Written by Nikolett Biel, Ph.D.
Early on in my graduate school career, I saw the value of developing my network.
This saved me a lot of heartache down the road, when I was ready to transition.
During grad school, I was involved in a wide variety of activities in and outside of the lab.
I slowly but surely built up and diversified my network.
It wasn’t easy, but again, it paid off down the road.
Eventually, I became my own public relations officer.
While working on my dissertation at the bench, I taught summer courses to high school students, participated in fundraising for the American Cancer Society, and attended classes at a nearby biotech company.
Of course, some people (you know who you are) believed I was too distracted from my lab work.
“Without spending 18 hours a day in the lab, your research will suffer!”
I heard it time and time again.
But my research didn’t suffer, it sped up.
I often saw things that others didn’t see, mainly because I was talking about my work with different groups of people.
All of this led to me having a very healthy and balanced academic experience and, as a result, I came out of graduate school very well-rounded.
(By the way, being well-rounded is gold to industry hiring managers.)
Building credibility in industry requires more than just proving your technical expertise.
It’s more than just telling someone you have a PhD and worked in a lab.
Industry credibility is about showing that you are more than just a technical employee.
Why Your Technical Skills Do Not Matter To Industry Hiring Managers
Are you in academia with a list of impressive technical skills?
Have you put them in bullet points on your resume as you prepare to apply for industry jobs?
If you answered yes, you might be heading in the WRONG direction.
An analysis by ZipRecruiter showed that possessing technical skills is NOT one of the top desired qualifications for high-level industry positions.
(I know. This seems ridiculous.)
Here are the facts…
Out of 250,000 top job ads, the most desired skills were communication (51%), followed by time management (21%), and ability to work as part of a team (19%).
(Again, I know. Time management? Seriously? Can’t everyone do that?)
The top desired skills are NOT technical.
They are transferable.
If you want a high-level industry job, you need to develop your transferable skills AND your ability to articulate them.
Your transferable skills give you industry credibility, NOT your technical skills.
(Read that above line again.)
The good news is you can develop your transferable skills and your ability to articulate them while still in academia.
You can do this as a graduate student or a postdoc.
You MUST do this as a graduate student or a postdoc.
If you fail to develop your transferable skills and your ability to communicate them, you will be in academia forever.
Still don’t believe me?
Here are some more facts…
The recruitment company, Futurestep performed a survey of 500 top industry executives, asking what matters most when screening job candidates.
Over 33% answered that a candidate’s motivations and drivers were by far the deciding factor.
The rest mentioned problem-solving skills and interpersonal skills.
NOT technical skills.
Of course, your technical skills are important.
But your technical skills (or lack thereof) will NOT be a “deal-breaker” when it comes to getting hired in industry.
In the end, the question you must answer is…
What are your unique qualifiers, or the core competencies that set you apart from other job candidates?
You must be able to define this factor and you must be able to sell it.
5 Ways To Develop Skills Hiring Managers Actually Care About
Can you set up a collaboration with another lab?
Can you make time to apply for a training grant?
Can you walk into a networking event full of strangers and introduce yourself to as many individuals as possible throughout the night?
“No, that’s just not my personality. I couldn’t do that.”
If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re going to be in academia for a long time.
Yes, developing your transferable skills might make you uncomfortable.
Especially these top 20 transferable skills.
The question is…
How badly do you want a high-paying industry job that allows you to do meaningful scientific work?
You might not feel as though your personality easily lends itself to developing these skills.
But if you want an industry job, you’re going to have to stretch yourself in directions that feel foreign and unnatural to your current disposition.
You’re going to have to develop weaknesses you have in key areas.
This is the only way to prove to industry hiring managers that you are the best candidate for the job.
Are new things sometimes nerve-wracking?
It’s normal to want to pass on an opportunity to escape the awkwardness of the unknown.
It’s normal to get scared.
But you can’t freeze up.
You can get scared but you must NOT freeze up.
You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Stepping out of your comfort zone will bring you the professional success you are striving for.
Industry hiring managers, whether in the biotech or biopharmaceutical fields, look for candidates that have done more than just execute experiments.
They look for candidates with transferable skills.
Here are the top 5 ways to break out of “lab rat” mode and become a well-rounded, industry-bound scientist by developing your transferable skills…
1. Set up collaborations with other labs.
Collaboration and teamwork are some of the most important skills you need in industry.
A company’s progress is dependent on the strength of its teams and these teams need to work effectively together.
You have to be able to demonstrate and articulate that you can function well in a team environment.
If a hiring manager even senses that you will be an awkward fit for their team, you will NOT get a job offer.
The best way to demonstrate your collaboration skills is to collaborate while in academia.
You can take this a step further by showing a product of your collaboration: such as an abstract, presentation, published manuscript, or funded grants.
Collaborating with other graduate students within your own lab is only an “honorable mention” at best.
If you really want to make an impression with a hiring manager, you must look for collaborations outside of your lab and even outside of your department.
This takes initiative, persuasiveness, good communication, and teamwork.
These are all skills hiring managers are looking for.
Here’s an important takeaway…
You can’t just write down your collaboration on your resume or rehearse it from a script.
Instead, you must have deep knowledge of a collaboration that you actually set up and worked hard on.
Most importantly, you must have a result to show for your collaboration.
I know what you’re thinking…
How can I set up a collaboration?
The key is to be proactive and not expect collaboration opportunities to just fall in your lap.
This might mean convincing your academic advisor to set up a collaboration.
But don’t overthink it.
Don’t make the collaboration too complex either.
Instead, simply create opportunities to collaborate by doing the background work on a current collaboration that your advisor has in place with another lab.
This is a great way to set yourself apart while everyone else is sticking to their comfort zone and ticking off their technical skills list.
This also helps keep you from existing in isolation, totally disconnected and hiding in a lab.
By creating successful collaborative opportunities, you create new, professional relationships while learning to communicate with people in diverse settings from different cultural backgrounds.
You’ll develop your interpersonal skills and establish rapport as a team player that works easily with others.
2. Apply for training grants.
Training grants (or any other grants) can be a great way for you to demonstrate that you used ingenuity to progress your career.
Writing a grant allows you to communicate your work in a broad sense, and makes you think about the real significance and impact your work may have in the future.
While most of us think we can communicate our research, the reality is that very few of us can do so effectively.
We get used to speaking with people who are in the same field and speak the same language.
As soon as we are put in a more generalized audience, we struggle to keep people up to speed and engaged in our work.
We might not even notice when their expressions glaze over and they mentally leave the room.
The more you practice, whether in writing or presenting, the better you will become at communicating with various audiences.
Again, be proactive — you’re the only one that can do this for yourself.
Seek out opportunities.
T32 training grants are very common at institutions, so find them and apply as many times as needed.
The first training grant I had applied to as a first year graduate student was rejected.
The second year I applied, I was given the grant and was able to renew it for the rest of my PhD training.
Be prepared for rejection… multiple times.
Brush it off and keep trying.
Training grants not only help you, they help your supervisor as well, by alleviating the financial burden.
It’s a win all around that you can leverage for opportunities to build your industry skills into your repertoire while still in academia.
3. Present your work as often as possible.
No matter what position you are trying to secure, you will have to interact with colleagues and clients.
This includes people that aren’t in the lab, and maybe people that have never been in a lab.
Your communication skills need to be effective and audience-appropriate.
You will have to speak, write, and present well.
The best way to practice and demonstrate your communication skills is by participating in both internal (within your university) and external (international) conferences while in academia.
Many universities will host departmental poster sessions or graduate student and postdoc poster sessions at least once a year.
Presenting posters are great, but having one or two abstracts that you present orally is even better to strengthen your resume.
If you are not invited to speak, reach out to the organizers and request the opportunity.
If your excuse is that you have a nightmare advisor who isn’t willing to send you to conferences and just wants you to pump out data in the lab, there are ways around this.
If you want to attend international conferences, see what travel award opportunities are available through the university and the conference itself.
Apply to as many as you can and don’t be afraid of rejection.
(Yes, again, don’t be afraid of rejection.)
Be diligent and determined — you have to pave your own way here, despite obstacles and excuses.
4. Network with PhDs and non-PhDs.
Networking is the best way to land an industry job, so start early.
Networking is also the only way to get an industry referral, which is the number one source of hiring volume in EVERY industry worldwide.
Good networking strategies will also highlight your communications skills and will demonstrate valuable industry characteristics such as being personable, self-motivated and perseverant.
When you attend conferences or PhD networking events, be sure to network with others at posters, vendor shows, or educational sessions.
When people approach you at your poster, don’t let them leave without getting their business cards and make sure to follow up with them after the conference with a simple email:
“Dear Dr. Smith, I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation at my poster session. Thank you for your valuable questions and advice. Hope to see you at future conferences. Kind regards, [Your Name]”
Put in the effort and take the time to follow up with everyone — this is important.
Make this a habit that is part of your schedule — set a reminder — and do this as a regular practice.
Continue to reach out to them every 3-4 months by sending a simple, short email about something you may have found interesting or valuable that they may in turn also find useful.
As you get closer to transitioning, start following up every 1-2 weeks.
This will lower the “activation energy” of asking for a referral or asking for a hiring manager’s email address when the time comes.
Always follow up and foster the relationship you have started.
Once you establish a good rapport, you can set up informational interviews with your contacts.
Ask questions about their experience in industry to better understand their position within the company and hope to receive a referral when the time comes.
An often untapped source for networking is with sales representatives, either at vendor shows or with those who frequently visit your lab.
You have the expertise to help them sell and improve their equipment, and in turn they are a point of contact to many large biotech companies.
Another rarely used source of networking is with non-PhDs, so make sure you’re also going to non-PhD or “blue ocean” networking events.
Overall, the key is to start learning how to network effectively in different settings with different groups of people.
5. Diversify your experiences.
Industry hiring managers desperately want to hire PhDs who are NOT typical PhDs.
Instead, they want to hire “well-rounded” PhDs who have diversified their backgrounds.
The problem is that diversity is not easily developed.
But again, it is desperately sought after.
Diversity is something that you need to cultivate in spite of academia.
This is because diversity demonstrates several favorable characteristics to hiring managers.
A PhD with a diverse background is more likely to have a “can-do” or “go-getter” attitude.
They are also more likely to have good communication and interpersonal skills.
The only way to gain a diverse background is to step outside of the lab and develop more non-technical skills.
Think back to high school and the extracurricular activities you were involved in to demonstrate versatility when you applied for colleges.
This is what you need to do now to get into industry.
You need to partake in some extracurriculars.
Industry hiring managers want to see that not only can you do exceptional science, but that you can contribute to a community and maintain a work-life balance.
Start small by getting involved within your academic community.
Join your Graduate Student Council or Postdoc Club.
Get involved with teaching undergraduate students if your graduate program doesn’t already require it.
Get involved with local schools and their science fairs.
Get involved with charities and help with fundraising events.
Find out if your university has a Translational Sciences Center through which you can volunteer or attend classes and seminars.
But don’t limit your options to only science-focused activities.
Start a sports club or intramural team with your fellow graduate students.
Start your own community service project.
Any initiative taken on your part will show leadership, which is a very important transferable skill to all industry hiring managers.
Your technical skills will not be the deciding factor when it comes to getting an industry job. Hiring managers will look for candidates with not only the scientific acumen, but also the business skills and motivation that are needed for industry. Build this credibility by breaking free from the lab bench every so often and honing these transferable skills. Work on effectively communicating your work in various mediums, be it through grant-writing or oral presentations. Start collaborations with scientists outside of your lab and build a network of industry professionals. Diversify your resume and show that you are more than your PhD.
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.
Latest posts by Nikolett Biel, Ph.D. (see all)
- Why Industry Employers Do NOT Care About The Technical PhD Skills On Your Resume - July 12, 2016
- 5 Reasons Only Certain PhDs Should Transition Into Research Scientist Positions In Industry - December 8, 2015
- How To Build Relationships With Biotech And Biopharmaceutical Recruiters (With Email Templates) - July 7, 2015