The soft skills learned in scientific Ph.D. training

What you thought you learned

You probably spent most of your scientific Ph.D. training learning incredibly technical experimental methods. But those skills are truly not that important after graduate school. How many jobs require your stimulated emission depletion microscopy expertise? There are more jobs looking for skills in super-resolution microscopy, and more still looking for plain old microscopy. Rebrand those skills as image analysis and you can even expand your horizons outside of the scientific realm. You did NOT learn a narrow domain expertise. The literature you spent countless hours mastering and the detailed mechanistic understanding you helped develop are probably not going to play a big role in the rest of your life either. So while of course you’re proud of your specialized expertise, don’t limit yourself.

During your Ph.D. you focused on technical skills. After your Ph.D., you'll realize the importance of your "soft" skills.

What you did learn

In short, you learned a host of transferrable soft skills during your scientific Ph.D. training. You learned how to learn, how to be an expert, how to manage a project, how to be a leader, how to be a team player, and how to win. These skills apply to any job in any field. Understanding the value of these skills is essential to finding and excelling in a job outside of academia.

1. How to learn

In a few short years of graduate school, you reached the frontier of what’s known, then kept going—surpassing what anyone in the world could teach you. Sure, first you had to demonstrate that you could meet the highest academic standards in broad, traditional coursework—a supercharged version of an undergraduate degree. But then you had to

  • Figure out how to locate a relatively small number of data points from millions of articles, synthesize that information into a coherent framework, and develop a testable hypothesis.
  • Frequently jump between the big picture (understanding a complex human disease) and the minutest of details (altering a single atom in a mutant bacterial enzyme).
  • Make, recognize, and assess assumptions while making complicated, but rigorous logical arguments.
  • Design experiments that could create knowledge and understanding.
  • Learn how to assign causality–not settling for correlations
  • Traverse the contours of uncertainty inherent in science, learning how to weigh publications of varying credibility and experimental results of differing statistical strength.

Don’t underestimate the value of this skillset in the real world. No matter what you do, you’ll need to find and absorb the most trustworthy information while ignoring the noise, simultaneously consider the details and big picture, and correctly interpret imperfect data. Your ability to rapidly learn and create useful knowledge is as useful in a marketing job or data science job as in the lab.

2. How to be an expert

Relatively few people in the world—and especially on the interview list for that sales job—can cast the aura of a true expert. You might be the only Ph.D. that your interviewer has ever met. Of course, there are plenty of smart people without those academic achievements, but recognize and embrace the credential halo from which you’re likely benefiting. Now is not the time to be modest. (It goes without saying: don’t be too boastful or talk down to anyone.) Speak confidently and plainly about your accomplishments.

Your interviewer doesn’t know that you were scooped by a high impact publication from a more prestigious lab or that your first two projects didn’t work out, so don’t mention any of that. Instead, focus on the true statement that you know more about a subject than anyone else in the world. While the truth of that statement likely relies on very narrowly defining the subject, don’t minimize your accomplishments during an interview. Instead, hone a story in which you can speak confidently and generally about the impact of your research on the next generation of medicine or the green energy revolution. You worked hard to build the equity of an expert. Don’t give it up just because you’re leaving the lab, and continue to evolve your expert halo throughout your career.

3. How to communicate

Communication is crucial to any career in any field, and you are an incredibly valuable communicator. Think of all the modes of communication you employed. You:

  • Wrote a qualifying exam/project proposal or parts of a grant proposal that persuaded someone to give you time, money, and resources.
  • Co-authored research papers with numerous contributors and edit cycles
  • Authored a dissertation that may have been hundreds of pages long, while maintaining a coherent big picture and mastery over every single sentence.
  • Created more PowerPoint slides than you can remember for lab meetings, committee meetings, conferences, and your dissertation defense. These slides were for very different audiences and purposes, requiring you to dramatically adapt styles. You didn’t just design those slides, you presented them too.
  • Adapted your verbal delivery to different room sizes and background levels, ranging from a few to hundreds and children to professors. Importantly, you weren’t giving a presentation on how to ride a bicycle—you were communicating complex data and technical analyses.
  • Drafted uncountable numbers of emails to your lab mates, your advisor, vendors, core facility personnel, and even the dean.

Recognizing this capability will help you convince that corporate recruiter that you will not only get by, but will excel in the corporate world.

4. How to manage a project

This is a big one with several sub-skills.

4.1) How to manage risk

You never know how an experiment will turn out, so you mitigated risk by designing experiments that produced impact and information regardless of the outcome. You kept multiple projects going simultaneously in case one didn’t work out, and you constantly evaluated the balance between effort, risk, and reward.

4.2) How to manage time

You owned your schedule and planned your activities with minimal oversight. You fluidly jumped between time scales: planning and executing the detailed steps of a 3 hour protocol vs planning a project that will ultimately take four years.

4.3) How to prioritize

Everyday, you navigated dependencies: you can’t perform your experiment until you transfer your cells which you can’t do until you both grow up your cells and clone your expression vector which requires you to first do your PCR. You get the picture. As complicated as it is to manage those dependencies, you did this across multiple work streams and learned how to accelerate overall progress by managing parallel pathways.

4.4) How to manage people

You identified work that you could be delegated, designed a process to get an undergraduate student to effectively complete the work, and thus multiplied your output.

4.5) How to navigate a matrixed organizational structure

You had to actively manage your advisor, labmates, students, committee, training grant administrators, and core facility personnel.

4.6) How to manage resources

Everything you did cost money which is always seemingly in short supply in an academic lab. You had to procure equipment and reagents, deal with vendors, and handle the POs. In addition to managing the lab’s finances, you had to manage your own personal finances—perhaps while only getting paid a meager stipend once per quarter. Yet, you succeeded by managing scarce resources.

4.7) How to take initiative

You overcame the challenges that inevitably arose and relentlessly drove progress forward through sheer will power. No one but yourself could or would do your work for you.

All of these skills are transferable to the workplace and could reasonably make you an excellent candidate for a project management role. 

5. How to be a leader

There are multiple types of leadership. As a technical leader, you developed certain technical skills and expertise. You taught or assisted others, creating value for your research community. Acting as a thought leader, you contributed to the scientific literature and guided your field through persuasion. Finally, you were a people leader. You informally led your peers and lab mates, establishing cultural norms and shaping your community. Perhaps you even directly led other students and technicians as a mentor and supervisor. Throughout your career in any industry, you’ll flex all of these leadership styles.

6. How to be a team player

Despite a certain degree of solitude, you had to be a team player to earn a Ph.D. in science. Taking turns using shared equipment, cleaning up after yourself, and contributing to common lab stocks, you were a good lab citizen. You collaborated on experiments and manuscript preparation. Demonstrating selflessness by splitting cells for your lab mate on a weekend so they could visit their family, you built relational equity. You developed deep interpersonal relationships with your co-workers built upon mutual respect. Yet, team dynamics are complicated and not always smooth, so you were constantly managing sideways, upwards, and downwards. Again, these skills will serve you well in your career where the interpersonal dynamics don’t get any less complicated. 

7. How to win

Getting a Ph.D. is extremely challenging, but you did it. You had to take the initiative and approach your projects with a sense of urgency to avoid 6 years from turning into 9 years. When you hit a rough patch when nothing worked, you had to adapt and innovate. If that didn’t work and it felt like the scientific gods were aligned against you, you displayed good old-fashioned grit. The simple truth is that people that can accomplish difficult tasks will always be in demand, and that’s you.

Call to action

These soft skills will serve you well in any career of your choosing. Just understand that people won’t know that you have all of these skills. You have to actively paint that picture for them. 

We can help you translate your soft skills to industry and flourish in a satisfying career.

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