Written by Arunodoy Sur, Ph.D.
I was a few months away from getting my PhD.
That’s when it happened.
I suddenly realized that the academic career route was not for me.
That’s when I heard the words “transferable skills” for the first time.
Like a lot of PhDs, I mistakenly assumed that transferable job skills just meant “communication skills.”
But later I found out that developing transferable skills means much more than just being able to communicate.
I also found out that having these transferable job skills were just as important as having technical skills, like the technical skills I learned in the lab during graduate school.
Again, like a lot of PhDs, I made the mistake of assuming that my scientific knowledge and academic achievements, like my publishing record, was enough to get me the biotechnology or biopharmaceutical job I wanted.
I was wrong.
I remember speaking to a few of my colleagues at a conference who were also having trouble transitioning into industry.
One of my colleagues said…
“Why would a hiring manager reject a science PhD from a biotech job just because he lacks budgeting skills? I don’t get it.”
Wait—I thought—what are budgeting skills?
I later found out that budgeting skills are another type of transferable job skills, along with management skills, teaching skills, negotiation skills, organizational skills, and many other skills that top employers look for in PhDs.
After several failed attempts transitioning into an alternative career, I started increasing the size of my network both offline (by going to live networking events) and online (by joining the Cheeky Scientist Association).
I modified my resume to highlight my transferable job skills while continuing to develop these skills outside of the lab.
This change was instrumental in securing my first job after graduate school, which I was fortunately able to do right after graduating.
Why You Need Transferable Job Skills In Industry
Transferable job skills are essential for getting into any top industry position.
Ignoring these skills can seriously hurt a Life Science PhD’s chances of landing a job in the biotech or biopharma sector.
Most PhD students and postdocs do not fully understand what transferable job skills are or how to develop them.
More importantly, many of these PhDs are unaware of which transferable job skills are sought after by biotechnology and pharmaceutical interviewers and hiring managers.
As a result, these PhDs continue to miss out on lucrative job opportunities.
Later, I found out that this lack of transferable job skills is a major issue among most new PhDs.
A survey of major biotech and biopharma companies found that in spite of having the appropriate academic degree and academic qualifications overall, new graduates were hired for less than 15% of all available entry-level job openings.
The employers polled in the survey stated that the primary reason for this was the graduates’ lack of transferable job skills.
In particular, the main skills these candidates lacked were teamwork, project management, problem-solving skills, and communication skills (both oral and written).
5 Transferable Skills Recruiters and Employers Look For
Contrary to popular belief, working in an academic research lab provides many opportunities for PhDs to develop transferable job skills.
The problem is that very few PhDs know what these skills are, let alone how to leverage them during their job search.
With the right transferable job skills, you can stand out for an industry position.
From your resume to interview, the following 5 transferable job skills will help you get the transition into the biotechnology or biopharmaceutical career of your choice…
1. Creative problem-solving and strategic thinking.
Decision-making and strategic thinking are valuable transferable skills in any work environment.
This is particularly true in the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries.
In these industries, PhDs must constantly innovate and plan far in advance to make complex projects successful.
First, you must be able to apply creative problem solving techniques.
You must be able to think laterally to come up with solutions that will help your organization maintain its competitive advantages.
Biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries rely heavily on innovation and value employees who are quick to solve problems.
Solving problems as they come up is not enough.
You must also be able to find problems in advance, prioritize these problems, and find the right solutions to the right problems.
PhD job candidates are expected to be able to see ahead further than average job candidates.
They’re expected to consider both the short-term and long-term goals of an organization and plan accordingly.
This kind of strategic planning, or ability to keep the bigger picture in mind, is an essential transferable job skill.
Fortunately, you’ve already developed this transferable job skill during your PhD or postdoctoral training.
During this time, you’ve had to finish weekly experiments while still progressing in other areas, such as publishing a first author paper or getting enough data for your dissertation.
Make sure you communicate these experiences through the job search process.
2. Teamwork and conflict resolution.
In industry, even when you are working in a research lab, you cannot work by yourself with the sole aim of getting more data as you might have done during your postdoc or PhD.
Industry environments are often more collaborative than academic environments.
As such, industry employers consider teamwork and conflict resolution as very important transferable job skills.
In order to work as a part of a team you will need to develop interpersonal skills, communication skills, and diplomatic skills.
Working with a team can be challenging because the individuals on the team will often have a difference of opinion.
When this happens, conflicts arise.
Whether you are functioning as a team member or team supervisor you must develop conflict management strategies.
Fortunately, if you’re a PhD, you have both teamwork and conflict management experience.
While working for a principle investigator in a scientific research lab, you’ve had to collaborate and compete for everything from publications to reagents to time in the cell culture hood.
You’ve had to deal with lab politics and navigate your way through both good and bad days with your advisor. These skills are highly valuable in industry.
However, industry teams tend to be larger than academic teams and are not limited to a single department. Instead, you’ll have to learn to share information across divisions, while interacting with both scientists and non-scientists.
Failure to be a team player can seriously hinder your chances of career progression and should be a top priority for any PhD who wants to transition into industry.
3. Business skills and awareness of industry trends.
The biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries are highly innovative and evolve rapidly.
If you want to be successful in these industries, you must learn to stay abreast of key business trends, including financial and regulatory changes influencing each industry sector.
For example, you must learn to be aware of commercial implications of your project, as well as how your project fits into the bigger goals of your organization.
Industry employers value candidates who have the ability to make financial projections, manage budgets and timelines, and predict trends that might affect an organization’s bottom line.
You must be able to recognize business opportunities, like a secondary effect of a molecule you’re working on, as well as global trends. This is something you can practice while working in the lab.
Get in the habit of researching new technologies and trends in the biotech and biopharma sectors.
Practice reviewing, contemplating, and discussing the business aspects of science, not just the academic, or knowledge-only aspects.
4. Understanding of legal and regulatory matters.
While working in academia, you’ve learned to follow rules and regulations related to the use of reagents, instrumentation, and the reporting of data and results.
In industry, however, you must be aware of rules and regulations beyond those related to scientific research.
This is especially true in innovation-based sectors where compliance and intellectual property laws can effect your everyday work life.
Many companies are heavily monitored by regulatory bodies such as the FDA and, as an industry employee, you must be aware of the regulatory laws affecting your organization.
Whether you are responsible for the manufacturing or quality control of a product, failing to keep up with compliance and regulatory guidelines can create very costly problems.
In industry, unlike in academia, protecting the intellectual property of your work is more important than publishing your work.
You must keep this in mind when representing your company at conferences and when preparing presentations and documents for external audiences.
You can prepare for this prior to your transition from academia by learning to be aware of the possible political, legal and ethical implications of your work .
5. Relationship-building and communication.
It’s impossible to be successful in industry without efficiently interacting with others.
How you communicate with your colleagues, share responsibilities and deal with differences in opinion will be a major factor in your career progress.
Many industry employers now consider emotional intelligence, or EQ, as more important than mere intelligence, or IQ.
As a result, hiring managers and recruiters are being trained to ask difficult interview questions that evaluate a candidate’s emotional responses. This is true for both in-person interviews and phone, or Skype interviews.
Industry employers are increasingly screening for personality traits in hopes of determining which job candidates work well with existing team members.
More than any other transferable job skills, your interpersonal skills will determine whether or not you get a job in industry.
PhD job candidates who have the required scientific skills for a position but who are difficult or awkward to work with will not get into a top industry job.
This is why it’s important to practice your interpersonal skills by attending live networking events and high-level online networking groups.
PhDs who do transition into an industry position must also be able to get their scientific message across to diverse groups of professionals.
They must be able to explain their findings to decision-makers in a clear and concise way.
Most importantly, they must be able to adapt their presentations to fit the audience they’re presenting to. The goal is to make everyone in the audience understand the main idea while also fitting the main idea into the overall goals of the organization.
A Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes and Booz & Company survey found that biotechnology and biopharmaceutical employers value candidates with good communication skills.
The survey also found that lack of these skills is one of the main reasons new graduates fail to secure industry jobs.
This is where your experience presenting in journal clubs, lab meetings, and at scientific meetings works to your advantage.
Don’t take your scientific presentations for granted, not even your poster presentations. Instead, prepare thoroughly and aim to connect deeply with the audience.
This extra work will pay off when it’s time for you to transition into industry.
When applying to biotech and biopharma jobs, it’s important to recognize that your technical skills alone are not enough to secure a high-level position. You must realize that every PhD job applicant who is applying to your target position will also have an academic background and possess similar technical knowledge. The only way to set yourself apart as the more desirable candidate is to demonstrate your transferable skills. By developing and displaying your problem-solving, teamwork, conflict resolution, and relationship-building skills, you will become even more valuable to biotechnology and biopharmaceutical hiring managers and recruiters.
To learn more about transitioning into industry, including instant access to our exclusive training videos, case studies, industry insider documents, transition plan, and private online network, get on the wait list for the Cheeky Scientist Association.