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9 transferable skills that you should avoid when transitioning to industry

Written by Olga Pougovkina

You hear a lot about the value of transferable skills that are acquired during a PhD. These skills are not directly related to the research topic. Instead, these can include project management skills, working effectively under pressure and with limited supervision, understanding and processing large amounts of information, forming and defending conclusions, and many more. Together with the extensive scientific knowledge that you gain throughout your PhD, these skills can help you to excel in your further career also outside of academia.
Although most of what you learn during your PhD is valuable, there are also “skills” that you’ll want to leave behind especially if you are going to transition into industry.
Here are the 9 “transferable skills” that can work against you.

1. Long and complex writing
Mastering writing skills is a pride of any PhD student who learns to give even a simple message a high-level scientific twist. Unfortunately, not everyone will be impressed by ‘Nature-like’ writing. This is especially true when it comes to emailing, which is the primary form of communication in many organizations. Writing emails is an art form of itself and a craft that you shouldn’t jump into with an academic mindset. When racing through your inbox to sort out new messages, the last thing you want is a large chunk of text.

What to do instead
In many cases a long message can be distilled down to a handful of sentences with specific questions. So before hitting send, think of the purpose of your message. Then aim to convey your question, request or update using the smallest amount of text possible.

2. Going too deep into science
In academia we get used to dive deep into a subject. For example, when during your presentation you’re asked a question and you respond with an elaborate explanation along with some citations to relevant articles.

Here are some practical examples in an industry job where this can be harmful:
- Making your message too complex for your audience. This may sound like an obvious point, as during PhD we are aware that not everyone is an expert in our field. However, there is a vast difference between scientists who are not familiar with your topic and non-scientists who don’t work in science at all.
- Filling your reports and other documents with excessive scientific information. Including extra information leads to bloated and complex documents making it difficult to find what you need.
- Unwanted questions arising from the additional information that you provide, which you want to avoid during events like inspections. Communication in these cases should only serve the purpose of providing the information asked for with the mentality of ‘every word can be used against you’.

What to do instead
Always evaluate which information is necessary and what is just ‘interesting’ or ‘nice to have’. Eliminate the latter. Get used to the idea that extra information is not a bonus and can even be harmful.

3. Working under flexible deadlines
During a PhD there are rare cases when you really need to complete a project by a specific date. In the worst case, you can always push your timeline by several weeks. Even the four-year mark of finishing a PhD is rather arbitrary. In the industry when you’re given a deadline you are expected to deliver by that time.

What to do instead
The obvious fix is to commit to set deadlines. During your work on a project constantly evaluate the progress. Also, define what is truly necessary for successful completion and eliminate the extras. If there is a delay that you can’t avoid, make sure to let everyone involved and affected know on time.

4. Doing the sprint
If you are an overachieving PhD (so basically a regular PhD), you are in a constant sprint. The race never stops as you complete one set of experiments, submit an article, prepare for a congress and start another study. It’s no wonder that many PhD students have weeks of unused holidays left and days of overworked hours after their defense. The problem with this approach is that if you continue in this pace in a regular job, you will quickly burn out.

What to do instead
Realize that your career after PhD is no longer a sprint but a marathon. With this in mind, allocate your energy and resources with care. Don’t do over-hours when unnecessary and take regular holidays.

5. Overcommitting
Your words and statements will have different weight when you’re working in the industry. If before phrases like ‘I’ll try this out’ during a work discussion with your supervisor would mean ‘I’ll take a look at it when I have time’, now such statements, especially if they are relevant to a business need are seen as commitments. Be aware that anything that you say along these lines will be setting expectations and not going through will be seen as underperforming.

What to do instead
Before yelling out any promises, take a step back to evaluate if you are ready to commit. Sometimes it’s difficult to hold back your enthusiasm and excitement, however in most cases a good idea will still be a good idea in an hour or on the next day.

6. Spreading yourself thin on too many tasks
Participating in many projects during PhD increases your chances of getting more publishable data as testing out five hypotheses is likely to yield more hits than working just on one. Outside of your PhD, this approach can be detrimental for your further career. If you spend your energy running into several different directions at the same time, you will not get very far.

What to do instead
Be critical when taking on new work and always evaluate whether you have the bandwidth for it. When you reach the point in your career that many interesting opportunities and projects start coming your way, be selective and only go for those that you are truly excited about or that will be of a high added value for your goals.

7. Over-focusing on details
Focusing on details is a strong quality for a scientist, but only in the right context. When working on an in-depth scientific question, details are you friends. The problems start when the same mindset is applied to all projects. In industry it’s often necessary to see the ‘big picture’. Over-focusing on details will lead to losing the momentum and can get you off track.

What to do instead
Always keep the end result in mind and challenge all of your actions. What information is truly critical and what can be skipped? See it as gears on your bike: the setting for going uphill will not be optimal for racing on the flat ground.

8. Having too many priorities
Too many priorities mean no priorities at all. Instead, it’s a long to do list. These lists are very dangerous as they tend to grow making the critical tasks get lost covered up by unimportant stuff. It even gets worse as not only you lose the sight of essential projects, but you also get demotivated. Starting your day with twenty tasks on the list and completing just one or two will make you feel like a total loser. Eliminating tasks from such lists as they grow exponentially is like removing water from a sinking ship with a spoon.

What to do instead
At the start of each day ask yourself what tasks you need to complete to have a successful day. The trick is that it should not be more than one or two tasks. A caveat here is that you may have a job where the priorities constantly change. Therefore, keep in mind that the priority list is dynamic and don’t feel frustrated or lost when the priorities shift during the day.

9. Perfectionism
Academic work cultivates perfectionism. Think of the well-shaped text for articles, tightly aligned figures on a poster, ideal slides and beautiful charts with carefully selected color schemes. While perfectionism can be a positive trait in some cases, it becomes dangerous when it’s holding you back from completing projects on time and puts you under stress.

What to do instead
Accept the mentality of ‘the good enough’ and only do what’s required focusing on the overall result. See this as the ‘minimum effective dose’ where excess input of time and energy will be a waste.
The traits listed above are not inherently bad. However, it’s important to be aware that you need to adapt your working style to new conditions and requirements when changing the area of your work. For this it helps to see the skills and traits that you acquired during your PhD as tools in your toolbox that need to be used correctly in different settings.

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