Transferable skills for scientists to bring to your next job (in academia or not!)
Updated: Oct 19, 2022
I recently asked the scientists that read this blog what’s been stopping them from focusing and writing.
While I’m going to create some suspense and hold onto the top answer for another day, the second-place answer was this: skills. Writing and productivity skills.
Now, it wasn’t always written with those exact words. When it came to productivity, their phrases were more like…
“Lack of time,” “too busy,” “I can’t concentrate,” and sometimes “time management skills.”
When they were talking about writing, it often sounded like “not knowing how to structure my paper,” “XXXX,” and “my English isn’t good enough.” (You can’t imagine how many times I hear this last one from different sources!).
On this blog, you’ll find articles and free resources to help you with all of those struggles to focus and write. They range from my most popular post on how to focus and write at home to this free PDF guide to start writing more mindfully.
But today I wanted to talk to you about building skills: transferable skills for scientists that you can bring to your next academic job, or even outside of academia!
What are “transferable skills for scientists,” and why do you need them?
Nowadays, it’s clear that scientists need more than just hard skills to develop a fruitful career.
Hard skills are the ones you clearly need to finish your Ph.D., like experimental training, using the molecular lab, how to handle soil and plants properly, etc.
Today it's also clear that you need soft skills like communication and creativity, to navigate the world inside and outside of academia with success.
Take a look at what Seth Godin says in his book The Practice: Shipping Creative Work (and remember, as a scientist, your work is creative!):
“Talent is something we’re born with. It’s hardwired into us. Skill, on the other hand, can be learned.”
So let's see some of these important skills!
My list of transferable skills for scientists:
Before we continue, I want you to realize that you already have a certain level of these skills. Probably even more developed than you imagine! Just remember, the more you practice them, the better you get at them!
1. Writing & Communication
This is something I keep sharing on the blog. Writing is a skill, which means it can be learned and improved.
In fact, writing is an essential skill in your scientific career that you should prioritize. First, to finish your Ph.D., but then to write all of the experimental articles, review papers and grant proposals that will allow you to advance in your academic career.
And a similar need exists for oral communication: you’ll need to present your work and ideas in meetings, conferences and job interviews.
But even if you continue with a different career outside of science, those writing and communication skills will still be key for business reports, emails, and social media posts. And even for science-adjacent careers like the field of publishing and science communication!
To read more about science communication, you can have a look at this post!
Productivity is another key skill both inside and outside of academia. But while PhD programs have started improving their training in scientific writing, I feel that training in productivity is still far behind.
And it’s a pity because most PhDs get delayed, and most senior researchers feel constantly overwhelmed by the heavy workload for the limited time available. This is when the skills of time and project management become essential.
3. Leadership (including for yourself)
If you’re doing your Ph.D., you may be thinking, “but I’m not leading anyone!”.
Well, first, you are leading at least one person: yourself! And learning how to do that is, again, a skill.
Leadership can be a complex topic (and definitely content for another post). But its essential aspects include your self-awareness, motivation, and in general, the mindful approach I often talk about here, which is part of self-leadership.
And if you already supervise others, you’ve probably realized how important this skill is for your current and future teams to thrive! You can start practicing your leadership skills today when giving and receiving feedback, managing collaborations, and organizing events!
Thinking analytically is the core skill of the scientific method. So, in contrast to the 3 listed above, this is a skill that most scientists are aware they have.
You start with the ability to read thousands of words in articles and books and then extract the key information, starting with the gaps that will bring you to your research questions.
You continue with the design of experiments and take into account all the variables there!
Then, you develop a hypothesis that can explain your results.
Lastly comes the conclusion of your full work! And don’t forget the analytical skills you develop through all the statistics learning and practice you do!
This is a term that I’m using to encompass all the skills you’re developing for masterful research.
These are skills that, although often highly specific, can open doors to your career. It’ll depend on your field, but they certainly include the more complex jobs (I always think that skills in certain chemical or molecular techniques would be in this category!).
Like the previous 4 skills, research ability is something we scientists are often aware of; but please realize that it’s more valuable than you probably think!
Get the skills, and practice!
As a life-long learner, I’ve always loved to enrol in courses on these soft skills. My friend Roxina always told me, “Ana, you love these how-to courses” (she said this with surprise because she hated them). And it’s true!
But the problem is that during my Ph.D. I didn’t have access to these types of courses. That was one of my motivations for organising my writing course and then the productivity one: these transferable skills for scientists work. But sometimes we don't know where to get them. And for this, courses, but also books are great resource to start!
Once you get them, these are skills that you need to practice, practice and practice some more to move in the right direction.
For the first part of getting them, you can go here and have a look at these two courses on Mindful Scientific Writing and Mindful Productivity. Enrolment will officially start in September, but you can already sign up in the interested list so you'll know when doors open. And I'll do that with a free training and nice discounts ;)
P.S. If you want to more details on developing your skillset, the journal Science has a great resource in the section “My Individual Development Plan.”