Storytelling is a part of everyone’s lives, from childhood to parenthood, and even at career path transitions.
On Thursday June 19th I chaired a panel discussion on how to decipher a job description for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA) conference themed “Transferable skills: added value for your CV“. The idea of the session was to help the MSCA fellows identify the transferable skills that they have developed during their day-to-day scientific research, and then how to relate them to the skills that potential employers are looking for. I was joined by three other panellists: Mark de Vos (Euraxess Copenhagen), Soren Bregenholt (Novo Nordisk) and Claire Hewitson (Copenhagen Business School).
Transferable skills are a hot topic amongst postgraduate students, particularly when looking for a new job either within, or outside of academia. It appears to be such a hot topic, because many fail to identify which ones they have, or how to properly communicate them in a job application or interview. The session at MSCA tried to show that scientists build up many of these transferable skills in their day-to-day activities as a researcher both in and out of the lab.
When you’re in a job interview, you are often asked questions like “could you please demonstrate how you are an excellent team worker?” Or “when have you ever had to deal with a difficult situation at your previous job?” This type of question is looking to tease your transferable skills from you . But you cannot simply respond with “I used my diplomacy and communication skills.” You’re expected to tell the interviewer a story about the situation, and how you faced the challenge using those skills. Telling stories on the spot can be intimidating, so it’s best to have a few up your sleeve.
All stories have a very basic framework: a beginning, a middle and an end. For stories that highlight your transferable skills, these sections can be translated into:
1) a challenge that the scientist had;
2) what they did to overcome it and;
3) what the outcome was.
When the MSCA audience was asked to tell their stories, we also asked the listeners to think about what skills this person used to overcome their particular challenge. After all the stories had been heard, this was the list:
- Time management
- Team work
- Analytical thinking
- Understanding organisational structures
- Grant writing
It goes on, but my pen ran out of ink during the session. Just from using these three simple steps in their stories, the audience could identify all of these skills, and more. By telling yourself to go through your work challenges in a systematic way, it becomes a lot easier to identify the skills you needed to get the job done. It is even easier if you do this with friends or colleagues, as they will have a more objective view.
You can also turn this storytelling trick on it’s head. The above framework allows you to identify which skills you have, starting with a challenge. Job descriptions however, start with skills you need, and if you want to eloquently communicate these in your application, you need a story for them. So, instead of starting with the story and then identifying the skills, why not start with the skill and see when/where you used it? Claire Hewitson created a useful table that can help organise your thoughts:
As a demonstration, we selected two live jobs (one an editorial job in publishing, the other a leadership role in big pharma) where we highlighted the skills and competencies that were required for the role, and then worked with the audience to see how they might have acquired them during their day-to-day-activities. This particular exercise highlighted that the majority of the MSCA fellows had the transferable skills to do jobs wildly different to what they were currently doing. (Note that we were not advocating that they applied to these jobs! Just demonstrating that they had the transferable skills needed.)
Overall, the key message from the session was that scientists have a vast array of transferable skills that they develop throughout their careers. The challenge now is to learn to identify them. Use this technique of storytelling and you might find job applications easier, and yourself more prepared and comfortable in the interview.
You can find the full presentation on the MSCA website.