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7 Transferable Skills That Recruiters Are Looking For

When I first began my job search, I had no clue what I was doing.

All I knew was that I wanted to leave academia.

I was tired of feeling unsupported, stuck, and depressed.

I looked at job boards for openings in my specific field.

But, there were very few openings in my field.

My PhD had been rather specific, and I had a limited number of technical skills to offer any employer.

I applied for the few jobs I seemed qualified for, but I never heard anything back.

If I couldn’t even get the jobs I had all the skills for, how would I ever get hired?

I was lost.

It wasn’t until I reached out to my mentor group for help that I realized where I was going wrong.

I learned my technical skills were not the most important things I learned during my PhD studies.

It was the transferable skills I learned during my PhD that employers were most interested in.

I had no idea what a transferable skill was.

I learned that transferable skills are things like problem-solving, team work, product and market knowledge, etc.

Throughout my studies, I developed many of these skills.

It was just a matter of leveraging my transferable skills to convince potential employers that I was the best candidate.

Why Transferable Skills Are Essential To PhDs’ Success In Industry Careers

Transferable skills are your soft skills — your interpersonal skills.

These might not seem that important to your PhD-level job search.

The most important thing is to have the required technical skills, right?


As a PhD, you have spent years developing your technical skills.

You are an expert in your field (there is no doubt about that), but you must have certain transferable skills to succeed in industry.

And, believe it or not, you already have many of these “soft skills”.

A recent study, published in PLOS, found that graduate school equips PhDs with the transferable skills they need to succeed in industry.

The PLOS study asked PhDs already working in industry to identify if they had gained particular transferable skills in graduate school.

The majority of respondents said they gained many transferable skills as a PhD student, including: discipline-specific knowledge, ability to gather and interpret information, ability to analyze data, oral communication skills, ability to make decisions and solve problems, written communication skills, ability to learn quickly, ability to manage a project, and creativity/innovative thinking.

That is just a small snapshot of the many transferable skills you gain as a PhD student.

And, these transferable skills are key to being successful in an industry position.

A report recently released by LinkedIn showed that in a survey of 2,000 business leaders, 57% of respondents identified soft skills as more important than hard skills.

That means not only are your transferable skills important, they are MORE important than your technical skills.

This is true no matter what type of industry position you are interested in.

Both research-based and non-research based industry careers require you to have transferable skills to be successful.

And, no matter what type of industry you go into, your PhD training will lead to a fulfilling career.

In the same PLOS study, the authors found that the majority of respondents were highly satisfied with their careers, regardless of whether they chose a research-based career or a non-research based career.

Your PhD gives you the skills, both technical and transferable, to do meaningful, fulfilling work in whatever industry area you choose.

Top 7 Transferable Skills For PhDs In Both Research And Non-Research Industry Positions

PhDs can thrive in a variety of industry positions.

Both research and non-research positions offer high job satisfaction and high pay to PhDs.

But, to be as successful as possible in these careers, you must identify and develop the required transferable skills.

Here are the top 7 transferable skills for PhDs interested in both research and non-research industry positions, according to the recent article published in PLOS

1. Time management skills.

Time is money.

Industry employers do not want employees who don’t understand this concept.

In industry, every moment spent unfocused, or spent on a frivolous task, is a waste of money.

While this may not be exactly how time management is viewed in academia, as a PhD you have tons of experience with time management.

If you manage your time poorly as a PhD student, it will take you longer to complete your project and graduate.

This is a waste of years of your life.

That is some serious motivation to develop excellent time management skills.

Plus, many PhD programs have instituted a time limit for the length of PhD projects.

This means that you must be able to manage your time in order to complete a multipart, several-year long project on time.

Bottom line, as a PhD, you have time management skills.

But, this skill can always be improved upon.

Identify ways that you can improve your time management skills.

Then, when you are pitching yourself to potential employers, be sure to highlight that you value time management and demonstrate the results you were able to achieve by implementing your great time management skills.

2. Written communication skills.

Being able to communicate well is essential to succeeding in industry.

You will need to communicate with people within your team, outside your team, with people with a science background, without a science background, clients, customers, executives… the list goes on.

This is slightly different from the academic environment, where you are often writing for an academic audience with the same technical expertise as you.

You should practice writing about your science for people who are not scientists.

Or, try to view your project from the perspective of an investor.

What would you need to write about in order to convince someone to invest in your research project?

This is similar to writing grants.

As a PhD, you have ample writing experience from writing papers, proposals, and grants consistently throughout your time in academia.

Not to mention the monster of a written document that is a dissertation.

You know how to write.

But, a skill that many PhDs need to focus on developing is the ability to write for a variety of audiences.

Being able to clearly write for any audience is a skill that will aid you greatly in your industry career.

3. Ability to gather and interpret information.

Industry needs employees who can do more than regurgitate information.

They need you to interpret information, and then move the field forward.

As a PhD, you are comfortable at the edge of what is known, and you thrive on asking innovative questions.

You know how to read up about a subject, analyze the information for what is important, and then use that information to make a decision.

PhDs know where to look to find reputable information.

You know the signs of a quality study, and one where conclusions are not well supported by evidence.

Being a part of a journal club will help you develop your ability to gather and interpret even further.

This gives you the ability to interpret a range of information and produce the best interpretation possible.

4. Decision-making and problem-solving skills.

As a PhD, you are unrivaled in your ability to troubleshoot.

You have a PhD in a specific discipline, but you are also a doctor of problem-solving.

Your PhD project almost certainly had roadblocks and bumps along the way that you had to overcome.

Discovering a problem during your PhD was not a sign that you should quit, it was an opportunity to discover something new.

This is especially true because, as a PhD, you are working right at the edge of known information.

Working at the edge of a field means that you must exercise creative problem-solving, because you are encountering brand new problems.

PhDs are natural, creative innovators and offer immense value to industry companies.

You are not afraid of solving problems and are comfortable making decisions.

5. Oral communication skills.

Having excellent verbal communication skills is important to your ability to succeed in all areas of industry.

Oral communication impacts your ability to work well with others, and your ability to be understood

As a PhD, you have already developed this transferable skill.

You are constantly communicating with the people in your group, with any collaborators you may have, with other staff at your university, and with students you teach.

You know how to verbally communicate with different types of people, and this is a valuable skill in industry.

You also know how to orally communicate complex ideas in a way that can be understood.

All PhDs have given presentations and know how important it is to speak in a way that allows others to understand your ideas.

By practicing and giving lots of presentations throughout your PhD studies, you have become an excellent verbal communicator.

Make sure you leverage this experience when applying for industry positions, so that potential employers realize how valuable you could be for their organization.

6. Ability to learn quickly.

There are very few people who can rival a PhD’s ability to learn quickly.

This is easily demonstrated by your ability to read a new research paper, understand what the paper’s conclusions are and then, if relevant, implement those new findings into your own research.

That whole process can happen in a matter of hours.

That is quick.

This skill is very valuable in industry.

In industry, if the project you are working on becomes irrelevant, or not profitable, it will be scrapped.

This means you will likely have to switch to a completely new project, very quickly.

You need to be able to learn about this new project, which could be in a different field.

As a PhD, your ability to learn quickly means that you will be able to keep up with the changing priorities of industry.

7. Project management skills.

Project management is a key transferable skill that industry is looking for in job candidates.

And, it should come as no surprise that, as a PhD, you are an expert in project management.

You have seen a several-year project through from beginning to end, where you were often the sole driving force behind this project.

You had to budget your funds so that they lasted.

You planned experiments and executed them.

You managed other graduate students and undergrads, that worked on your project, to make sure everything went smoothly.

You had a vision for the project, you planned a path to achieve that vision, and then you managed the day-to-day activities to make that vision a reality.

You are a project manager.

This is a highly sought-after skill in industry.

When speaking and writing about your experiences as a PhD student, highlight this skill to demonstrate that you are a top job candidate.

In industry, your interpersonal skills (your transferable skills) are the most important assets you have to offer. Merely having the technical skills is not enough. You must demonstrate that you have the required transferable skills. Some of the most important transferable skills PhDs need to transition into industry are time management skills, written communication skills, the ability to gather and interpret information, decision-making and problem-solving skills, oral communication skills, the ability to learn quickly, and project management skills. As a PhD, you have already developed these skills. It’s up to you to leverage them, as you transition from academia to industry.

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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Cathy has a PhD in Medical Life Science and Technology and is COO of the Cheeky Scientist Association. Cathy is passionate about science communication including translating science to lay audiences and helping PhDs transition into industry positions. She is Chair of Cambridge AWiSE, a regional network for women in science, engineering and technology. She has also been selected to take part in Homeward Bound 2018, an all-female voyage to Antarctica aimed to heighten the influence of women in leadership positions and bring awareness to climate change.

Catherine Sorbara, Ph.D.

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