from a difficult academic situation, this was a major source of stress for me, and I know it is for others here. My PhD advisor had told me he was against the whole concept of professional publication writers. I was asked for two business references after receiving my offer: I gave my postdoc supervisor and a colleague from grad-school.  The company was fine with this. So yes, you can transition with absolutely nothing from your PhD supervisor.

If you have a PhD, you are valuable in industry. Stop listening to academics who know nothing about life outside the ivory tower and commit to your transition so you can build a better future for yourself.

Why Leaving Transferable Skills Off Your Resume Is A Mistake

Many PhDs discount just how important transferable skills (ie, soft skills) are to employers.

But these understated skills are not only in demand, they’re also incredibly difficult to find.  

In fact, a recent poll commissioned by the Express Employment Professionals revealed that one-third of employers have difficulty filling their open positions because they can’t find candidates with the right soft skills.

If you’ve spent all or most of your research career in academia, you may think you don’t have the skills that industry is seeking.

But when employers were asked what skills they consider essential to any job, problem solving, adaptability, critical thinking, and decision-making were some of the most frequently cited.

As a PhD, these are skills that you possess, making you an incredibly desirable job candidate. 

This means your transferable skills should be front and center on your resume.

No employer is willing to trudge through a resume chock-full of technical jargon and esoteric research results to determine whether or not you have the transferable skills that they’re looking for.

4 Highly Desirable Transferable Skills (They Might Surprise You)

1. Critical thinking

Critical thinking: the disciplined process of evaluating different sources of information and using them to guide complex decisions.

While this is the definition of critical thinking, it could also explain the contents of a dissertation.

As a PhD, you’ve spent years pursuing answers to some of the most complex questions that science and/or research has to offer.

You’ve spent your academic career evaluating an immense amount of information – whether it be in the form of journal articles, book references, study data, or experiments.

You’ve also taken that information and formed novel concepts that contribute to your field. You know how to be critical and make unbiased decisions based on empirical input.

Considering that a quarter of adults haven’t even picked up a book in the past year, these skills are hard to find – making them highly coveted in industry.

So, when speaking to potential employers, don’t be shy to demonstrate your ability to think critically and communicate how these skills can help contribute to their company goals.

2. Complex problem solving

PhD is synonymous with troubleshooting.

After all, what else is research other than trial and error? The road towards an answer is frequently paved with failure and mistakes.

And that’s okay.

What’s important is that, as a PhD, you’ve learned how to take those failures and mistakes and turn them into successes.

PhDs are well calloused against failure which allows them to approach problems in more effective ways.

You’ve spent much of your adult life at the very edge of your field. You’ve sought to find answers to problems that no one before you has attempted to answer.

This requires complex problem-solving skills.

You also know how to prioritize when faced with multiple problems, and you know when it’s time to let go of a problem that can’t be answered.

When faced with a novel or obstinate problem, the average person will give up after a short while – or after only a few tries. Meanwhile, a PhD has the tenacity and the curiosity to keep charging forward. 

How can any employer overlook this ability?

3. Decision making

Industry moves at lightning speed – companies need employees that can make sound decisions quickly and calmly.

To succeed in this environment, you must be able to think on your feet, and make not just quick decisions – but the right decisions.

Making a rushed or uninformed decision can have dire consequences – it could cost the company millions or affect productivity for years to come.

Even though academia moves at a snail’s pace compared with industry, your PhD training has equipped you with decision-making skills.

A PhD consists of many moving parts – you’ve had to manage and effectively prioritize a teaching schedule, a class schedule, and multiple research projects.

It may not have been apparent, but your daily life as a PhD required you to make decisions continuously.

It’s also taught you how to take responsibility for your decisions – good or bad.

Many people are afraid to make critical decisions, so finding an employee that is not afraid to step up to the plate is always top priority for a company.

4. Ability to thrive in uncertainty

If you have a PhD or are getting one, you’ve probably spent years of your life smacked in the middle of uncertainty. 

Whether it is when your next grant is going to be funded, when your paper is going to make it past that third reviewer, or when your committee is going to give you the green light to defend your thesis.

This might not always be comfortable, but you have learned to deal with it. Sometimes you even thrive because of it.

You have come to understand that the only way of pushing the boundaries of knowledge is by accepting that uncertainty is part of creation.

Most people don’t understand this relationship. This gives you a huge advantage when it comes to transitioning into industry.

In industry, it’s not publish or perish, it’s innovate or die. And innovation is not possible without uncertainty.

I can tell you most job candidates really struggle with this. They need an absolute guarantee that things will work out the way they want before they’ll work hard. 

As a PhD, You don’t. 

You just need to know what’s possible. Maybe have a sense of autonomy. Know that you’re going after something that’s going to have a bigger impact on humanity.

That gives you a huge advantage over other candidates.

Concluding Remarks

If you have a PhD or are on your way to having one, you can transition into industry. You can have the professional lifestyle you’ve always wanted. You just need to commit to your transition. Understand that your value doesn’t lie on technical skills, but on transferable skills. Make sure to communicate your ability to think critically, solve complex problems, make the right decisions, and wrangle uncertainty. Do it every time you have the opportunity to talk to an industry employer. This will show them not only that you are valuable, but that you understand where your value lies.

If you’re ready to start your transition into industry, you can apply to book a free Transition Call with our founder Isaiah Hankel, PhD or one of our Transition Specialists. Apply to book a Transition Call here.

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ABOUT ISAIAH HANKEL, PHD

CEO, CHEEKY SCIENTIST & SUCCESS MENTOR TO PHDS

Isaiah Hankel, PhD is the Founder and CEO of the largest career training platform for PhDs in the world - Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by 3 million PhDs in 152 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. Isaiah Hankel received his doctorate in Anatomy & Cell Biology with a focus in immunology and is an expert on biotechnology recruitment and career development.

Isaiah has published two bestselling books with Wiley and 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 About Photo

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