Contributing Author: Surayya Taranum, Ph.D.
A few years into my postdoc, I started to realize that the academic path of getting tenured at a university was a dream.
And that dream was not likely to come true for most PhDs, including myself.
So I did the logical thing and imagined that I would be one of the lucky ones.
This strategy did not pay off.
A couple more years as a postdoc, and the facts were becoming harder to ignore.
The discussion surrounding career options for PhDs was getting louder, and academia was no longer the “hallowed ground” where PhDs could enjoy long-term employment.
Funds were scarce, and the number of academic positions seemed to decrease every year.
Then there was the news that industry hiring of PhDs was on par with academia – that a career transition to industry was an option that PhDs could no longer ignore.
Postdoc associations were crying out for PhDs and postdocs to consider careers outside academia.
I was lost.
What other options did I have?
I didn’t have industry connections, and more to the point, I had no experience with industry work!
But I was worried enough to start doing some research on the available career options.
I chose a couple that looked interesting and put on my “research hat,” looking for job openings in the roles I dreamed about filling.
But when I surveyed the job requirements section, it seemed like they were asking for skills I didn’t even know existed!
This was true for all the jobs listings that piqued my interest.
What did it all mean?
I felt like I had wasted my time in academia – as though I hadn’t gained any of the requisite career skills that the business world needed.
I looked at other PhDs who had successfully transitioned into well-paying industry roles, and I felt like a failure.
Then I saw a job opening in my field of interest…
But like all other roles I had considered, it was asking for skills and experience I did not have.
But I wanted that job badly enough to start brainstorming.
I began devising ways of presenting my resume to those employers – ways that would shine a favorable light on my candidacy.
As I researched this process, I discovered a life-changing fact:
Transferable skills, AKA “soft-skills,” are core requirements for the vast majority of industry roles.
It seemed that by highlighting relevant transferable skills, it was possible to take on an entirely new sort of job – or even embark into a new career field!
In fact, I learned that candidates with highly developed transferable skills were prized job hires in industry.
That’s when it hit me…
I already had all the tools I needed to make a career transition!
Why Industry Careers and Proper Job-Search Strategies Demand Transferable Skills
Industry is no longer the last resort for PhDs who have “failed” in academia – it’s now the first choice for PhDs who want to forge a successful and fulfilling career.
I’m not kidding.
And do you want to know the key to a successful industry transition?
The key is developing and highlighting your transferable skills!
A Wonderlic survey reported that among 250 employer respondents, 93% of them rank “soft skills” (read: transferable skills) as “essential” or “very important” during the hiring process.
Another survey by ICIMS found that 94% of professional recruiters believe employees with stronger soft (read:transferable) skills stand a better chance of getting promoted.
As a PhD, you already have the transferable job skills you need for your future career.
In academia, you developed valuable transferable skills by building new knowledge in your field.
Now you must leverage these skills to build an industry career.
Your potential employer knows that you have deep technical skills in your field, what they need to see is that you have the ‘soft-skills’ they are looking for in their next hire.
You need to show to potential employers that you are a well-rounded individual who has important skills that transfer smoothly into a role in their company.
It is not enough to tell your potential employer that you have great leadership and problem-solving skills.
Or that you are driven and goal-oriented.
Or whatever else.
No one will buy that.
What you need to do is to demonstrate that you have the right skills for the job.
You ensure that your transferable skills are reflected in every aspect of your job search – from your resume and LinkedIn profile to interviews, salary negotiations, and networking.
Top 7 Transferable Skills PhDs Can Leverage To Get An Industry Job
Do you realize that top companies like Google and Microsoft are willing to employ promising candidates even if they don’t have a degree?
Knowing this, you might feel like your PhD was a waste of effort
The take-home message is this:
So long as you have the right transferable skills, employers will seriously consider hiring you – even if you don’t have the required technical skills for the job!
In fact, the National Bureau of Economic Research reports that the fastest growing jobs in the US require highly developed soft skills.
As a PhD, you already have the technical skills you need for an industry role, which puts you head and shoulders above many other candidates.
Ditch your academic mindset and imposter syndrome.
Learn the language of industry and show employers you’re fully equipped for the job.
Here is a list of top 7 transferable skills that employers are looking for…
Make sure you highlight them at every step of your job search!
1. Creativity and Innovation.
According to LinkedIn, employers regard creativity as the most valuable soft skill.
Creativity is what you’re employing when you find original solutions to problems.
Creativity drives innovation – it’s the ability to strategically develop ideas and bring them to life.
Importantly, this skill can’t be automated.
Artificial intelligence cannot utilize creativity.
That’s why companies are always looking for candidates who can think “outside the box.”
And unlike technical skills, creativity cannot be measured.
So how do you demonstrate to potential employers that you’re a creative professional?
As a PhD, you are trained to think critically and creatively about problems.
You are constantly ruminating over ideas and solutions to problems.
You don’t just regurgitate information – you produce it!
PhDs create new knowledge and make original, boundary-pushing contributions to their field.
Don’t let imposter syndrome keep you from displaying your creative problem-solving skills in your resume and interviews.
And be sure to include any stellar achievement in your elevator pitch!
LinkedIn cited persuasion as another soft skill employers look for.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that persuasion is limited to the sales department.
You need to be persuasive in virtually every job.
According to Robert Cialdini, “Persuasion is simply asking people to move in your direction by explaining or offering genuine reasons that are in their benefit to accept.”
You need persuasion to promote your ideas, convince clients, and negotiate your salary or promotion.
When you are able to convince people of your ideas, you will develop a reputation as an effective communicator and creative professional.
You will be able to influence others without exercising authority over them, which is an essential leadership quality.
Use informational and job interviews to demonstrate your persuasive skill, especially as you answer behavioral interview questions.
The salary negotiation portion of an interview is another place you can use your persuasive skills.
You can also craft your industry resume to include transferable skills and measurable skills in your work experience.
Be sure to highlight projects and experiences that involved any kind of negotiation.
Price negotiations for lab supplies, conflict resolution in the workplace, a letter to the editor that helped get your research published – all these are great examples.
PhDs in academia generally have their own projects, and are used to working independently.
In industry, teamwork is everything.
People skills are non-negotiable in industry.
You need them to get the job, you need them to do well in your job, and you need them to get to the next exciting job.
In industry, your success and career progress depend on your ability to work with people.
You’ll also need to build meaningful professional connections that help both you and the company.
Employers want to see that you value diversity of thought and opinion – that you’re able to work with people of different backgrounds or levels of experience.
They want to see that you value the company culture and can fit right in.
They want to see that you are an excellent relationship builder, a team worker and collaborator.
In industry, PhDs are viewed as being too independent, and incapable of working with others toward a common goal.
You need to be able to demonstrate that this is not the case.
You need to be able to show your potential employer that you can connect and work with others.
That you can not only compete but collaborate successfully to create win-win solutions for all.
Research collaborations, teaching, mentoring, training team members, setting up a new lab or project, running workshops, and writing grant applications are all projects that require teamwork.
You need to explain and highlight situations in which you worked with others to drive a project further.
Industry is a fast-paced and continually changing environment.
In fact, in industry, change is the only constant.
To be successful in an industry career requires a high degree of adaptability and resilience.
In industry, even exciting projects can get scrapped if they do not meet the target.
You cannot let these setbacks keep you from moving forward fast.
You need to be adaptable.
You need to be resilient.
Industry employers think that academia has a slow-paced work culture and PhDs cannot adapt to an industry environment.
In industry, you need to be able to apply learning or experience from one situation to a completely different environment.
You need to find approaches for coping with new situations and changing circumstances.
Companies want mentally agile employees who can integrate seamlessly into new teams and projects.
Employers are looking for hires who can boldly exit their comfort zone.
It is up to you to prove that you can:
- Bounce back from setbacks.
- Learn fast from your experiences and failures.
- Keep up with tight deadlines.
- Handle high-pressure situations and are not afraid of new challenges.
- Exhibit emotional intelligence.
You must leverage all these–especially in response to behavioral interview questions–using the STAR method to ace your industry interview.
5. Time Management.
In industry, time is money.
Employers value employees who value time and manage it effectively.
In fact, time management is career management.
It’s critical that you are well organized; your personal and organizational goals depend on it.
You must be able to prioritize your own time effectively, so that you can complete your projects on time or ahead of schedule.
Employees who can manage their time are seen as more confident, more reliable, more intelligent, and more successful at their job.
Industry employers think that time management will be a major challenge for PhDs who have never worked in industry before.
It is up to you to show them that you can manage your time effectively.
So as a PhD do you have time management skills that you can leverage in your job search?
Sure you do!
Think of the long, focused hours you spent on your project to make sure you completed it on schedule.
The experiments you had to finish for your research paper with a tight submission deadline.
Finishing your PhD thesis on time (That one was a challenge, wasn’t it?).
Then, keeping up with all the published research in your field, preparing journal club talks, work presentations and so on…
All these tasks have enabled you to build excellent organizational skills and prioritize effectively.
You must leverage all these experiences and skills to demonstrate that you are an action-oriented and productive industry professional.
You may think this skill comes up on every list of must-have skills, but its importance can’t be over-emphasized.
Industry operates on teamwork; and only teams that communicate effectively can achieve project milestones on schedule.
As an industry professional, you will have to communicate effectively within your team, with your customers, with other departments, with non-scientists, and with anyone else who is working on your projects with you.
You will have to communicate complex technical data and concepts in a way that can be understood by non-experts.
You will have to communicate about your work at team meetings and conferences, in-person, in writing and online.
You will have to communicate with your team members by listening to understand their input and feedback.
You will have to be able to communicate with clarity in an ever-changing, fast-paced environment with shifting deadlines.
You need to communicate your company brand and values to people to colleagues and clients.
Employers highly value professionals who can communicate clearly and effectively.
You can display your communication skills through building a polished LinkedIn profile that reflects your personal brand, and through excellent networking and interviewing skills.
If invited to give an interview presentation don’t just focus on the technical details, leverage this opportunity to impress your potential employer with your presentation skills and field knowledge.
Leadership is the most complex of all transferable skills; it is the combination and result of developing all your other transferable skills.
In industry, leadership is also a rare and highly prized skill.
In fact, industry employers are on a constant lookout for candidates with leadership potential, who have the curiosity, energy and commitment to take initiative and drive a project forward.
As a PhD working in academia, you already have the experience of taking charge of your research project and getting it done.
As a PhD working in academia, you did what it took to complete your research and thesis.
Without that drive, commitment and resilience, you would never have finished your PhD.
As a PhD, you already have the expertise you need to become a leader.
- Technical, critical-thinking, and problem solving skills – to correctly define challenges and develop solutions.
- Excellent communication skills and emotional intelligence – to work seamlessly on demanding projects.
- Creativity from your wide domain knowledge – to come up with innovative solutions and product ideas.
- Adaptability and resilience – to thrive and function under high-stress situations.
- Time management skills – to create practical blueprints and timelines for your projects and deliver expected results on schedule.
All you need is to make sure that your potential employer fully appreciates your skills and expertise as a leader and manager.
All you need is to show your value as a PhD!
As a PhD, you developed valuable transferable skills through building new knowledge in your field. You must now learn to leverage these skills to build a career in industry. You must make sure that your transferable skills are reflected in every aspect of your job search – in your resume and LinkedIn profile, in interviews and salary negotiations, and during networking. In industry, your success and career progress depends on your ability to think creatively and innovate, to work with people and build meaningful professional connections that help you and the company. You need to be able to manage your time, to communicate effectively with your team and customers. Industry employers are on a constant lookout for candidates with leadership potential, who have the curiosity, energy and commitment to take initiative and drive a project forward. It is time to ditch your academic mindset and imposter syndrome, and communicate your transferable skills to the potential employer effectively to land that industry job.
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