Careers Advice: PhD-Specific Bonus Skills

 I promised you Part Three would be about PhD-specific bonus skills, and here it is!

PhD-specific bonus skills? Science-specific skills? Yep, they’re a thing. If you’ve spent any time at all in Science beyond Undergraduate, then you have access to a number of Unique Selling Points. It’s not that others don’t have or develop them, rather it that you’ve spent considerable time in a hothouse that is pretty different to the average workplace in certain ways. If you’ve been through gradschool, then you’ve spent anywhere between three and eight years training to become a Science Professional, and you’ve got some, if not most, of the skills this requires.The good news is that prospective employers want your skills, if you can only identify them and sell them in the best light.

The speakers gave numerous suggestions. Perseverance was one that got mentioned more than once. Lab work breeds a particular kind of bloody-mindedness, especially when your cells have refused to grow again/your samples thawed when the freezer accidentally defrosted overnight/the computer server crashed loosing months of data analysis (insert own horror story here). Talking about how you coped with a major set-back or kept on trying in the face of recurrent failure gives the interviewers a good idea of your personality and resilience and in turn, how well you’ll do in their work environment.

Independence is another valuable characteristic. This one I struggled with because while I am great at going off and getting things done once I know what I’m supposed to be doing, the process of making my own decisions and justifying them to an absent supervisor fills me with terror low-level anxiety, and leads to major procrastination. Other people thrive under these conditions, but even if you don’t, it’s still possible to put a positive spin on things if you’re careful. At the very least, it’ll reassure your potential employer that they won’t have to hover over you and that they can trust you to get stuff done.

Analytical skills and agility of thought are another pair of skills you may not have considered. Don’t under-estimate the amount of time you’ve spent faffing in Excel or MatLab or whatever your most-hated bit of software is. Being able to look at a bit of evidence and come up with ideas for what it’s telling you, and why, is a skill that is not as common as you’d think. Creatively thinking your way out a problem is another good skill worth mentioning, if you can give a solid example of the time your lateral thinking saved the day.

Then there are the other skills that are the very essence of science: researching a problem, synthesising data and explaining it in an articulate manner. That one bit of data you spent ages trawling through PubMed to find? The masterful way you mashed those ten disparate papers together into a sensible story that gave context to your project? The elegant way you framed your data to tell a convincing story? That process is what science is, and it makes you useful in all sort of fields. Wherever you end up, you’ll be able to look at something you don’t yet understand, make sense of it and share it with others. Useful, no?

Finally, the absolute favourite skill set of the speakers was project management. This one really threw me because, to my mind, it’s the bit that has made the PhD most difficult for me. Juggling multiple strands of work over a long period of time takes considerable organisation and planning. You need to know what your hard deadlines are, like funding expiry dates and thesis submission deadlines, and you need to be able to figure out how your different strands of work fit together and in what order they need to be done. In light of that information, you ought to be able to set reasonable ‘soft’ deadlines and stick to them. You also need to have an idea of what could go wrong, and what you’d do if it did, a.k.a. risk assessment and contingency planning.

Gantt Chart

Gantt Charts – you know you love these, right?

Of myself, I’m not so bad at working out what has to be done in what order, but making myself do stuff on time? Ha, nope. I found out the hard way that, although I’m pretty independent in my work habits, I like company and I love deadlines, you know, like coursework due dates and exam timetables. I’m going to get round that one by finding a job that has frequent, tight, externally-driven deadlines. Knowing if you favour external demands or internal ones is very useful, and should help inform your career choices.

The trick with all these skills is to find specific examples of them and describe them with the appropriate HR buzzwords. Job adverts will often give you a clue as to what skills they’re searching for, and if it’s a decent job at a well organised company, they’ll even have an itemised job description. If you can get hold of it, it’s a golden ticket – they’re telling you exactly what they want to know. The point where I fall down is in looking at it and either a) not quite understanding what they’re asking for or b) thinking ‘there’s no way I can do that’ or ‘I haven’t ever done that’. I’m great at underestimating myself and thinking I’m worse at something than I actually am. Getting a reality check from a friend, mentor or careers’ service advisor could really help here.

Next time, I’ll be looking at areas where younger scientists are often weak, tips for ‘selling yourself’ and answers to that evil question, “Aren’t you a bit over-qualified?”