Written by Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.
I spent over 7 years as a graduate researcher.
After all of this time, I finally realized that I didn’t want to stay in academia.
The academic system was broken and I wanted to move into industry instead.
However, I wasn’t sure I had the transferable skills I needed to get an industry job.
To be honest, I didn’t even know what transferable skills were.
Did I need to become a better communicator?
Did I need to learn how to sell?
I was confused about what transferable skills were and how to develop them so I decided to do nothing for a long time.
It wasn’t until much later that I realized transferable skills are a variety of things that can’t easily be defined.
Lifetime academics, journal editors, and such want us to believe that transferable skills are simply interpersonal skills or presentations skills, but this is an oversimplification of something much more complex.
Transferable skills are a collection of business lessons that you have learned in part in the lab and must develop further outside of the lab.
These skills range from how to deal with customers to how to understand a competitive business market.
They range from how to connect with high-level professionals to how to close business deals, how to get promoted, and how to understand product development, profit and loss, investment cycles, and much more.
As with most things, the best way to nurture transferable skills is through first hand experience.
The good news is you’ve already learned many of these skills in the lab, whether you realize it or not.
However, your education is incomplete.
If you want an industry job, you need to continue developing these skills.
Why PhDs Should Develop Their Transferable Skills
With the funding crunch in academia and the growth of the technology-based sector, an increasing number of science PhDs are interested in non-academic careers.
This has made getting an industry job even more competitive for PhDs.
A report by the National Science Foundation shows that in life sciences field less than 10% of those who receive PhD training will go on to hold faculty positions in academia (National Science Foundation report, 2014).
In spite of the growing interest in getting industry jobs, many graduate students and postdocs struggle to secure jobs outside of academia.
The biggest reason so many PhDs fail to transition is that they lack knowledge and skills outside of scientific research.
If you’re a graduate student or postdoc who is considering a non-academic career, you must realize that your scientific knowledge and lab skills are not enough to get you an industry job.
Your hard skills alone will not get you hired.
You need to develop knowledge and expertise beyond scientific research to set yourself apart from the competition.
How To Develop Transferable Job Skills
Most PhDs fail to develop the transferable skills they need to get an industry job because they’re lazy and ill-informed.
These PhDs make excuses like being too busy in the lab or being under too much pressure from their academic advisor to do anything else.
As a result, they never develop the skills they need to transition into a non-academic career and instead, become stressed out and depressed.
The truth is there are many ways to learn and nurture transferable skills while still in the lab.
The key is that these skills are best learned first-hand, not by reading books.
You must find time to engage in activities that will help you identify and start to leverage the non-academic skills you need quickly.
Here are 7 ways to develop transferable career skills for industry while still working in the lab…
1. Take business-training courses.
Prospective employers often cite lack of formal industry training as one of the main reasons why they’re reluctant to hire science PhDs into non-R&D roles.
Graduate students and postdocs can overcome this obstacle by taking business courses at their institution or at neighboring institutions.
Many University business schools offer management courses geared towards training professionals how to manage scientific and technology-based industries.
If you’re at a University, check with the graduate school administration office to see which business schools and programs they are affiliated with.
Very often, you’ll be able to get into an evening business program at a reduced cost.
You may even be able to get your department to pay for your tuition by signing a petition waiver.
At the very least, you can audit business classes at your University.
Adding these experiences to your industry resume will go a long way with employers.
2. Consult with local startups, investors, and inventors.
Many startups are forced to maintain a lean workforce and as a result, do not have in-house scientific experts.
Instead, they utilize external scientific consultants.
Guess what—you are a scientific consultant. If you’re doing academic research at a PhD level, you are an expert in your field.
Start shopping around online to see which local startups are designing products and methodologies within your domain of expertise.
Once you make contact with a startup, you can offer to troubleshoot the technical issues they are facing.
By doing this, you will not only gain real-world experience, you will build a very strong industry network.
You can also connect with local inventors, investors, and even venture capitalist firms.
These people are always on the lookout for new technologies and expert knowledge that could be translated into new technologies.
If you’re in the UK, be sure to look into the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) program.
Some UK universities have teamed up with local businesses to develop a special work placement program for graduate and postdoctoral researchers.
Through the KTP program, PhDs are offered a paid position for 2-3 years in a local technology-based business.
This is a great way for UK PhDs to learn and nurture transferable skills for industry.
3. Protect your lab’s intellectual property.
Nearly every lab yields scientific results that could benefit from intellectual property protection.
By becoming involved in protecting the intellectual property generated in your lab, you can rapidly develop valuable transferable skills.
You do not need intellectual property training or detailed knowledge about patent law to do this.
Most of the initial work related to patents and other intellectual property documents merely requires the detailed scientific knowledge you already have.
As a graduate student or postdoc, you can draft patents and deal with material transfer agreements and other intellectual property documents.
A big advantage in learning how to protect your lab’s intellectual property is establishing connections in the Office of Technology Transfer.
The Office of Technology Transfer deals with licensing and commercialization of inventions coming out of the University labs.
Working or volunteering at the tech transfer office is a great opportunity for PhDs to gain experience of the steps involved in the commercialization of scientific technologies.
You will learn about licensing, intellectual property law, and how to promote inventions to prospective investors.
Since the Office of Technology Transfer is responsible for facilitating the growth of University startups and spinoffs, you will also gain exposure to business development.
4. Register for summer internships.
Many science PhDs and postdocs incorrectly assume that internships are only for undergrads.
However, there are number of major companies who offer short summer workshops and internships and many Universities that allow graduate researchers to do such internships.
These internships are offered by large biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies, consulting firms, and intellectual property firms.
If you do an internship in a non-research role that is aligned with the career you want to pursue, it will allow you to rapidly develop the transferable skills you need to get an industry job.
5. Get involved in community projects.
Local science organizations frequently make requests to universities for scientific speakers.
These organizations are hungry for graduate students and postdocs who are willing to talk about science to local middle schools, high schools, and community clubs.
Volunteering in your community is a great avenue for networking demonstrating alternative skill sets.
Another way you can get involved in your community is by writing for local organizations, both in your field of scientific expertise, and outside of it.
Writing on topics outside your field of scientific expertise will not only improve your written communication skills but will also show industry employers that you have broad interpersonal skills.
6. Attend alternative career workshops and conferences.
When it comes to transitioning into industry, the biggest mistake PhDs can make is networking only with other PhDs.
Instead, PhDs should be going to non-PhD networking events.
Nowadays, every state and county has multiple organizations whose purpose is to facilitate networking among professionals and students in the technology sector.
These local bodies often hold workshops or local events aimed toward bridging the gap between industry and academia.
Alternative career workshops are the perfect place to develop your transferable skills and learn about different industry jobs.
Importantly, don’t assume that the only places to network are at major conferences.
No matter where you live, there are many local meet-ups and workshops in your area.
Simply check meetup.com, eventbrite.com, and other event websites to start finding workshops near you.
Your goal should be to regularly make time for local networking events so that you repeatedly meet professionals in your area.
Unlike large annual conferences, these local meetings allow you to build a strong connections with other professionals.
These strong connections are crucial to getting networking referrals for industry jobs.
7. Organize networking events yourself.
If you cannot find a workshop near you, create one.
Taking the initiative to host a meet-up is a great way to develop transferable skills. It’s also something you can put on your industry resume.
Employers respect PhDs who initiate events, especially industry-related events.
There are graduate students and postdocs at every institution who are interested in alternative careers.
This makes arranging workshops and inviting guest speakers both easy and beneficial to others.
If you don’t know where to start, you can do what I did and contact the Cheeky Scientist Seminar Series to book a seminar at or near your institution.
Importantly, organizing a networking event yourself will show industry employers that you are an action-taker with leadership skills.
Self-organized events are an ideal platform for establishing connections with industry professionals and developing the skills necessary to be successful outside of academia.
All of the above activities will help you develop the transferable job skills you need to have a successful PhD career outside of academia. Too many graduate students and postdoc spend the majority of their lives working in the lab, including weekends and holidays. As a result, it’s easy to feel like there’s absolutely no time to develop transferable skills for industry. However, small actions, when done consistently, add up to big changes. By spending just 10 minutes a day on one or two of the items above, you can make a substantial difference in terms of your transferable skills over the course of a few months. These small efforts will add up quickly and will improve your chances of landing the industry job you really want.
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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