Written by: Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.
I remember lazy Friday afternoons in the lab.
I could not read another research paper or stare at my data any further.
So I would go online and start job searching.
(Network first? Nah. That would take too much time.)
I glanced at management positions.
Project manager, program manager, product manager.
I liked the sounds of all them and would dream of the possibilities — working at the forefront of clinical trials, drug development, or biotechnology.
Then I would come across the dreaded line:
A strong level of management experience is required.
My heart would sink.
I’d spent all this time in academia in a lab — I didn’t have management experience.
I guess it’s back to the lab bench for me.
I assumed that unless I had a role specifically classified as ‘management’, I would not qualify as having management-related skills.
I didn’t understand how someone could step into a management role if every role required previous industry experience.
It was like hiring managers globally were having a laugh at the expense of graduate students.
It felt as though the jobs I wanted were being dangled in front of me, but were completely out of reach.
I felt unqualified for all of them, despite having a PhD.
But, I was wrong.
It was only when I had my first industry role that I learned from my line manager that taking on a management position had nothing to do with management certification or years of specific experience.
Instead, becoming a manager was all about demonstrating transferable skills, regardless of where they were developed.
The reality is that hiring managers rarely look at accomplishments at face-value.
They are more interested in a candidate’s values.
I missed out on opportunities all those times I thought my previous experience was useless when in reality, they laid the foundation perfectly to step into a management role.
Why PhDs Are Qualified For Management Jobs
There are over 1 million management jobs advertised every day on LinkedIn in the United States alone, with half of them attracting upwards of a six-figure salary.
According to the employment projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, management jobs are expected to grow over 7% between now and 2024.
And you don’t need to pay thousands of dollars to get trained for these jobs.
Even at corporate giants such as IBM, only half the project managers hold a project management certificate.
(Seriously — don’t get a project management certificate, these programs are a joke.)
Management-level job ads may appear to demand the impossible, asking for what feels like years of relevant experience, background knowledge in the industry, and a list of demonstrable skills that make you question your own abilities.
But regardless of industry, most recruiters are really looking for the same core management skills.
Recruiters are searching for leaders — candidates with the transferrable management attributes which will make them successful in any situation.
Despite what many of you may think, as a PhD you have already built a strong foundation of many of these core management skills.
Don’t let imposter syndrome prevent you from seeing the experience you have gained.
The truth is that your PhD prepared you for management roles through the transferable skills you developed in the process.
According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters in its report, Skills for the Twenty First Century, employers are looking for skills in four broad areas: specialist skills, generalist skills, self-reliance, and teamwork.
These are skills that develop naturally through graduate school.
Mentoring graduate students, leading projects, fostering collaborations, and chairing journal clubs, to name a few, are all things PhDs do daily which can be directly related to management.
The issue is not that you lack the necessary skills to get a management job, but that you aren’t highlighting them with confidence to apply for management jobs you’re more than qualified for.
6 Skills PhDs Must Highlight To Get Hired Into Management Jobs
A management position.
It’s what every PhD wants (and deserves).
This kind of responsibility is what you’ve trained your entire life for.
Yet, many PhDs give up on management jobs before they even apply, surrendering to the idea that any industry job they get will mean starting at the bottom in an entry-level position.
The truth is, if you have a PhD, you are management material.
All you have to do is work to understand exactly what skills are essential for management and draw parallels with your own experience.
By leveraging these parallels on resumes and during industry interviews, you can get hired directly into a management-level position.
The key is to not just simply list the skills but explain situations where you used these skills and obtained business-relevant results.
Then, and only then, will you stand out as a serious candidate for any managerial industry position.
Here are the top 6 core skills that will help you get hired as a manager, not just another entry-level employee…
1. Strong communication.
Forging a successful career in industry can hang in the balance on this skill alone, particularly if you want to move swiftly through the upper ranks of management.
An ability to communicate effectively and professionally with colleagues, clients, superiors, and stakeholders alike is absolutely critical.
Why? Because managers are the epicenter of their teams, and often the touch point between their department and others.
In a management position it’s your responsibility to coordinate the personalities, ideas, and opinions around you.
It’s your role to explain your team’s work to other decision-makers in terms they can understand.
You’ll be required to make presentations, influence decision-makers, and mix effectively in social situations.
A survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council of 600 employers ranked communication skills as the top requirement when hiring recent graduates.
This is where your experience presenting in journal clubs, lab meetings, and at scientific meetings works to your advantage.
Highlight these skills — it will show your ability to become that epicenter in the future.
2. Strategic planning.
Employers are not foraging for management candidates who can solve problems.
They’re hunting for ones who can identify problems in advance, prioritize what’s important, and find solutions before it starts to cost them money and time.
Strategic planning and decision-making form an essential part of any management job description.
Not only do you need to manage daily operations, you also need to see far into the future and maintain a successful balance between short-term and long-term goals.
You’ll need to be able to have foresight for potential errors along the way, with strategies to mitigate setbacks and negative outcomes.
One advantage science PhDs have over other candidates is that they already know how to act upon information and plan multiple research projects based on constantly changing feedback.
You have had to plan daily experiments, but also keep track of the larger goals of projects, which may have taken multiple years to accomplish.
You’ve learned to be persistent and adaptable.
Planning in industry is different, and while the skills need to be adapted and developed in a new environment, what you’ve already developed in the research labs is a robust framework you can advertise to recruiters as a strong base to launch from.
Companies are looking for candidates who can demonstrate leadership qualities.
Someone who can inspire a vision, raise the energy of those around them, and rally their team to achieve bigger and better things.
Above all else, they want someone they can trust and rely upon to carry the business onward and upward.
It’s a bold requirement, but with thousands of applications coming in for individual jobs these days, it’s one that recruiters are able to make.
Postdocs and PhDs often think they don’t have these qualities yet, but while working in research labs you will have experienced what it’s like to take the lead on projects, to direct younger students, or mentor new graduate students.
It’s also commonly believed that PhDs don’t get opportunities to develop leadership qualities.
You can be proactive here and start your own groups, participate in consulting clubs, and offer to organize and lead networking nights or events.
Some schools offer mentorship programs, which you can get involved in to boost your skills.
Finally, mention your achievements from leadership positions on both your application and in interviews.
It’s one thing to talk about leadership skills, and another to prove they generated a positive, measurable outcome.
4. Conflict resolution.
Industry relies more heavily on collaboration than academia, and one of the side-effects of team environments is a diverse range of perspectives and opinions.
Whether you’re a team member or the leader of a team, you must have proven experience and strategies to effectively deal with conflict in the workplace.
If you’re applying for a management position, or hoping to be promoted into management, this skill needs to be highly developed — because you’re going to be the one to resolve issues that stop projects from moving forward, even if they’re not yours.
Thankfully, PhDs already have a wealth of experience handling conflict to draw upon.
If you’ve worked as a principle investigator in a scientific research lab, you’ve needed to collaborate and compete for everything from publications, to reagents, to time in the cell culture hood.
Remember your first day stepping into a research lab with a team, feeling a little bit anxious and overwhelmed?
Compare that with how you felt the last time you stepped out of one.
You’ve gained vital experience dealing with lab politics and navigating good and bad days with your advisor.
You’ve had to be diplomatic and professional under time pressures and personality conflicts.
Recruiters are looking for candidates who can lead by example with the way they deal with conflict, and can make sure social and professional differences of opinion do not get in the way of an important project.
5. Time management and organization.
It’s important to be well organized on several levels to succeed in reaching your personal and organizational goals.
As an industry manager or team leader, the stakes are even higher.
To progress in your career, you need to develop skills to manage your own time as well as that of your team members.
If they aren’t prioritizing their own tasks effectively, or projects are running behind schedule, it will fall to you to make necessary adjustments and put the train back on its track.
In management roles you will frequently also be involved in multiple projects, often across several departments.
It will be your responsibility to plan out the projects, convert them into tasks, and delegate them to your own and your staff’s workflow.
In a report on California’s workforce trends, in the life science industry it was stated that time management is a major challenge for those who have never worked in industry before.
The report found students fresh out of life science research in academia are used to being involved in projects with long innovation cycles.
This is a skill that can be leveraged in your application.
However, unlike industry, academia projects are not aimed at generating revenue.
It’s a different environment, and candidates who can show time management experience on time-sensitive and ROI (return on investment) driven projects will be most attractive to employers.
If you don’t have these skills yet, get involved in projects that can help fill your toolbox.
6. Relationship-building and collaboration.
It is impossible to be successful in industry without being able to form mutually productive and beneficial relationships.
In industry, your overall success hinges greatly on your ability to build ongoing relationships and meaningful connections with all sorts of professionals related to your position.
Many industry employers now consider emotional intelligence, or EQ, as more important than mere intelligence, or IQ.
As a result, hiring managers and recruiters are being trained to ask difficult interview questions that evaluate a candidate’s emotional responses.
They’re looking for people skills — not just being able to articulate your position, but to form positive relationships over time.
They’re looking for the right fit for their corporate culture.
While working in an academic research lab, PhDs and postdocs often work as part of a team.
You might even have been a part of projects where multiple labs or universities were working together, and you needed to form relationships with key players to ensure success.
Dig into the professional connections you’ve formed during your PhD, break them down, and point them out in your application and in interviews. This includes communication skills, leadership, conflict resolution, strategic planning, and time management. Use specific examples to show how you have gained these skills and what results you were able to obtain. By doing this, you’ll show recruiters and employers that you are indeed management material.
To learn more about the 6 skills that will boost your job search for management positions, 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.