Welcome to Part Two of my careers advice notes. Part One is here. This part is about transferable skills in general: what they are and working out if you’ve got any. Part Three will cover ones specific to PhDs, and how to market the damn things.
If you’ve had any careers’ service exposure at all, you’ll know of transferable skills. They’re those annoying things you have to demonstrate on your CV or resumé with examples of your brilliance, as opposed to just saying you’ve got them. You know, the standard “Our team won first prize for_______. I contributed to the smooth functioning of the team by_____.” instead of “I am good at teamwork“. The stuff that feels like over-egging yourself, and feels like a tick-boxing exercise of the sort so beloved by HR with their wretched ‘Personal Development Programmes’. As you can tell, I’m maybe not so fond of them! However, the speakers at the conference had a lot of useful advice, of which I’m going to share as much as I can remember.
The first thing the speakers said was that, as a science PhD graduate looking to work outside of science, you have a reputation, or rather a stereotype, to overcome. If you ask Joe Public what he thinks a scientist is like, you’ll get a description of someone who is too focused on nit-picky details (à la classic geek), who prefers to work alone (with the concomitant lack of team-work skills), and who is so shy they simply cannot speak in public. If you come from the hard sciences, they’ll expect you to be better at numbers than words. They may also think you’re a bit wacky or expect you to have evil genius powers. Muwhahahaha.
These negative stereotypes are less of a concern if you’re looking for work in fields related to science that regularly or solely hire science post-graduates/post-docs, but you do still have to prove you have the desired soft skills. It’s hard, I know.
So, what are these elusive transferable skills?
Essentially, a transferable skill is one that you can use wherever you go. It’s not specific, like the intimate knowledge of one bit of computer software, or your skill with running one particular machine, or your ability to classify subspecies of insect found only in one small forest in Bolivia. Instead it’s the skills you can utilise in unfamiliar situations or work environments. For example, your ability to make people feel at ease, or the brilliance with which you manage three complicated workflows in a massive project. It’s your ability to find things quickly on the internet or to give convincing presentations or to find an innovative solution to an intractable problem that has other people despairing. They’re the skills that make you good at what you do, that you often take for granted because they come so naturally or because they sneaked up behind you and ambushed you while you weren’t looking. Figuring out which ones you’ve got and whether they match the skills your hopefully future employer is asking for can be hard, especially if you’re the sort of perfectionist for whom nothing is ever quite good enough because you could always have done more. Hopefully the following sections will give you some clues for what to look for. If it’s really doing your head in, enlist the support of a trusted friend or competent workmate.
Onward then, to some key skills…
Some transferable skills are the standard ones you’ll have had drilled in to your head since undergrad, one of the biggest being ‘communication skills‘ i.e. presenting and writing. If you’re on your way to producing a thesis you can likely already write well; it’s just a case of learning the specific style required by your target audience. You can also use thesis writing to show that you can organise and structure large, complex reports. Over the course of your studies, it’s also likely that you’ve given regular presentations, and you may even have been lucky enough to present at a conference! This shows your future employer that you can do public speaking, if not brilliantly, then enough to get by to start with. Blogging and Twitter also come under the communications heading of ‘new media’. A work-friendly internet presence, even if not on topic, may make a bigger difference than you realise. One woman had a blog doing band and gig reviews, and the quality of her writing there was what swung her the job offer. If your blog is not work-friendly on the other hand, maybe be extra careful about identifying features and names. Employers like to Google the crap out of prospective employees, especially if they’re a large firm, so be wary about what they might find. Not everyone is supportive of mental health or feminist activism, and there’s no point in giving them extra ammo before you’ve even got your foot in the door.
Team working skills are as important as communication skills but they can be harder to demonstrate, especially if you’re in a small research group and are on the introverted side. You may have to draw on your external hobbies or one of those dreaded away-day courses to demonstrate this. I like to use my outlandish hobby of tall ship sailing, where the watch team is the central tool for getting anything done. Being able to point to a particular positive outcome that you achieved as part of a team is vitally important, as is being able to talk at the interview stage about how you function in different team styles. You might find yourself gravitating to a team manager role when you’re surrounded by creative types who are great at ideas but less good at sitting down and getting stuff done, or perhaps you’re the one everyone relies on to just get on with your tasks in the background. Or maybe, you’re good at drawing people out of their shells and making sure no-one gets left behind or perhaps you are the minutes-keeper who can summarise succinctly the rambling conversation of those around you. Have a think back to a specific situation that required teamwork and see what you come up with, and also consider how you function day-to-day in your workplace.
So, that’s two key sets of transferable skills, and this post has reached over a thousand words already, so I’ll cover PhD-specific skills in the next post. In the meantime, what are your thoughts on team-work and communication? Are you a fellow introvert who hated forced ‘team’ situations in school but found it to be much easier in real life? Have you spotted how your writing and presenting have improved during your years in college and grad-school? What’s the best tip you’ve received about transferable skills, or how have you found them actually useful in your working life? Let me know below!