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List Of 26 Core Competencies Science PhDs Can Leverage Over Other Job Applicants

what are core competencies | Cheeky Scientist | list of core competencies
Written by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.


My advisor was 15 minutes late to my thesis defense.

15 minutes doesn’t sound like a long time.

But trust me, it is.

Especially when you’re sitting in a room of 50 other people.

I was dressed up and ready to give my one-hour talk in front of everyone.

My academic advisor was supposed to introduce me.

This introduction and talk was to be followed by a meeting with just my thesis committee to defend my thesis.

My advisor was also the chair of my thesis committee.

Most university programs and departments don’t allow this anymore because it gives your advisor too much control over you.

My advisor had control and he knew it.

I had pushed hard to set a thesis defense date and graduate because I had published a first-author paper and lined up an industry job.

But my advisor wanted me to stay and work for him longer.

So a passive-aggressive battle had ensued.

My advisor did odd things, like occasionally deactivate my fob key so I couldn’t get in the lab or even the building.

He called meetings with my department to dispute how much of the data was actually mine in the published papers I had authored.

He made absurd arguments like…

“By my calculations, the paper has 35 individual figures but you only contributed to 17 of them, so you’re not really a first-author.”

Of course, some figures involved more experiments than others or added more weight to the paper’s argument.

But those were minor details to him.

(Did I mention these papers were already published?)

My advisor also did his best to make me believe that I had no future outside of academia.

“You’ve been in academia your entire life, right? What makes you think you are competent enough to do anything else?”

Seriously, he said things like this.

And I believed him.

I let my advisor and the academic system beat me down.

I became convinced that I was destined to fall flat on my face in industry.

Now, at the moment I was finally supposed to be done with academia forever, my advisor refused to show up.

My parents and friends were in the audience.

They looked around in disgust.

The dean of the entire medical school was there, along with some of the university’s biggest donors who had helped fund my research.

They looked around in disgust too.

Then finally, my advisor showed up.

He stood at the podium, said the title of my talk, and sat down.

He then proceeded to stare at the floor for the next hour.

It wasn’t until after my talk and after I had successfully defended my thesis that I realized how little power my advisor really had.

I also realized that I wasn’t incompetent when it came to industry, like he had tried to make me believe.

Instead, I had already developed many core competencies—competencies that positively differentiated me from other industry job applicants.

What Is A Core Competency?

A core competency is a concept in management theory defined as a combination of multiple resources and skills that distinguish a person, or group of people (like a company), in a marketplace.

When it comes to finding a job, a core competency is any combination of technical and transferable skills that make you competitive in the job market.

Theoretically, a core competency should allow a job candidate to transition into new positions, companies, and sectors of industry, while providing significant value to these new areas.

A report by the Harvard Business Review further defines a core competency as something that makes you valuable to a company or sector of industry, and is difficult for competitors to imitate.

When identifying your own core competencies, you must first ask…

“Is this valuable?”

Once you determine if a particular skill or group of skills is valuable, you must ask…

“Is this unique?”

By carefully evaluating your technical and transferable skills, both separately and together, and by asking the above questions during your evaluation, you will quickly identify many of the core competencies you already have.

core competencies list | Cheeky Scientist | science phd jobs

Top 26 Core Competencies Science PhDs Have

PhDs have many core competencies that other job applicants lack.

The key is identifying your core competencies and communicating them effectively on job applications, during networking events, and at in-person interviews.

Once you’ve identified your core competencies, the next step is to determine their orientation.

All core competencies are either people-oriented, systems-oriented, or self-oriented.

For example: “collaboration,” “managing performance,” and “managing change” are all people-oriented core competencies. “Risk management” and “return on investments” are systems-oriented core competencies, while “focus,” “confidence,” and “stress management” are all self-oriented core competencies.

By correctly categorizing your core competencies, you’ll know when and how to best communicate them.

If an interviewer asks you to describe a time when you effectively resolved a conflict in the lab, you can call upon your people-oriented competencies.

If, on the other hand, an interviewer asks you what your biggest weakness is, you can leverage your self-oriented competencies to answer that question.

Most importantly, you’ll be able to discuss how these competencies are unique to science PhDs such as yourself.

Here are 26 core competencies that science PhDs have over other industry job applicants…

I. People-Oriented Core Competencies 

1. Strategic vision

As a PhD, you have the ability to develop and communicate goals in support of a company’s strategic mission.

You have experience in aligning your individual goals with the goals of a larger organization.

For example, you have seamlessly integrated your individual experiments and the resulting data from these experiments into the larger projects, papers, and grants of your academic lab.

You attended meetings and journal clubs to help ensure that everyone understands and identifies with the lab’s mission.

As such, you are able to ensure that any group of people, whether it be a company or entire sector of industry, unifies their individual goals in a way that helps fulfill the unit’s mission.

2. Managing performance

As a PhD who has worked with an academic advisor, principal investigator, and thesis committee, you have the ability to set and achieve measurable goals that are challenging yet realistic.

As a PhD who has worked with undergraduates during graduate school or graduate students during a postdoc or professorship, you have the ability to take responsibility for the performance of subordinates.

You are able to provide feedback and address performance problems and issues quickly and effectively.

3. Managing change

If you have a PhD, you know how to deal with change on a daily basis. You know that one experiment can yield results that will immediately change the direction of your research.

This makes you uniquely qualified to support the organizational changes needed to improve a company’s effectiveness.

You have the foresight and discipline needed to initiate, sponsor, and implement organizational changes, as well as the collaboration skills to help others manage these changes.

4. Developing people

PhDs like you are specifically trained in the ability to give direct feedback to other people’s research.

You know how to work with others to keep things moving forward instead of getting stuck.

This gives you the ability to provide helpful, performance-related feedback to other employees at a company.

It also gives you the ability to give helpful, behaviorally specific feedback to others.

Just as you understand the importance of regularly meeting with other PhDs to discuss and nurture progress, you understand the importance of regularly meeting with employees to review their progress in these areas.

More importantly, you are able to both recognize and reinforce other people’s developmental efforts and improvements.

5. Collaboration

As a PhD, you know how to develop, maintain, and strengthen partnerships with other professionals.

Whether you had to negotiate instrument time with other members of your academic lab or share reagents with a lab down the hall, you know how to identify shared interests and find common ground.

You also have experience sharing authorship on academic papers and contributing data as a team to secure grants.

This shows that you know how to provide assistance, information, and support to others to establish a foundation for future reciprocity.

6. Competition

Just as a journal article in progress can be scooped in academia, a product in progress can be beat to market.

As such, you understand the importance of competition.

You understand both the benefits and consequences of having to compete for funding and resources.

You also understand how to leverage competition to motivate others and yourself, and to drive products to completion.

7. Delegation

If you have a PhD, you know that you cannot possibly do everything on your own.

For example, you understand that you cannot successfully secure a large grant by yourself. You cannot perform all the experiments, gather all the data, and do all the grant-writing by yourself (on top of any teaching and administrative duties you might have) in a reasonable amount of time.

You certainly could not do the above by yourself more quickly than a large lab working together to secure the same grant.

This means you know the value of delegating tasks to other people.

You understand the importance of conveying confidence in other people’s abilities to be successful, whether this means their abilities to successfully gather data in academia or successfully manufacture a product in industry.

You also know how to allow others to decide how they will accomplish their goals and resolve issues without micromanaging them.

8. Communication

As a PhD, you are uniquely qualified to pass high-level information on to others.

This includes the ability to express yourself clearly in conversations and interactions with others verbally (even if you are an introvert), as well as the ability to express yourself clearly and professionally in writing.

Your training allows you to communicate with a variety of personalities, leveraging a variety of communication styles to keep everyone’s thoughts and actions aligned.

Overall, you are able to ensure that others are kept informed during both the planning and execution stages of a project.

9. Emotional intelligence

If you have a PhD, you know how to remain calm under adverse or stressful conditions.

You know how to resolve conflicts and work with others towards solutions.

You understand that displaying this kind of emotional intelligence is essential to functioning well in the workplace.

PhDs like you have interpersonal awareness, which means that you are aware of how your emotions, words, and actions affect other professionals.

Whether you are acting as a manager talking to team members, a member of a team participating in a brainstorming session, or having a difficult discussion with a client, your high levels of emotional intelligence will make these interactions less stressful and more successful.

II. Systems-Oriented Core Competencies 

10. Innovation

The difference between a Master’s degree and a PhD is that a Master’s degree is granted to those who have mastered a field while a PhD is granted to those who have added to a field.

Adding to a field requires a high-level understanding of innovation and how innovation works.

If you have a PhD, you know the value of discovery.

You understand why creating information is important, as well as how to actually do it.

You know how to bring knowledge into existence, transfer this new knowledge to others, and then act on this knowledge by translating it into a new product or service.

11. Risk Management

PhDs like you know how to manage risk.

You know how to forecast and evaluate the risks of certain experiments, whether these be financial risks, time-oriented risks, or risks that might affect professional relationships.

You also know how to identify procedures and methodologies that will help avoid or minimize the impact of these risks.

This means you know how to identify and analyze potential risks within a company’s corporate strategy, as well as how to propose precautionary steps to reduce or curb these risks.

12. Systemization

As a PhD, you know how to arrange tasks according to a plan or scheme.

You also know how to structure and prioritize tasks into workflows.

You know how to use real-world and real-time feedback to optimize these workflows and to integrate them into larger and larger systems.

This means you know how to build new infrastructure and improve existing infrastructure within a company or a sector of industry.

13. Production

Without the production of scientific knowledge, communicated through publications or grants, an academic lab ceases to exist.

In the same way, without the production of useful products and services (without fulfilling a customer’s needs), a company ceases to exist.

Your experience as a PhD has taught you the importance of continually producing value.

You know that without being productive, a person, lab, or company cannot be successful.

As such, you have trained yourself to be highly productive, which makes you very valuable in industry.

14. Information management

PhDs such as yourself know how to filter through research data and identify relevant information.

You not only know how to gather and understand information, you also understand how to utilize this information to come up with the most appropriate actionable intelligence.

This means you know how to help any company create an ideal strategy for adapting to changing trends and staying ahead of their competition in the marketplace.

15. Return on investments

If you have a PhD, you understand the importance of measuring your return on investment in the lab.

You understand that for every unit of time, unit of money, or unit of reagent invested into a project, there is a correlative or causative output.

You also understand that, when all else is equal, bigger outputs and smaller inputs result in increased levels of effectiveness and increased results on investments.

Companies measure their return on investment on everything from manufacturing costs versus manufacturing output, to total costs versus total revenue versus profits.

This means that as a PhD, you are uniquely qualified to help companies make decisions about when, where, and how to increase or decrease their investments.

16. Financial acumen

In industry, the field of finance is carried out by using an ever-expanding array of ‘financial products.’

These range from reasonably straightforward products, such as flat-rate loans, to complex products, such as derivatives.

Finance involves valuing and devaluing each of these products to see where money can be made.

In short, finance is a balancing act between investing and managing risk.

For example, government organizations must balance the risk of funding an academic research lab against that lab’s ability (as demonstrated by the principal investigator’s track record) to publish in high impact journals, set up industry collaborations, and acquire further grants.

As a PhD, this is something you have significant experience with, which makes you very valuable to industry organizations who are looking to balance financial risks with financial investments.

17. Regulatory acumen

PhDs like you have had to follow certain rules and regulations while working in academia.

Whether these regulations regarded the use of reagents, operating equipment, or the reporting of scientific data from your experiments, they required a level of competence and accountability that few other job applicants have.

With growing pressure on biotechnology and biopharmaceutical organizations to monitor the environmental and ethical consequences of their products, there is increasing regulation.

As a result, there is a growing need for professionals like you in these sectors who are both aware of ever-changing regulations, and accustomed to working effectively within these regulations.

III. Self-Oriented 

18. Technical literacy

Technical literacy is the ability of an individual, working independently and with others, to appropriately use advanced technical tools to create, analyze, manage, and communicate information.

As a PhD, you are highly trained in a variety of technical skills.

More importantly, you are highly trained in the process of quickly and effectively learning new technical skills.

Your ability to not only understand and utilize these technical tools, but to communicate the results these tools produce, and teach others how to use these tools, sets you apart from the majority of job applicants.

19. Decisiveness

While working independently in an academic research lab, you have already mastered the ability to make difficult decisions in a timely manner.

You have had to make decisions in difficult or ambiguous situations, when time is critical.

You have also had to show initiative to facilitate change, which makes you very valuable to industry organizations. 

20. Completeness

Like all PhDs, you have the ability to ensure that your work and other people’s work are both complete and accurate.

You know how to carefully prepare for meetings and presentations, as well as how to tenaciously (yet, tactfully) follow up with others to ensure that agreements and commitments have been fulfilled.

You are uniquely able to set up procedures and protocols that will result in the highest quality of work performance and success. 

21. Confidence

If you have a PhD, you know that your success relies in part on knowing yourself well.

You have had to learn both your strengths and your weaknesses, leveraging the former and improving the latter.

This has given you a high level of confidence in your ability to learn new things, and in your ability to accomplish self-directed goals. 

22. Flexibility

As a PhD, you understand that both discovery and productivity require a high level of openness when it comes to methodology.

You understand that there are always different, new, and better ways of doing things.

This means you are willing to modify your approach based on objective results and credible feedback.

It also means that you are open to new organizational structures, procedures, and technologies, which makes you very valuable to companies that want to stay on the cutting edge and leading edge of their field.

23. Entrepreneurial mindset

Contrary to popular belief, industry employers want to hire employees who have an entrepreneurial mindset.

These employers value candidates who are capable of performing high-level tasks without needing to be continuously supervised.

They value candidates who perform well with minimal supervision, but who also know how to ask for specific instruction when they need it.

This means that PhDs like you are highly qualified to work in industry because you have had to work independently and interdependently throughout your academic career.

24. Emotional control

PhDs like you can effectively handle several problems or tasks at once while remaining in control.

No matter the situation or conflict, you are experienced at remaining objective and controlling your response, even when criticized.

You are able to manage your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in order to prevent or reduce feelings of stress and overwhelm.

25. Stress management

Like all PhDs, you have had to learn effective stress management strategies.

Whether your principal investigator refused to support your career, or your lab ran out of funding, you have had to face stressful situations and overcome them.

As such, you have the ability to keep functioning effectively, even when under pressure and in the face of conflict.

26. Professional awareness

Employers look for job candidates who continue to develop themselves both professionally and personally.

Most importantly, employers want to hire candidates who are aware of their professional ‘brand’ (or reputation).

As a PhD, you have had to learn how to interact professionally with others.

You have also had to learn how to handle challenging situations in a professional and mature fashion.

Your ability to maintain and enhance your professional ‘brand’, as well as represent your organization in a positive manner, makes you very valuable in industry.

Science PhDs like you have many core competencies that other job applicants do not have. These core competencies include people-oriented, systems-oriented, and self-oriented competencies. By identifying your core competencies and communicating them effectively on job applications and during in-person interactions, you can quickly and effectively transition into the industry job of your choice.

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.

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Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.

Isaiah is a Ph.D. in Anatomy & Cell Biology and internationally recognized Fortune 500 consultant. He is an expert in the biotechnology industry and specializes in helping people transition into cutting-edge career tracks.

Isaiah believes that if you feel stuck somewhere in your life right now, you should make a change. Don’t sit still and wait for the world to tell you what to do. Start a new project. Build your own business. Take action. Experimentation is the best teacher.
Isaiah Hankel Ph.D.
  • Marvin D’Esprit

    You’ve taken a serious subject, broken it down into an exhaustive and critical list, and put it in a bare-bones, easy-to-read model that translates well to anyone attempting to secure an industry position. Well done!

  • Madeline Rosemary

    Wow! This is a very powerful list. I’m printing it out and I’m planning to memorize it ASAP. We’ve talked a lot about transferable skills in this blog, but this is the granddaddy of all that information rolled into one convenient post. Thanks so much!

  • Matthew Smithson PhD

    Bravo! A terrific breakdown of everything we know we can do, but can’t articulate sufficiently to find the right position. Having everything in one place is invaluable.

  • Carlie Stevenson, PhD

    Such a terrific list. Not only is it really challenging to remember all of these during the pressure of an interview, but figuring out how to explain each one and how to correlate each skill with one of the interview questions can really trip up a person. Thanks for your continuing achievements in helping us find the position of our dreams. You’ve been really consistent on this, year after year, and it’s gratifying to have the benefit of your expertise. 🙂

  • leverworstje

    What a great list. Thanks!

  • Kathy Azalea

    I’m glad to know that academic advisors can’t be so obstructive these days because of organizational changes in academia. But I think that people can still play those mind games on you and tell you that you’re not good enough to get a good job in industry. I’m glad you made it through anyway and especially glad you shared that story with us so we can be prepared in advance. It seems kind of stupid that they would even try those mind games, but at least I’ll be prepared when the time comes.

  • Julian Holst

    I like the way you’ve got the Core Competencies categorized into specific categories like People-Oriented, Systems Oriented, and Systems Oriented. That makes it easier to know what to pull out of a hat during an interview or even a casual meeting. It also makes it easier to memorize the list.

  • Winona Petit

    Yes, that was a dirty trick they played on you and they could actually do it in those days. I’m mad on your behalf, but I’m so glad you used this annoying and frustrating experience to create such a great resource for the younger crowd to utilize as they’re newly liberated from academia. Kudos.

  • Maggie Sue Smith

    So complete! Like a lot of other information on this site, it can easily be used by anyone who is trying to get an upscale industry position. Way to nail the list!

  • Francie Eschenower

    This list is amazing, and it would be valuable to any job-seeker who’s having a hard time with the interviewing process. However, I can see that PhDs in particular would really benefit from this since all the correlations are made between the process of obtaining a PhD and the core competencies described in the article.

  • Sonja Luther

    I’m studying this list and keeping it close at hand for any networking, meetings, and/or interviews I’m preparing for. It’s really exciting that somebody knowledgeable took the time to go through all of these elements and simplify/organize them so that the principles are more accessible to those of us who need them. Thank you so much!

  • graddirector

    Wow, I see why you are bitter about academia and academics based on your defense story. I hope your advisor got into serious trouble for his behavior.