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?”

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Careers Decisions

It’s been a fairly busy few weeks. I had a lovely holiday in Portugal where the sun shone and I lazed about on the beach. I went to the Kink Conference (which I still intend to write up!) and most recently, I went to a careers event especially for post-grads who don’t have a clue what they want to do with their lives. Coupled with bits I’ve been reading elsewhere on the internet, it’s the careers thing I want to talk about at the moment.

Aaaaarrrgh! Or, how I feel about my PhD.

I hate my PhD, I really do. And not in the way most post-grads do from time to time. This has been a grinding, three year long exhausting hatred that is sucking away my soul and leaves me feeling like the PhD is a prison sentence that results in me having what are probably panic attacks that I should totally get checked out. Anyway. The worst thing is that I feel like I suck at science. My supervisors have an unending litany of things I need to work on and stuff I need to do, without actually providing me with the support I need to do the difficult stuff. The difficult stuff is not the lab work you understand, nor the reading or data analysis. That stuff is just tedious. The difficult stuff is the soft skills, the time management, the project planning, the risk analysis, and just finding the motivation to do the things in the first place.

I used to be good at science. I was in the top ten of my year. I graduated with a First Class Honours from a Russel Group University and won TWO prizes for being the best at the honours lab project in the year. Lab work I can do. Writing I can do. I enjoyed my summer placement that contributed to me getting the PhD position in the first place and even when my honours project wasn’t working (Pro Tip: always check your cloning enzymes are in date!) I still had the motivation to turn up and work. These days? My motivation has wandered off somewhere. I started my PhD wanting to be an academic but I’ve seen enough of it up close that I really don’t want to.  On the other hand, I do wonder if I’d had a different project with a different supervisor, would I feel differently?

How does this relate to careers and what I’ve been reading? Well, I turned up at this Careers Event feeling like shit. I felt like a complete failure, like I was useless at everything, with no clear goals in mind, hell, not even the vaguest idea for what I might like to do as a job when I finally finish. The format of the event was a load of panels of people who have taken a variety of different careers after their PhDs across the sciences and the humanities. Some are heads of industrial companies, some are training providers, some worked in the banking sector before having a moral crisis that caused them to move elsewhere. Much of the discussion revolved around what it’s like working in different kinds of places, and there was some really good stuff on Industry versus Academia. The importance of a relevant skills-based, evidence-based CV and a good covering letter and phone call to getting a job not directly related to your PhD was also discussed.

In other words, employers look for the soft skills a PhD provides. They want you to prove that you learn quickly, that you’re good with computers, that you can write and present clearly and well in English. They want to know if you can manage complex projects with multiple streams. They want to know if you have sticking power. They want to know you’re a team player who also has the motivation and ability to work well without close supervision. They want to know if you have leadership potential, and most importantly they want to know what you can offer them what ever it is they’re looking for. Needless to say, right now, I’m feeling useless at all most of these things. Project management skills, what are they?  Time management? You’ve got to be joking, right? And yet… I used to be such a dedicated student. I used to be good at planning revision timetables and sticking to them more or less. I juggled a large number of hobbies and social things with part time work and study. Clearly, I’m not entirely useless.

The most recent Captain Awkward post on Chaos Muppets has some really good discussion in the comments about work and living environments that corrupt your self-confidence. Scroll down for Vintageyatbest as the bits that caught me started there. Essentially what people were saying is that when someone undermines you enough for long enough, you start to believe the negativity. The constant criticism and lack of encouragement at the right times, the nitpickyness and ever shifting goal posts, they mess with your head and affect what you think you’re capable of. Which is why I’m wondering would it have been different elsewhere? Would I still want to be an academic if I had a supervisor who gave a damn? Or a least knew how to be consistent in his interest? Should I try a short post-doc elsewhere, or do I need a complete break? Is it worth trying a lab position in an Industrial company where the shorter projects with a clear end goal and some structure might suit me better? I just don’t know, and right now, I’m not in a position to be applying for jobs. That’s my task for the winter.