If you have finished your academic education, you may well be aware of all that you don’t know – and the knowledge you have acquired may seem useless, at least outside the academic world (when have you ever talked to a recruiter who wanted to know if you are able to weigh 0.0001 g of NaOH, or design primers that melt at 58.5˚C?).
The point is, people will assume that you are persevering and smart if you have dedicated part of your education to science (and they are most likely to be right about this). But apart from that, companies need and want more from their employees. In some fields, such as consultancy, many recruiters are already well aware of the potential scientists have for their line of work. They know scientists tend to think differently than people with a business education. However, only when you are aware of your own skills, will you be able to sell yourself successfully in any sector.
Do you know your transferable skills? You probably have more of them than you think
Know your transferable skills, as life science, food, pharma, agriculture or chemistry professional
Let’s take a look together at where you can find your transferable skills (they aren’t buried as deeply as you might assume). Why are they useful and how you can use them to your advantage? And since a scientific environment is probably what you know best, let’s look for them exactly there. This can be in the lab, at the computer or elsewhere, just adapt the story to your situation.
Imagine you are entering a new research group, you have passed the application process and interviews, and it is the first day of your new project. This is still scary, but you most likely have been in this situation before and survived.
The good thing about this research group is that it relates to what you have done before, but also involves some new parts that you will have to get familiar with.
You are supposed to lead this project. Where do you start? If you want to, get a piece of paper now and set up a draft of how you’d initially approach such a research project.
What are the steps you take when approaching a new research question?
Can you think of how you’d approach the challenge? Let’s go through it together.
I) Probably you’d start by sitting down together with your new colleagues and boss, and you would discuss what has been done before, what was the outcome and what were the problems encountered?
II) You read. You immerse yourself in the new field, and you absorb the knowledge and get to understand the actual problem better. You define what you want to find out and what actions are necessary to get there. You also have to ensure that project funding is used in the most efficient way, so you also estimate costs for the time ahead.
III) You draft a plan. What are the key experiments you need to perform? How much time will they probably take (of course they will take more time than estimated in the end, but that is ok), and do you have the necessary equipment? You break the work down into small parts and make a schedule.
IV) At some point, you realise you are missing one of the machines you will need. So, you call someone you know from your time at the old institute. You meet, discuss the opportunities and in the end, agree to collaborate.
V) Time passes, and you are assigned a student for a research internship. You look into your planning for the upcoming months, and together with a colleague you choose a suitable chunk for the student. You are lucky, and the student is quite bright, but it is her first time on a research project, so you have to show her all the steps, where everything is, and also how she is supposed to evaluate her results. Are they statistically relevant? Why (not)? Which controls do you need, and what else do you need to think of?
VI) Time passes, and you are assigned a student for a research internship. You look into your planning for the upcoming months, and together with a colleague you choose a suitable chunk for the student. You are lucky, and the student is quite bright, but it is her first time on a research project, so you have to show her all the steps, where everything is, and also how she is supposed to evaluate her results. Are they statistically relevant? Why (not)? Which controls do you need, and what else do you need to think of?
VII) Of course, at some point you want to publish your results. You write a publication (again, together with co-workers and collaboration partners) and get to present this at an international conference.
Do you see what just has happened? We went through a whole research project, without mentioning even once what you are actually working on. This doesn’t mean that your hard knowledge on kidney diseases, on organic hydrophilic compounds, or of Python is useless. It just means that there is a lot more to it when you are in research!
Take a moment to identify the skills that you need to perform all the steps that are involved in the description. How many can you find?
I working in a (often international) team, understanding complex matter
II analytical thinking, information management, strategic planning, managing budget, independence
III project planning, time management
IV trouble-shooting, coordination, communication, diplomacy, maybe negotiation (networking)
V data management, presenting results, writing reports, perseverance, adaptability/flexibility
VI leadership skills, organization, coordination, teaching and supervising
VII (scientific) writing, public speaking
Other skills you might have acquired, that do not come up in the example include understanding organisational structures (most research institutes are complex mazes); grant writing; organising meetings and events; solving conflicts (this can be with your boss, disagreements within the group, etc.); and probably a few others. Things that are not mentioned explicitly above are perseverance and adaptability/flexibility. Since experimental work seldom goes as planned, you must learn to grasp new situations and motivate yourself over a long period of time.
This doesn’t mean (and it is also very unlikely) that you will have honed all these skills to perfection. You will be better at some than others, with others you didn’t have the opportunity to develop much if at all.
Know that you are aware of your transferable skills, make sure to use them!