I’ve written a post in the past about what I thought was the most useful skill after a Ph. D, but I thought I’d expand a little further on this topic today by making… a list!
Once I realised I didn’t want to pursue a Post-Doc, I sought advice from various people on how to transfer out of Academia. There were many points of advice, but something I got told by pretty much everyone was to really think about what types of non-science related transferable skills I had to offer. The stuff below are some of the things I thought of, that you could totally put into your growing CV.
Now, I am in no way an expert in this, and I know plenty of people who are much better at it, but this is a really important skill!
If you’ve made it through a Ph. D, you will have some skill at being organised. You would’ve juggled multiple experiments (and sometimes projects) while writing up your Thesis and/or manuscripts, and coordinated meetings in between. If you break it down, that requires a tremendous amount of organisational skill. Just look at how you plan your day to day, and notice (hopefully) that you’ve figured out how to time events and slot things in so that you can get, sometimes, a seamless day that- even though it’s a bit full on, actually lets you accomplish tasks. Sure, the experiments might fail, and the meetings might be awful, but you at least coordinated your day to fit everything in. That, in itself, is totally transferable to any field.
This skill can be broken down further, too:
The ability to analyse, or weigh up all of the different tasks on your to do list, and figure out which things need to be completed first (and which ones can wait a little bit), is an extremely useful skill to have.
Funnily enough, I actually got asked how I deal with multiple agendas during my job interview, so I could give very up to date examples just by explaining how I handled the previous week. #PhDLife
Things are generally snowballing during a Ph. D, so at any given point in time, you will always have multiple things that are ‘urgent’.
But… if you write them all out, you’ll notice that some of them are more urgent than others.
For instance, in that last month of my Ph. D (this time last year!), I had:
- Revision experiments for my second manuscript
- Subsequent edits to the manuscript after incorporating this new data
- The Thesis cycle (like the water cycle but with human tears):
- Drafting the chapters and sending them off to my supervisor
- Editing all drafts to incorporate all the comments from my supervisor
- Compiling all the edited chapters into a full draft so that I can send it off for editing
- Editing this final draft so that I can submit on time
- Urgent job hunting
- Or face impending pennilessness
- Undergraduate teaching
I always opt to write out a list, because then I can see what I’m dealing with more clearly. Sometimes, having the tasks wafting around in your head just increases the stress of it all, and it’s actually more anxiety inducing.
Now, I knew that I had to keep going with the experiments, but at the end of the day, my personal priority was the Thesis submission. If I didn’t submit, I would have to arrange another committee meeting to explain why I needed an extension. I really didn’t want to organise all of that, so I put my Thesis first.
The job hunting I put on hold to just the bare minimum. I’d arranged some financial assistance from family (although that would actually fall through- but I didn’t know it at the time), so I figured if I wasn’t going to starve in the next month, I would be okay.
The undergraduate teaching was unavoidable, but it would also give me some financial assistance, so I also opted to do bare minimum for that.
In my mind, it was like:
- Thesis submission
- Revision experiments
- Job hunting and teaching
- Manuscript resubmission
But you’d be surprised how many take this type of prioritisation skill for granted. It’s actually really important to be able to logically plan the immediate way forward, so do highlight that you can actually do this quite well.
3. Time management
This is also one of those skills that ties in with organisational skills.
It comes from an in depth understanding of your field, but being able to guesstimate how long each experiment will take (based on your own skillset, or possibly others), then planning events around that, is a skill!
I had to do this a lot from the get go, because my pathogen took a week to grow up. I had to plan everything one week ahead of schedule, so that I wouldn’t be left with a week where I wasn’t doing anything (thereby wasting precious time). If I had to do a standard experiment with a newbie, I would account for the time it would take to explain each technique and getting them to do it. I wouldn’t plan too much afterwards, because I didn’t know how much additional time these new variables would need. If I finished early, then I could slot things in that weren’t super urgent but important. If I finished late, then I’d be glad I didn’t plan anything else that day. Slotting things into your day to make sure you’re busy, but not flat out- that’s essential in any work place.
4. Good communication skills
Not everyone thinks in the same way that you do, so you have to adjust how you communicate with people and tailor it to that individual. Maybe it’s a genuine language thing, or maybe some people prefer blunt, straightforward responses… Some people need diagrams, or verbal communication, while others prefer email. Some people you can be very stern with, while others would burst into tears at the same tone. Some people don’t like after hours communication, while others bombard you with requests at 9pm on a Friday… All of these things, you will have to learn throughout your Ph. D, because you’re in a very dynamic environment. So many people from all sorts of backgrounds are going to be working alongside you, so you need to be able to communicate effectively to get anything done.
You’re also likely to be teaching people during your Ph. D. It might be very minimal, but you can hone your communication skills very quickly if you have to teach someone how to do something, because it’ll be very obvious if something hasn’t been communicated effectively. 😅
I guess, if you’ve done all the traditional things that are involved with a Ph. D, you can definitely claim good written and oral communication skills. All those writing tasks and oral presentations have to count for something, right? Even if the oral presentations give you nightmares and panic attacks…
5. Ability to work as a team
Good communication is essential for this next skill. You can’t do a Ph. D without being able to work as a team. Whether it’s with your supervisor, your co-supervisor, your lab colleagues, or collaborators- you’re not just doing a Ph. D on your own. Even if you think you’re doing everything on your own, there’s not much room for personal growth (both as a human and as a scientist) if you’re not bouncing ideas or opinions with others.
I also think it’s really important to highlight that you don’t have to be friends with everyone you work with. Not everyone’s personalities are going to click, and sometimes you’ll never understand why or how a colleague can behave a certain way. But at the very least, you should remain collegial. Bare minimum friendliness, because you never know where life will take you. You might need that other person when you least expect it, so if you’ve been treating them like garbage, well… good luck with that. Be a little mature about it next time.
On the other hand, though- it’s really important to be able to work on your own. A Ph. D is training you to become an independent scientist, where you should be able to formulate your own ideas and strategies- and fight for it. It’s important to highlight that you can actually make a case and lead, where necessary. You’re your own person, not someone who needs instruction before they can figure out what to do next.
I guess the key difference is that you shouldn’t be told what to do, but be asking permission to do it. You’ve already realised what needs to be done, you just need the clearance… hopefully that makes sense?
7. Willingness to try/learn new things
You’re never going to be an expert on all things, and there will always be new skills to learn. The difference will be how you tackle that.
I’m a total chicken when it comes to new things. I like the safety of routine and familiarity, so I constantly have to tell myself that I need to be less apprehensive and be accepting of change.
If an opportunity to learn a new skill presents itself, the best thing to do is to accept the challenge and make an attempt. Sure, it might take a long time before you feel remotely competent, but at least then you’re somewhat familiar with a completely new thing. It’s good for your brain! #Health 😂 Or at least, that’s what I tell myself when I learn to code in R.
The other thing is that an openness to new things means you’re likely to be more accepting of new ideas. Science is all about innovation. You can’t innovate if you’re shutting down new ideas because you’re afraid of change. It misses the whole point. If something can be done better by learning a new skill, then you should try to learn said skill.
Ph. Ds require constant problem solving. The whole thing is just this meme:
So if you can make it through to the end, you would be very familiar with problem solving. Maybe it’s experiments, or maybe it’s issues with people, but you need to be able to critically analyse the situation and come up with the best way forwards. Sometimes there’s no 100% right or wrong answer, and you’ll lose out no matter what you choose, but you still need to come up with the most logical way forwards. You can consult other people, for sure (I call it ‘soundboarding’), but at the end of the day, the decision is yours.
In saying that, though- sometimes you gotta be flexible. The most common issue I find is collaborations, where personalities butt heads. Sometimes you just need to be able to take it on the chin and move forwards, for the greater good…
…Even if you don’t really want to do what they’re telling you to do.
I think of it like moving through obstacles without stopping (be like water). You’ll bend and curve around, but you’re constantly moving forwards. Ph. Ds are full of set backs and obstacles, but you need to be able to adapt and overcome as best you can. Most of the time, it involves making compromises, but the person who decides how much to compromise on is you, at the end of the day. Do what you can deal with.
If, after all the ups and downs, you can get through to the end of your Ph. D- that shows a lot about you as a person. Clearly you’re resilient, because you’ve weathered all the setbacks. You’ve persevered, because you’ve made it this far… but above all, you’re dedicated. You’ve spent so much of your time and effort into your project/s. Maybe the motivation behind it has changed over the years, but you won’t make it through to the very end without some level of dedication to the cause.
11. Know when to abandon ship
(Yeah, I know I said ten, but this is also an important skill, so I’m adding it to the list)
But if the going gets tough- if things are just too miserable and you’re not seeing any purpose, it’s okay to quit!
Maybe an experiment just isn’t working out like you’d hoped. You’ve made numerous attempts and adjustments, but things are not looking consistent or improving.
Maybe your supervisor is an arse hole, and no matter how hard you try to maintain some level of professionalism, they’re still being unreasonable.
… Or maybe you’re part way through your Ph. D, and you’re just finding it too hard to keep going.
All of those things require the ability to self-reflect, and know when enough is enough. It’s okay to stop something, especially if you’ve made a real attempt at fixing things. If things are just not working out, then sometimes, you need to move onto something else. At least now you know that it wasn’t going to work out. I don’t count these instances as failures, because I feel like it’s a really negative or absolute way of looking at situations. Sure, it didn’t work out, but I know more about myself from the way I’ve dealt with the situation. That’s not a bad thing.
So that’s my list, as it stands today. It’ll probably chop and change as I go along.
If you have something else that you think was important from your own experiences, let me know! I’d love to hear from other Ph. D students (current or former). 😊
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬