Elizabeth Silva’s six Do’s and Don’ts on transferable skills before looking for a job outside of academia.
Contributor Elizabeth Silva
In a previous article I discussed the importance of honing the soft skills that are central to a research PhD, which are useful regardless of career path. Experiences outside the lab primarily provide the opportunity to develop hard skills. There are thousands of different skills, requested by thousands of employers, in an infinite number of combinations. It’s no wonder PhDs are daunted by the prospect of navigating the options and give up before they begin. The good news: many of these specific skills can be readily learned by someone who has already mastered dozens of ridiculously specific, esoteric and finicky experiments.
First, a few dos and don’ts:
- Don’t be tempted to develop an array of skills with the hope of marketing yourself to whatever job happens to arise. Start exploring different careers to get an idea of what you want to do, then develop skills that are related to that job or career.
- Don’t be discouraged by a lack of internship opportunities, or on-the-job experience. There are plenty of other ways to get experience, each offering unique benefits.
- Don’t underestimate the value of small experiences. These are useful even when they can’t be used as a section on your resume.
- Do ask several professionals in your career of interest what sort of experience is necessary and useful. They are best equipped to provide up-to-date and relevant advice.
- Do seek opportunities to try tasks related to specific jobs and careers of interest. This is a valuable way of testing the fit of a new career.
- Do ask yourself, as you undertake these experiences, whether you enjoy the work. Take time to parse out why you do (or don’t) like it, so you can learn from each experience.
Experiences outside the lab vary drastically in intensity, duration and purpose.Rather than provide an exhaustive list, I will describe some of them, what they have to offer and give a few examples. Some of these are US-based, but with an idea of what’s possible you should be able to find similar opportunities in your own region or country.
Internships and fellowship programmes
Internships and fellowships are of greatest benefit when you know what career you want to pursue. They vary from three months to one year, in specific companies or organizations that often serve as transitions to a permanent position. Internships may be arranged through your institution for a variety of fields, or in some cases directly with a for-profit. Fellowships tend to be offered by non-profit societies and organizations for the purpose of moving PhDs into areas like science communication or policy (eg. AAAS). While incredibly valuable, the opportunities to participate in them are limited, the time commitment is very high, and there are restrictions on who can participate (eg. internationals and postdocs face limitations).
The most useful and abundantly available opportunities are briefer, can be undertaken while you are still doing your training and allow you to develop specific skills for your future job. Coursera and many similar companies, offer free online courses for a variety of skills, such as programming, project management, or statistical analysis. Many offer certificates for a fee, but this is rarely necessary or helpful; you simply need to be able demonstrate that you can apply the skill. In a few career fields, in particular data science and consulting, it is possible to undertake specific, short-term projects through companies and organizations, or to participate in “bootcamps”. Examples include the Insight Data Science Fellows Program, Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable, Bridge to BCG, and Curium.
Briefer still are site visits to companies or organizations in which you are interested in working. Site visits may be offered by your institution, or you can organize your own trip. Many companies welcome visitors and this exposure can be surprisingly informative. Simply seeing the internal operations of an organization provides insight into the culture and the day-to-day of a job. These visits afford the opportunity to “learn the language” of an organization or company, enabling you to communicate effectively with those in the field. Ask if the company uses job simulation exercises as a part of the interview process and if they would be willing to share these with you. For example, an academic journal might ask prospective editors to critically evaluate a manuscript according to journal criteria, an exercise that is also useful for considering a future as an editor.
Remember that experiences outside the lab offer more than job skills. Use them to assess fit and ask yourself: do you enjoy the work, can you imagine yourself in this new role, do you think you would be good at it?