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How Smart PhDs Use Their Transferable Skills To Get High-Paying Jobs

Successful PhDWritten by Isaiah Hankel, Ph.D.

A PhD’s most transferable skill is his or her product knowledge. The best way for a PhD to get a high-paying job is to use this skill to help companies sell more products.

Like all PhD students, I spent most of my graduate school career in a lab doing experiments. I was constantly learning new protocols, which meant I was always learning how to use new equipment, new reagents, new kits, and new technologies. I thought a lot about the experiments I was doing but I never thought much about the products I was using to get the experiments done.

When my last year of graduate school rolled around, I was completely unprepared. It was time for me to get a job but I had no idea how to get one. There didn’t seem to be a lot of alternative PhD jobs out there. I knew I could get a postdoc and keep working in a lab but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to do something different. And I wanted to make money. I was 30 years old and tired of scraping by with $18,000 a year after taxes. If I did a postdoc I’d make maybe 28K after taxes. Meanwhile, some of my friends from college who barely graduated were making close to 100K. This was both depressing and infuriating.

Technical Data Sheets And Cold Hard Cash

I was about to give up and accept the fact that I would never get a job that paid me above the poverty line when something happened. I was working in the lab, prepping a bunch of T-cells for a flow cytometry experiment and reading a data sheet about one of the antibodies I was using. I looked at the company logo on the antibody vial and it hit me–I know just about everything there is to know about this company’s product. I also know a lot about the products competing with this company’s product.

I looked around my bench and saw a DNA isolation kit and thought the same thing–I knew everything about this product. In fact, I had blown through at least 10 of those kits during my graduate school career. I’d also used at least 4 different competitor kits and knew exactly how they were different and why one was better than the other. It never occurred to me until now that this was valuable business information. Finally. All that time I spent reading technical data sheets and messing up experiments through trial and error might pay off.

Money Follows Selling

I have a friend who owns an investment firm on Wall Street. He’s owned it for years. I’m not sure exactly how his business works but I do know that his clients give him large amounts of money to invest into other businesses. I used to talk to him while I was in graduate school and one day I asked him to tell me who, out of all of his clients, has the most money to invest each year. Without missing a beat he answered, “Salespeople.” This shocked me. I figured he’d say lawyers or MDs or MBAs or CEOs. Nope. Salespeople.

If you want a high-paying job, you have to come to terms with one simple fact–selling products makes money. Buying and selling is the transaction that drives all business. The closer a particular job is to that transaction, the more money the person doing that job gets paid. This is why most big companies pay their salespeople in the field more money than they pay anyone else. Management, marketing, and R&D all come second because without consistent sales from salespeople, the rest of the company dies. I’m not saying that all or even most PhDs should get into sales but what I am saying is that all PhDs should understand that all high-paying jobs in business revolve around sales.

Transferable Skills In 3 Steps

The great news for PhDs is they know a lot about the equipment, reagents, and technologies that companies sell. This knowledge is useful, not just in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries, but in any industry that wants to make money.

1. Identify your skills.

Once I realized how valuable product information was, I made a list of every product and technology that I had used consistently in the lab. For me, the majority of what I did revolved around flow cytometry, Western blotting, cloning, qPCR, and using various isolation kits. I hated cloning though. Hated it. So I crossed it off my list immediately.

Look around you. Everything that you use, not just in the lab but in daily life, is a product that someone or some company creates and sales. Everything. Once you realize this, you can make a list of the products that you use regularly in the lab. Once you make your initial list, refine it by crossing off things that you don’t understand particularly well or that you, in general, hate.

2. Research the market.

A skill is only transferable if there is a market for it. I knew how to use a lot of products in the lab but not all of them were making companies a lot of money anymore. I did some simple research online and found out that most of the antibody markets were completely saturated. The same was true of Western Blotting and nearly everything having to do with DNA, RNA, and protein isolation. But my research showed that the qPCR and flow cytometry markets were growing so that’s what I focused on.

After refining your list, research the markets associated with every skill on your list. This is easier than it sounds. All you have to do is Google the item on your list with the words “market growth” or “market worth” after it. Rank your skills according to which of the associated markets are flat, which are declining, and which are growing. You can also rank them based on total market size or worth. Focus on the skills that have the biggest and/or fastest growing markets. These are your most transferable skills.

3. Look for competing products.

After I knew which of my skills were the most transferable, I started looking at them more closely. I reviewed all of the products that were associated with that particular skill. For qPCR, I reviewed all of the reagents that I used to prepare a qPCR experiment. I noted the companies that made everything from the kits to the 96-well plates to the qPCR instruments themselves.

I did the same for flow cytometry, researching the antibodies, dyes, flow cytometers and even the data analysis software I used. After reviewing all of these associated products, I researched each product’s biggest competitors. This gave me great insight into the field of qPCR and flow cytometry. It also helped me understand who were the market leaders and who were the new companies vying to gain some market share. I noticed that some companies offered full solutions, selling all the reagents, instruments, and software needed for a complete experiment or workflow as well as those who only sold a small piece of the workflow.

Now that you know which of your skills are the most transferable, dig into the top 2-3 until you fully comprehend the business landscape behind them. Try to understand the workflow as a whole as well as where each product fits into that workflow. Try to also understand the full breadth of the competition within each part of the workflow. All businesses thrive on competition. In business, competition is the key of everything from acquisitions to bankruptcies. The more you understand the competition, the more valuable you will appear to a hiring manager.

Leveraging Your Skills

You’ve now identified your most transferable skills. All that’s left to do is share these skills with the companies you want to work with. This means making contact with potential employers, which are the companies behind the products on your above lists, and securing an interview. Making contact and securing an interview comes down to first, learning how to network in graduate school or doing your postdoc, and second, following these networking tips.

When you go on an interview, the hiring manager will know that you understand how to do research. They’ll also know that you can write scientific papers and do experiments and present data, at least to some degree. What they won’t know is whether or not you understand business. Do you understand the company’s products? Do you understand the importance of selling the product? Do you understand the market as a whole? This kind of understanding is your most transferable skill.

To learn more about transitioning into a non-academic career, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, join the Cheeky Scientist Association.

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Isaiah Hankel


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