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Why Hiring Managers And Recruiters Care Less About PhD Technical Skills

Understanding how things work in industry is an ongoing process. Even after being hired in one of my first industry jobs in Research and Development, I didn’t fully understand the value I brought to the table.

Still, I was obsessed with adding value to my team. So, I kept talking about things like “statistical significance,” “reproducibility,” and other academically-minded concepts that didn’t relate much to my job or my team’s job. 

I’m pretty sure I sounded awkward and irrelevant to the people I was working with. I can imagine them thinking things like “What is this kid talking about? Is he trying to teach us a basic stats class?” 

Or “We don’t need you to waste your time focusing on minute details or lab results, we hired you to help us ensure that our R&D product pipeline stays full.”

They needed me to gain awareness of their brand and their culture, to integrate into their culture, to talk their language, and to help them stay profitable.

But at that time I had only a basic understanding of what all these new concepts meant. I still thought that my lab skills were impressive, that they had hired me because of my technical skills. So, I kept making these out of place comments.

It wasn’t until years later, when I walked into my first site visit at a Global 500 industry company that I fully understood how irrelevant my technical skills were and where my value actually was.

As part of the visit, we were invited to tour the facility of the company and were taken to these gigantic labs, each the size of a football field, that were full of hundreds of millions of dollars of advanced robotics doing thousands of experiments in real-time.

I couldn’t fathom the amount of data that was being generated every minute. That’s when I finally realized that all the technical skills I had learned in academia were meaningless. 

My ability to perform experiments was meaningless in industry. Robots could do it better than me. 

The skills that made me valuable were those related to my ability to understand these robotic systems, to strategically map out which experiments to run next, and to manage both the robotics and the technicians working alongside them. 

In short, I realized that my transferable skills were valuable, not my technical skills.

This is true for you as well, and the sooner you realize it and accept it, the higher your chances of getting into a fulfilling industry career.

If you want to get hired into an industry job, you have to start speaking the language of industry and this starts with understanding which skills industry employers value the most.

Technical Skills Are Obsolete, Gatekeepers Care About Transferable Skills

Transferable skills, also called soft skills transfer from sector to sector, company to company, and job to job. This means that no matter what position you are targeting, they are looking for a combination of these skills.

Transferable skills are your biggest asset when it comes to transitioning outside of academia or doing a career change precisely because they are universal. 

Unlike your technical skills, which are often too niche to be valuable once you move into a new work environment, Transferable skills stay relevant as you advance in your career and change positions. 

Unfortunately, most PhDs cannot fathom the idea of their skills being labeled as soft. According to their academic mindset, things need to be complex to be valuable and Transferable skills are just too simple. 

As a consequence they struggle to list even the most basic skills that industry employers are hoping to see. 

Instead, they list niche-specific skills that sound impressive (but are skipped rather than read), like fluorescence microscopy, real-time PCR, quantum mechanics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and anything with the words qualitative or quantitative in it.

I know what you’re thinking “…but …I have a PhD! What did I do all my advanced technical training for if I can’t use it to get hired?”

Many PhDs feel that they’ve wasted years of their lives once they realize that technical skills are not valuable in industry. This is not true, you developed many transferable skills that give you a competitive advantage.

But you need to make a mental shift and accept reality if you want to land a fulfilling job. 

Despite all their education and advanced technical training, PhDs who fail to make that mentality shift are not successful when it comes to their careers. 

Accept that the technical skills you learned in academia will be obsolete in a few years if not a few months from reading this. In fact, many of them are obsolete right now. In contrast, your transferable skills are more relevant than ever.

The 3 Types Of Transferable Skills You Should Highlight

If you have been following Cheeky Scientist for a while, you have probably heard me talk about many Transferable skills that are in demand in industry: communication, project management, time management, market knowledge, research, analysis, work ethic, innovation, comprehension, problem solving… 

You are probably wondering if you should follow a strategy when it comes to adding these skills to your LinkedIn profile and resume. 

Truth is there is, highlighting Transferable skills is not enough, you need to add the right combination if you want to convince employers that you are the right candidate for a given position.

Transferable skills fall into one of three categories: systems-oriented, people-oriented, or self-oriented. 

You must communicate two to three skills from each of these categories on your resume and LinkedIn profile, and you must be able to discuss them during the interview process. 

You must also communicate how these transferable skills have helped you achieve relevant results in the past and how they will help you perform better than other candidates at the job at hand.

1. System-oriented skills

The first category of Transferable skills looks at the bigger picture of working in industry. These skills show employers that you can understand and manage systems and processes.

Don’t underestimate the importance of systems in business, they are entirely responsible for allowing a business to scale. 

As a PhD, you have lived and breathed systems for most of your life. You just called them by a different name in academia. For example, protocols, procedures, methodologies, or lesson plans. 

If a PhD-level job candidate does not understand systems and cannot communicate their systems-oriented skills in today’s job market, they will not be hired.

The good news is that you probably already have some systems-oriented skills in your resume and LinkedIn profile right now. 

You just need to phrase them in a universal way, using industry language so that gatekeepers at your target positions will understand. 

For example, if you helped manage your lab’s budget, you can list “financial acumen” as one of your job skills. 

If you had to ensure that certain reagents were always in stock in the lab so everyone could continue executing their experiments, you could add “risk mitigation” or “risk management” to your list of skills.

Here are other potential options for this category of transferable skills: documentation, record keeping, writing standard operating procedures (SOPs), regulatory acumen, production, quality control, quality assurance, creating return on investments (ROI), or simply systemization.

Take time to carefully brainstorm, understand, and communicate the process-based skills that you have at every point of your job search in a way that resonates with industry professionals.

2. People-oriented skills

The second category of transferable skills shows that you can interact with people in a productive way, no matter if these people are your managers, your mentees, or your peers.

People-oriented skills have a lot to do with organizational behavior, a field of study that focuses on how people interact within organizations.

PhDs with people-oriented skills can adapt to sudden changes in circumstances and effectively communicate with team members who may or may not be in the same office (or country). 

Are you flexible, versatile and well-adjusted to remote work? List this in your resume as “remote work” or “virtual training.”

Can you mentor, train, and otherwise work with people who have less technical expertise than you? You can say that you excel at “personnel development.”

Can you work cross-departmentally to accomplish goals that will affect the entire organization? This means you excel at “task delegation’ and “chain of communication.”

Can you flexibly work with other personality types in an office? Can you work with people messier, angrier, less intelligent, and more annoying than you (from your point of view)? You can list “flexibility” or “adaptability” as one of your skills. 

Can you handle digital cross-functional collaboration? This is a skill on its own. 

Other examples of people-oriented transferable skills include performance management, strategic vision, change management, and project management.

When employers see relevant transferable skills that are people-oriented, it indicates to them that you would be a good leader and collaborator. 

But, even more importantly, it means that you can take orders from your superiors, and you can both influence others and be influenced by others for the good of a project, without either you or them being in a position of authority.

3. Self-oriented skills

The last category of transferable skills talks about you as an employee. About how you get things done, either independently or interdependently.

This category tends to be challenging for PhDs because academia teaches us that it is arrogant to talk about ourselves and that results are achieved in groups so we shouldn’t take credit for ourselves.

But industry employers are hiring you as an individual and they need to know that you are a competent person who can get things done and that other people can respect you based on your competency.

They need to know you can collaborate with others and not constantly annoy those around you.

As a PhD, you probably have a stronger work ethic than most job candidates, but you probably have never thought about adding that to your resume. Yet, this is a great self-oriented skill. 

How will employers know that you are one of the hardest working candidates they have ever encountered if you don’t tell them?

Other self-oriented skills include  initiative, quick learning, completeness, stress management, innovation, research and analysis, technical literacy, and autonomy. 

Your self-directed ability to bring your own ideas to the table, think strategically and creatively to solve existing problems are the self-oriented transferable skills that will make you an asset to any organization.

Concluding Remarks

It is time to accept that your technical skills are obsolete and irrelevant in industry. If this makes you feel like a failure, understand that this is not true. You just need to change your mentality and focus on what makes you valuable to industry employers – your Transferable skills. These skills transfer from sector to sector and from company to company. But just adding Transferable skills to your LinkedIn profile and resume is not enough, you need to ensure you include skills from three main categories. System-oriented skills, which show that you can manage systems and processes. People-oriented skills, which show that you can work productively with others. And self-oriented skills, which show that you can get things done independently and interdependently. Adding the right combination of Transferable skills to your resume and being able to discuss them during the interview process will ensure that you show your real value to employers.

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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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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