When applying for nonacademic jobs, think creatively about your transferable skills

Written by: Karin Bodewits
Published on: Sep 29, 2021

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Image credit: C. Aycock/Science based on image by grmarc/iStock

"Anything else?" All eyes are on Sam, the career counselor who is leading a workshop for postdocs interested in nonacademic careers. "Good communication skills, hardworking, flexible, analytical thinker, and problem solver. Those are your top transferable skills?"

"Yes," Max replies, feeling nervous that Sam isn't entirely satisfied.

"OK. Then let's see what Alice wrote down," Sam says.

Alice reads out loud: "Highly motivated, good communication skills, fast learner, team player, and independent."

"Did everyone write ‘good communication skills' on their paper?" Sam asks the group. All 15 postdocs remain silent. "Who of you noted a skill that has not been mentioned yet?" Again, not a single hand goes up. With a sarcastic tone, she concludes: "That's exciting. You all wrote down the very same skills. You think that will get you a job outside academia?"

"You know, Sam, we are all bred in academia. The exercise was to write down transferable skills that matter for industry and that do not involve any technical skills. No wonder that we all came up with the same highlights," Alice defends the group.

Sam smiles and softens her tone. "True, you all spent a lot of time in academia. But the highlights you wrote down might as well come from someone who worked in a bank for the past 10 years. They are as generic as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Those skills make hiring managers yawn."

Most postdocs nod in agreement. Others look irritated.

"Tell me something that makes you and your career path unique. Make me curious. Excite me!" Sam continues.

Paul, another postdoc, speaks up. "Except for conducting research and presenting it in various formats, I didn't do anything exciting—nothing I would add to my resume anyway."

"I bet you did, but maybe you're not aware of it yourself yet," Sam says.

Sam tells them about Lisa, who in a past workshop mentioned that she had been working on seven short-term contracts during the past 3 years, scraping together money from several funding pots. She listed "able to deftly navigate complex bureaucracy" and "resilient in the face of setbacks" on her resume. Then there was Sarah, who managed to entertain a large crowd with a quick improvisation when the projector broke down during one of her talks. On her resume, Sarah mentioned that she was "a strong presenter who is able to think on her feet."

"I want you to brainstorm about unique experiences that you've had. What challenges have you faced? How did you get through them? Think about what you've learned, and try to phrase that as a skill that might be useful for a future job."

Suddenly inspired, groups of three start to brainstorm about all the skills they gathered during their time in academia. They exchange interesting, and sometimes dramatic, stories. After 15 minutes, Sam asks whether they feel ready to share their skills. They all nod.

"Max, can we start with you again?" Sam asks. "Please share three skills with us and why you believe you have those skills."

"Number one: I'm an adaptive communicator. I've learned during my overseas collaborations how to adapt my communication style to better connect with individuals from different cultures. There is no ‘one-style-fits-all' communication style."

"Number two: I'm an effective negotiator. I negotiated with suppliers when our lab purchased several pieces of expensive lab equipment. I was able to secure a reduced price, and the suppliers even threw in a free 4-day mass-spectrometry course for our whole lab."

"Number three: I'm comfortable critiquing the work of others, if necessary. I demonstrated that when I tried to repeat the work of a hotshot professor and didn't get the results I expected. I contacted the professor for advice, but when I still couldn't replicate his findings, we continued discussing his methodology and identified the problem. He ended up asking the journal to issue a correction."

"That sounds much better than before!" Sam states. "For what kind of work environments would these skills matter?"

"I think all three would be valuable for consultancy positions," Max replies. "Adaptive communication would be especially valuable for jobs that involve intercultural and interdisciplinary communication. Negotiation might be great for sales positions. And critiquing the work of others might be good for environmental protection agencies or a political adviser position."

Sam agrees. "These skills will make your resume unique, and they will make hiring managers for those positions curious to hear your stories around them."

Career advice:

Many Ph.D. holders have a false belief that they haven't developed many specific skills during their time in academia that are relevant for jobs elsewhere. As a result, they end up listing generic skills on their resume. This isn't helpful if you want to compete for jobs and show that your time in academia has been valuable.

Try to think of skills that will make you stand out compared to other applicants, that represent what you've learned, and that fit the job and the organization where you want to work. To brainstorm unique skills that you can offer, start by asking yourself these questions:

1. What's the most challenging situation you faced in academia? You might think about a tense interaction with collaborators, lab results that didn't meet expectations, supervision of problematic students, or a period of financial insecurity. How did you handle it? What creative solutions did you find? How did it influence your work? How did the situation influence your professional development?

2. Who do you admire professionally? Do you know anyone who holds the kind of job you want? What are the characteristics that you particularly value in them? Do you share any of these characteristics?

3. Have you implemented your own idea and carried it through to completion? What strategy did you employ to make it happen? How did you convince others that it was a good idea?

4. If your colleagues had to describe you, what would they say? And why would they say it? If you don't know, then you might ask a few trusted colleagues for their thoughts on what transferable skills they think you can offer. That might give you some new ideas—and it might also give you a much-needed boost of confidence if you have a tendency to undersell yourself.

Once you've created your unique list of skills, you'll want to pick and choose which ones you put on your resume when you're applying for certain jobs. If you're applying for a regulatory role at a government agency, for instance, then you might want to mention that you're good at navigating bureaucracy and that you're comfortable critiquing others. And if you apply for a role as a science communicator, you might want to mention that you can quickly adapt to different audiences.

There are so many skills academics have that can be a great selling point for different careers. Make sure you claim them! Be proud of them! And tell a story around them during the interview!

Karin Bodewits is an author, a speaker, and the co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers. Philipp Gramlich (NaturalScience.Careers) and David Giltner (TurningScience) contributed to this article. Philipp combines industry and academic experience in his workshops and talks for scientists. David teaches scientists how to design and build rewarding careers in industry.